By Kris Testori
Tucked away in the hills just a few miles west of Boone, Shipley Farms in Vilas is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. If this homestead could talk, it would tell the storied history of five generations of farmers who were all well known for their leadership in agricultural education.
“To me, this is still Granddad’s farm,” Gray Shipley said, referring to his grandfather Robert (R.G.) Shipley, who passed away in 2015 at 103. “Grandad grew up in Valle Crucis, and this was his Uncle Huston’s farm. He inherited the 117-acre farm at the start of the Great Depression when he was a freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. At the time, he paid his way through the elite school, milking cows four times a day by hand. Out of the blue, he got word his Uncle Huston had passed away. In his will, Uncle Huston left him everything, including the farm. Grandad stayed in school, hitchhiking back and forth on the weekends to keep the farm going. He was the proprietor here for 86 years and made it his role in life to serve the community for those eight decades.”
Gray Shipley’s great-great grandfather Nathan Shipley originally bought the farm land in 1872. Nathan Shipley’s son, W.E. Shipley (R.G.’s father), “Mr. Ed” as he was known to many, and his brother Huston, had a well-deserved reputation for their farming and livestock expertise. In 1897, W.E. Shipley brought the first registered Hereford bull into North Carolina from Virginia, walking the bull behind a horse-drawn wagon.
“They were both well respected for their knowledge of cattle,” Gray Shipley said.
W.E. Shipley’s brother, Huston Shipley, is the person who eventually left the farm to R.G. Shipley. The farm, considered one of the more modern facilities in the region, had the first cattle scales in the region, which all farmers in the region were invited to use.
“When Grandad found a problem, he worked on solving it for everyone, not just for himself,” Gray Shipley said. “I think he took that from his Uncle Huston.”
He further explained that one example of Uncle Huston’s sharing nature is his mechanical cattle scale.
“He had the only mechanical cattle scale in the Western part of the county for many years,” Gray Shipley said. “He let his farm be used as the trading post, for other farmers to come, weigh, and trade at a fair price. The farm was always a focal point of cattle trading in the agricultural community.”
“I knew Grandad was known and respected in the community, but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized the impact he had on people,” Gray Shipley continued. “Granddad’s presence in the community and across North Carolina agriculture was tremendous.”
Gray Shipley said after he moved back to the farm to help with livestock, he was constantly meeting people in town and across the state who knew his granddad.
“People talk about the impact he had on their life or their dad’s life, many who had him as a teacher, but even some who didn’t,” Gray Shipley said. “I still run into people constantly who wear with pride their status as a ‘former student of R.G. Shipley,’ or who interacted with him on some agricultural or community organization. Grandfather treated every conversation as an opportunity to teach somebody something about agriculture, and to learn something new.”
Gray Shipley described R.G. as a prototype grandfather: “stately, kind, and caring, but in a way that never broke the stoic farmer exterior. He would take us in his lap and jostle us around, always telling stories, always teaching, always working. He and grandmother would be at every graduation, every event, every recognition, no matter how far they had to travel. And as influential and as great as he was … Grandmother was better.”
Gray Shipley shared that the Great Depression had a strong impact on his grandparents.
“It was still real to them,” Gray Shipley said. “Grandad saved old nails to reuse, built his own gates and fences, and the pair canned and froze massive amounts of food from the garden and rarely ate out at restaurants. Not miserly, but frugal – they would scrutinize every expense and waste nothing. They still remembered a time when nobody had enough, and knew those times could return with little notice.”
Selling Farm-Raised Meat
It was in 2013, when R.G. was 101 years old, that the Shipleys ventured out from raising livestock and began producing finished beef.
“We built on what Granddad knew about raising good quality livestock, taking care of the land and animals, and good stewardship,” Gray Shipley said.
R.G.’s wife, Agnes Shipley, passed away in 2013 at the age of 96.
“It was a couple of months after my grandmother’s passing that he [R.G.] brought up the idea of getting back into the cattle business,” Gray Shipley said. “When my grandmother passed, I just assumed my grandparents would be one of those couples who died a few weeks apart. I expected him to check out.”
He added, “Grandad was never quite the same without her, but it seemed after a couple of months of the kind of grieving that builds up over seven decades, it seemed to kind of click in, and he decided he wasn’t done; he had more to work on. So, he jumped back into farming and started writing a book. We learned later that the state mandated his retirement from teaching at 70 years old, and Grandmother mandated his exit from farming 20 years later, when she seemed to conclude that the toll and the risk of working with 2,000 pound animals in his 90s wasn’t worth it, and that was that. They were married for 71 years, and apart from two pretty hard years during WW2, they rarely spent a night apart. And she was no wallflower, she could hold her own just fine – they just wanted to be together. He was 101 when she passed at 96, and they still lived by themselves on the farm up until that point.”
“I got to be a partner with my 100-year-old granddad for two years until he passed,” Gray Shipley said.
He and his father Bob Shipley worked alongside R.G. to begin producing finished beef.
“The three of us started building the program, making farm-raised beef available to friends and neighbors, and then started getting to restaurants, and just grew it bit by bit, and kind of doubled every year for the first seven years or so,” Gray Shipley said.
