Andy VonCanon and Brittany Whitmire call their family farm near Brevard “Busy Bee” – and what a fitting name it is. The two keep bees and raise cattle, turkeys and forage crops, all the while holding busy off-farm careers in agriculture.
He’s a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus who teaches high school agriculture, and she’s the new dairy economist with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at NC State. Together, they farm about 75 acres, helping fill consumers’ growing demand for local food.
While the husband and wife have the drive to contribute to the growth and success of North Carolina’s agricultural community in common, they say that much of their farm’s success likely lies with the fact that they are able to blend what’s different about them: their very different childhood experiences with agriculture.
VonCanon grew up with what he calls a romantic idea of agriculture. Though raised in the town of China Grove, in North Carolina’s piedmont, he fondly recalls days visiting and playing at his grandparents’ farm. Then in high school his passion for farming was sparked by a teacher who helped him understand the vital importance of agriculture to society.
Whitmire grew up with more of a dirt-under-your-fingernails experience helping out on her family’s farm, parts of which she and VonCanon now own and work. The farm’s been in her father’s family for nearly 150 years. For the first two generations, it was a subsistence farm, until her grandfather began making a profit with his dairy operation. Then her father and uncle switched to raising replacement heifers for nearby dairies, while her uncle grew burley tobacco.
The two were brought together when they each were elected to serve in 2000-01 as state officers for the North Carolina FFA Association, a student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership. At the time, he was pursuing an agricultural education major and poultry science minor as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow at NC State, graduating in 2004, while she was studying economics and chemistry as a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Their diverse backgrounds, says Whitmire, have helped shape their approach to the farm today. “Andy oftentimes has the big ideas, and I am the more detailed, nuts-and-bolts person,” she says. “I’d say we complement each other well because we have different skill sets.”
When they got out of college and were looking to establish a farm, the local food movement was in its early years. “Originally we were looking for a way to differentiate,” VonCanon says, “and there was this idea that agriculturists could become price makers by selling directly to local customers, whereas for many years they had been price takers: Whatever the stockyard was giving you, that’s what you got for your cattle. Whatever the granary was buying corn for, that’s what you got.”
To keep the farm manageable between them and maintain a satisfying work-life balance, the two sell very little beyond Transylvania County. “We don’t really go much beyond our county borders, except there are a couple of restaurants in Asheville that utilize some of our products, like our honey,” Whitmire said.
What they do produce, they are creative with. On 75 acres – they own 16, rent 50 from her father and lease the rest – they produce pastured beef that they sell at a local grocery store and offer directly to customers in a variety of forms: whole animals for freezer chests to mixed boxes to single steaks. They also raise nearly 200 turkeys for slaughter at Thanksgiving and produce honey, some of it in tiny jars to an area pottery shop that sells it in a package with hand-thrown pottery jugs.
From April to November of each year, they sell their products – and others from a few like-minded farmers – on Saturday mornings at the Transylvania Farmers Market.
While the farm keeps VonCanon and
Whitmire busy, they are highly committed to their careers. And both believe that their farm life has provided them with insights and advantages helpful in their careers.
Whitmire, for example, says her experience helps her relate more to her Extension clientele, both the dairy farmers she serves now and the producers she previously worked with as an Extension associate through North Carolina’s Value-Added Cost Share program.
“I have boots-on-the-ground experience, so I know what it means when you have to figure out ‘What pieces of equipment can I float? What expansions can I make?’ because I’ve had to make those personal decisions for our farm,” she says. Her clients have said they value the fact that she has firsthand knowledge and experience, “not just an academic experience of what I think they are going through.”
VonCanon, on the other hand, sometimes hires students as farm hands so they’ll learn more about what it’s like to work on a farm, and he uses the farm as a field trip site. One day this spring, for example, he brought his Animal Science II students to the farm to learn what’s involved in processing chickens they had raised.
“I know that the facts and the figures and the multiple-choice questions that we might associate with standardized tests will fade over time. But I guarantee that every single student in that class is never going to forget the day they came to Mr. VonCanon’s farm and processed birds,” he says.
“It was a great experience. Not only do they value a little bit more what it takes to produce a chicken and appreciate agriculture for the hard work that’s involved, but they can also see that anybody can do it,” he adds. “Small-scale agriculture can really happen anywhere. It’s a viable opportunity for almost everybody.”
Indeed, VonCanon has been interested in making sure more and more young people are able to pursue agricultural opportunities. And that, he says, will only happen if the state is able to produce enough middle-school and high-school agricultural education teachers. Right now, there aren’t enough students preparing to be agricultural teachers to fill the demand.
VonCanon had a major hand in helping Brevard College prepare to launch a new agricultural teacher-education program this year. And he has talked to CALS Dean Rich Linton about the need to expand the one at NC State. He says he was heartened to learn from Linton about college efforts aimed at expanding pathways for rural North Carolina students to gain admittance to and succeed at NC State.
All in all, he and his wife are optimistic about North Carolina agriculture and agribusiness and are proud to be playing roles in helping shape its future. As VonCanon puts it, “I feel very positive about the state of agriculture. It’s North Carolina’s No. 1 industry, with $78 billion generated every year. I don’t think everybody recognizes that. But my parting message would be that agriculture’s future is bright, and I’m excited to be part of it.”
– Dee Shore