Rockingham County small farm innovators team with N.C. State for results

When Paul and Kristi Marshall imagine their retirement, they see a farmhouse overlooking a thriving muscadine vineyard, a pear orchard, a field of Christmas trees, perhaps even a juice processing plant and bed-and-breakfast cabins.

Fifth-generation farmers, the Marshalls bought a tobacco farm near Reidsville in 1989. Though both left the farming life for what they call “public jobs” — her as a systems analyst and him as a designer for an electronics manufacturer — they always hoped to return to the land.

Among their goals: giving their children and grandchildren the kind of intangible quality-of-life benefits they enjoyed while growing up in rural Rockingham County and providing themselves with a fruitful retirement.

As the two have worked over the past decade to turn their dreams into reality, they’ve often enlisted the help of agents with North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Rockingham County Center and of agricultural specialists at N.C. State University.

Indeed, agriculture agent Kathryn Holmes has often been at their right hand, delivering advice on everything from farm business planning to pest management to safety.

As Paul puts it, “Kathryn came out and we walked the farm with us in 2001, and we started talking about what we could grow here. Kathryn’s really been involved since we started transitioning from tobacco to where we are at today.”

She advised the Marshalls on how to prepare their soil for grape growing. She was there the day  they planted their first muscadine grapes. And she even volunteered them to help other area grape growers harvest their crops, just so they’d get a real understanding of the hard work involved.

“Over the years, Kathryn has advised us on the more progressive ways, or the better ways, of doing things,” Paul says.

“And also the most economical, the most efficient,” Kristi is quick to add. “I think that’s nice because some farmers — including us — don’t have lots of money sometimes. You may have the land, you may have the family farm, but you might not have a lot of financial resources. So you might have to start small.”

Holmes not only provides the Marshalls with the latest research-based advice from the nation’s land-grant universities, she also encourages them to do their own research. That has meant that Paul has taken a series of community college viticulture courses. And he and Kristi regularly attend Extension seminars and field days and offer their farm up as a research and demonstration site.

Holmes also helped the Marshalls write a grant proposal that has allowed them to establish North Carolina’s largest pear orchard. They are growing 140 pear trees — 10 each of 14 different European and Asian varieties — and testing the survival rate, fire blight resistance and marketability. Their objective is to determine whether dessert pears can offer farmers in North Carolina’s northern piedmont a high-profit alternative to traditional crops such as tobacco.

The pear project is supported by a grant from the nonprofit organization Rural Advancement Foundation International, or RAFI, and the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

The Marshalls are also experimenting with Christmas trees. In addition to the hundreds of cedar trees the couple are establishing for a choose-and-cut operation, Dr. Dennis Hazel, an extension Christmas tree specialist at N.C. State, has 75 trees on the farm. Twenty-five of them are Turkish fir trees known as momis, and 50 of them are Fraser firs grafted onto momi rootstock. Hazel wants to know if the trees can survive the warm summers east of the traditional Fraser fir-growing region.

As for the future of the farm they call Riverbirch Vineyards, the Marshalls hope to get into beekeeping. They plan to build a home on the farm and move there. They’ve recently won a RAFI grant to establish a juicing and fruit processing center. They see a day when they might make gift baskets for sale through a local foods organization. And they want to convert two old barns on the property into a bed-and-breakfast.

The plans are big, but, as Holmes has advised, the Marshalls are taking it one step at a time.

“We just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Paul says. “And Extension has been with us since day one on everything we’ve done. The hours that Kathryn and all of her cohorts at the Extension office in Rockingham [County] have put in and the support we’ve gotten from N.C. State University — we never can pay that back. There’s no dollar amount you can put on that.”

Kristi adds, “You get instant answers — or ‘I will call you back.’ It’s not like you wait two or three weeks, because especially when it comes to diseases, you need to jump on things quick.”

The Marshalls see their participation in research studies and their willingness to offer their farm as a research and demonstration site as a way to return to the farming community what Extension has provided them.

Not only that, Paul sees it as a way to encourage farmers to work together and improve the local economy.

“When farmers work together, they actually come out better because the quality of the product increases and the markets open up,” he says. “And that’s what we are trying to do here — to create a sustainable farm that contributes to the economy and the way of life here in Rockingham County.”

-Dee Shore

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