Gray Shipley also partners with his dad, Bob Shipley, who moved back to Vilas to help with the new adventure.
“Dad’s career was in financial services, and he is an exceptional relational salesman,” Gray Shipley said. “But he has always loved the farm, livestock, and memories of working alongside his dad. It’s cool to watch him settle back in at home after 50 years off the mountain, and he’s already being looked to as a leader in the industry and community, building on Granddad’s legacy. So, people see a lot of similarities between him and Granddad, but I see him a lot more like my grandmother, because he has selflessness, humility, and kindness that I’ve rarely seen in anyone else. It’s really special to have started as a business partner with Granddad for two years, and worked alongside both of them, and then continued to build this with Dad. It has truly been a blessing.”
The trio began producing the finished beef using the same breed of cattle, Herefords, that Gray Shipley’s great-grandfather W.E. Shipley brought to North Carolina in the late 1800s. Hereford is a British breed of cattle originally from Herefordshire in the West Midlands of England.
“They’re not the biggest animals,” Gray Shipley said. “So, you’re not gonna get the most volume out of them, but they have a great disposition, and they are calm, easy-going animals, and that actually affects meat quality. They tend to marble better, you can get a better meat quality out of them, and they’re pretty well suited for this environment.”
The Hereford cattle weigh an average of between 1200 and 1300 pounds. Each cattle produces approximately 400 pounds of meat.
Community of Farmers Working Together
“We have a great community of local farmers across NC, and especially in the High Country,” Gray Shipley said.
He explained that most farms in the Appalachians are smaller farms, and that most farmers do it as their second job.
“Industrial farming has driven prices down, and farming does not feed the family anymore. Our farms aren’t big enough to have all the tractors, automation, and expensive equipment that large farms out west do,” Gray Shipley explained. “So, we have to work together; you can’t go it alone; you have to depend on and help each other. We borrow a neighbor’s tiller to get the garden ready in the spring, and let other farmers borrow our post driver so they can fix their fence a lot quicker. And we lend a hand when someone gets into a pinch.”
Gray Shipley shared how a recent local tragedy occurred several months ago.
“The whole community came together to help the family that was affected,” Gray Shipley said. “I’d like to think Granddad had a hand in helping build that culture, or extending it. As the local agriculture teacher, he invested so much in helping all the farm families find better ways to farm and spent a lot of time helping others.”
Gray Shipley explained that the environment also partly influences the community culture in the region.
“I think it’s more born out of necessity, from the environment that we’re in,” Gray Shipley said. “Farming is harder here, in many ways. The ground is very fertile, but it’s rocky. The plots are small. The slopes are steep. The winters are long. This used to be called the “Lost Province,” this little sliver of the state on the back side of the Continental Divide – we’re out here on our own, fending for ourselves – so you’ve gotta help each other just to make it. There’s always one or two who don’t have that same mentality; they’re maybe a little arrogant and want to view their neighbor as the competition, trying to beat the other guy – but even for those folks, the farmer up the road will still be the first one to hitch up the tractor to pull them out of the mud when they get stuck. That’s just the culture around here.”
Creating a Sustainable Local Beef System
“We do things the way we’ve been doing it for 150 years,” Gray Shipley explained. “When you’re trying to grow a farm for many more generations, you have to look at not just sustaining, but improving the quality of land, soil, and forage. That said, sustainability has to mean financial sustainability first, so the answer to sustaining our local beef system has to start with supporting local farms. Farming is a production business, margins are remarkably tight, and local farms don’t have the economies of scale that industrial farming has. Consumers have a great opportunity to get to know their local farmers, understand the differences in quality and what goes into meat quality, and find ways to help support and promote their local farming community – a benefit to all parties.”
Gray Shipley stressed he has nothing bad to say about any kind of beef, even mass-produced beef.
“Beef is one of the most natural and nutrient dense foods you can eat,” he explained. “It is also one of the most affordable if you look at cost per nutrient instead of per pound. We have close to 8 billion people to feed, and animal agriculture is critical to that whole system. We can’t feed everyone from Watauga County, so we need it all and need to make it work for everybody.”
He further explained, “So, some livestock is raised for beef to maximize the volume of meat production, and some livestock is raised for dairy or breeding stock and can still be turned into meat once it ages out.”
He shared that while that meat is a little lower quality, it can be much more affordable.
“Some livestock, such as ours, are bred, fed, cared for, and raised for the best possible end product quality,” Gray Shipley said. “This care provides marbling, flavor, and tenderness – and it costs more and leads to a much better experience. None of those systems are wrong, but in any of those [mass produced] systems, you can do things with a depletion mindset, of using up resources to convert them into something more valuable, or with a stewardship mindset, leaving land, environment, and community better off year by year, as you create value from it.”
Gray Shipley explained there are lots of buzzwords that come and go in agriculture, and right now it’s regenerative agriculture. At its core, regenerative agriculture is the process of restoring degraded soils using practices based on ecological principles.
