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Growing local food — and dreams

As the holidays approach, Franklin County’s Robert Elliott, of Cypress Hall Farms, sends his thanks, in the form of an audio slideshow, to Cooperative Extension and agricultural agent Martha Mobley, this year’s winner of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Educator of the Year Award.

“What I like about sustainable is I’m not depending on someone else. It’s freedom for me. I grew up here from the age of 9. I knew I didn’t want to go to college, so I joined the Marine Corps. I built C-130 engines and then I was a (U.S. Department of Defense) contractor for over 10 years. And economic downturn and DoD cuts – 2011 is when I was laid off.

“You got to think, I had just came from a Marine Corps airwing hangar back out into a field to start an agriculture business. I knew what I wanted to do – to raise chickens, process them and sell them. But I did not know who to talk to (or) where I needed to go to get the licenses I needed. I didn’t even know what licenses I needed.

“When you grow a chicken, you don’t just buy a baby chicken and give it corn or scratch. There’s so many things you have to learn. A book or the internet is only going to take you half way. So I called Martha, and she immediately threw me into all kinds of programs.

“Martha is always on the cutting edge of whatever’s coming. I’m always trying to get new ventures into business happening before they become a trend here, and let go of the old ones before they die off in front of me.

“We are winding down for the year. I’m about to finish out the turkeys. The turkeys were a complete test this year. I decided to try to raise some heritage breeds and also conventional wide-breasted white turkeys. Hands down the Bourbon Reds, they may be a little smaller, but they can handle any swift weather change at all. And people have been beating the door down for them. So next year, it’s a whole new game.

“We are only allowed to process 20,000 maximum birds. That’s my dream. I want to be doing 20,000 birds right here on this farm a year. And there’s an old white house out there – you can barely see the roof – that’s going to be the market, to where folks can come in. I want to have a 10- to 12-acre garden.

“My ultimate dream is to see my customers come out here with their kids and understand what a farm is (and) understand where their food comes from, be able to live comfortably – I didn’t get into business to be rich.

“In the past year, it’s just been amazing to me how quickly things can grow when you have the right people around you. With all of the success I’ve had, it wouldn’t be possible without (North Carolina Cooperative) Extension – just absolutely would not be possible at all.”