Apple Hill Farm, located in Banner Elk, was one of two finalists for the 2021 N.C. Small Farmer of the Year, a recognition awarded annually by Cooperative Extension at North Carolina A&T State University as part of Small Farms Week.
Apple Hill Farm finished runner-up behind winner MAE Farm in Franklin County.
The Small Farmer of the Year Award was presented during a virtual ceremony on March 24. The ceremony also honored finalist Lee Rankin, the owner of Apple Hill Farm. Rankin’s mountaintop farm breeds and sells alpacas, angora goats and Great Pyrenees dogs for livestock guardians.
Apple Hill Farm also offers a year-round store selling socks, scarves, gloves, and yarn made from alpaca fiber and mohair from the angora goats as well as honey, eggs, jams and jellies, and local crafts. The farm has been in operation since 2003 and has participated in agritourism and educational activities for more than 15 years.
Small Farms Week 2021, the 35th annual Small Farms Week presented by Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, features a variety of virtual events and educational programs March 21-27.
About MAE Farm
At the age of 40, Mike Jones finally had enough resources to buy land in Franklin County and pursue his dream of owning his own farm.
He came from a farming background, but the family lost its farm in the 1950s and since then, family members had worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Fifteen years ago, he bought a 73-acre abandoned tobacco farm and turned it into a successful agricultural operation called MAE Farm.
“Mike deserves to be Small Farmer of the Year because he is innovative, he is focused on conservation, and he is a great mentor,” said William Landis, the Extension agriculture agent for Franklin and Warren counties who nominated Jones for the award. “He is always looking for innovative agricultural practices. He’s a great mentor, always trying to get younger people involved in agriculture and doing his part to bring people into the fold.”
MAE Farm raises pastured swine and beef cattle and practices silvopasture, which integrates trees, forage and the grazing of livestock in ways that benefit both the animals and the land. Over the years, Jones has worked with Extension at A&T to learn about soil health, fertility and microbiology, and to adopt practices that enhance profitability while protecting the integrity of the land.
Working with Landis, he has experimented with different types of forages, and implemented pasture rotation and multispecies grazing, practices which allow pastures to recover and reduce soil erosion and the loss of soil fertility.
When Jones realized he needed more revenue to prosper, he came up with more new ideas.
“I decided to try direct marketing,” he said. “Reaching out to customers, direct interaction with customers, trying to do all the old-fashioned customer management that you don’t see in the big box stores anymore.”
MAE Farm now operates a year-round store at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, where Jones and his wife, Suzanne, sell not only meat from the farm but products from other local small farmers. When COVID-19 shut down restaurants and caused many small farmers to lose customers, he helped them market their products.
“He’s done well during coronavirus,” said Landis. “He found a way to get protein sources to local consumers at a time when the food system was showing a lot of its weaknesses.”
Jones is a U.S. Army veteran dedicated to helping other veteran farmers, small farmers and his community whenever possible. He has been involved with the Robert Elliott Soldier to Agriculture program at Fort Bragg, a program to help military personnel transition to agriculture careers, for three years.
He and his family worked with United Way to provide a vegetable garden for Care and Share food pantries in Louisburg and donated pigs for a fundraising barbecue for the Louisburg High School Athletic Booster Club. He has served on a number of local Cooperative Extension advisory committees, including the Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Committee for Franklin County Extension.
“My goal wasn’t to become the wealthiest person there is; my goal wasn’t to set records for all time,” said Jones. “I just wanted to have a nice stable life, to do well. And I did.”