“That’s where it comes from, creating value in the soil, pasture, root system, and water quality while you’re producing from it,” Gray Shipley said. “All these things are critical to keep farms as farms in this area.”
We’d Rather Grow Something Than Build Something
When visiting Shipley Farms, you’ll find 30-40 heads of cattle grazing on lush, clover-rich mountain pastures. The cattle are also supplemented with a vegetable based feed.
“We decided that instead of trying to compete in commodity livestock, we should create a brand based on the 150-year legacy that the family has here,” Gray Shipley said. “Small farms simply can’t compete with 10,000 acre farms. You can’t plow slopes, and we don’t have flat ground. The only way to get value from that agricultural land is to send the animals up here in the mountains to harvest it. If we just try to compete at the commodity level, what will happen is that a few wealthy families will have enough money to buy a farm, farm it for 20 years before they sell it and turn it into a resort. If that occurs, we’re gonna lose what makes the region what it is. We have 117 acres here and don’t want to develop it. We obviously wanted to keep the farm in the family. We’d rather grow something than build something.”
Once a month, Shipley Farms offers farm tours, providing customers with a first-hand look at how humane farming makes a difference for the animals, for the environment, and for the flavor of the meat.
Meeting a Community Need
Once cattle reach market weight, they are sent to processing facilities overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to Covid, most local farmers took their animals down to Taylorsville or Wilkesboro for processing.
“Before Covid, it took a month to six weeks to get an appointment,” Gray Shipley said. “We called in April to book some animals for May, and the facilities said they were full for the year.”
Gray Shipley shared that within a few weeks, every processor in the state was booked out for 18 months.
“They were holding slots for animals that weren’t alive yet,” Gray Shipley said. “We, and all the farmers in the community that didn’t have their reservations on the books, were out of business. We didn’t have any place to go, and we had animals standing in the fields. The Covid lockdowns messed up the whole supply chain – the whole market was shot. So, we could either go out of business or start an extra business. So, at that point we put the plans in place to open a butchery.”
In 2020, Shipleys went to a nearby seasonal wild game processing plant, worked out an arrangement to lease it, and converted it to USDA inspection area. Named Watauga Butchery, the plant serves and supports local farmers and producers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“These farmers produce some of Southeast’s finest pasture raised and locally grown meats,” Gray Shipley said.
Currently, the Shipley Farm uses 15 percent of the capacity at the butchery for its own products and 85 percent for other farmers. “Most of what we’re doing is still for all the other farmers in the community,” Gray Shipley added.
Good Fields Festival
As part of its 150-year celebration, Shipley Farms is planning a food festival aimed at raising awareness of the importance of local farms.
“Part of the theme of the food festival is that commodity agriculture is not viable in some places,” Gray Shipley said.
The festival will highlight the rich agricultural heritage of the region, with 12 top chefs from across the state drawing from Shipley Farms and other local farm products. With the theme “Local Food Elevated,” Good Fields aims to draw attention and support to the decline in family farms and agricultural land in the High Country and across North Carolina.
Bob Shipley, R.G.’s son, is the festival’s co-founder and host. He said his goal is to strengthen the local agricultural community, so that this way of life can stay around for several more generations.
“I grew up in this community and on this farm. My dad used to ride his horse to Mast General Store as a kid to get flour, salt, and canning supplies for his mother. This was all normal to us – we didn’t call it hyper local or pasture raised, it was just food. I didn’t know it was great food, because I barely knew processed food existed.” Bob Shipley said. “It never occurred to us that our experience was a bit unique at the time – but it’s far more unique now. North Carolina has lost over 40,000 farms since I went to college. Fewer and fewer people are getting exposed to local farm experiences, and it’s getting harder and harder for local farms to compete and to make it to the next generation. We think this festival can help bring some attention to that issue, and get some momentum to turn that trend back a little in the other direction.”
Currently, North Carolina ranks second in the country for farmland projected to be lost to development in the next two decades. To address this issue, Good Fields will support the programs working on the ground to support local food and farms. They are donating a percentage of proceeds to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Piedmont Culinary Guild, the NC Choices initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and the Watauga High School chapter of Future Farmers of America.
“Part of the theme of the food festival is that what we’re doing here is commodity agriculture’s getting to the point where it’s not viable in places,” Bob Shipley said.
In the next few years, organizers intend to grow to a multi-day summer festival modeled after other events across the region, with dinners, music, tastings, demos, and other events occurring at farms and local restaurants across the High Country each summer.
“If you have ever been to the food festival in Charleston, I would like to do a food festival like that,” Gray Shipley said. “This year, I want to prove it out and see it become a success. I want it to spread across different farms and local restaurants.”
The chef lineup includes 2019 North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Chef of the Year Steven Goff from Asheville’s Tastee Diner, along with multiple James Beard Foundation Award nominees and Chef of the Year finalists. The event also features a live music performance by IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards
Showcase band Nick Chandler and Delivered, and storytelling from Evan Peter Smith, author of the popular nonfiction novel Here By The Owl. The novel is a true story based on the life of R.G. Shipley.
Tickets are General Admission, and details can be found at the Good Fields website, www.GoodFieldsNC.com.