Our Family Story - Grandpa The Backdrop of Family Inheritance
Southern Heritage Farming
Continuing the 75 year farming legacy of our parents
We are a brother (Frank), sister (Elizabeth), sister (Virginia) team who inherited about 150 acres of farmland in Western North Carolina from our parents Chris and Emma Lou Burrell.
Our farmland is split between two farms: Sycamore Hill - a beef cattle farm in Tuckasegee, NC where we raise our Wye Angus herd and Sandy Gap - in Glenville, NC where we grow Fraiser Fir Christmas trees and industrial hemp. We grew up on our farm in Tuckasegee, helping mom and dad tend cattle and garden as well as grow Burley tobacco. This farm was originally named Hilltop Farm by our mother in the early 1950s when she and dad purchased the land from a nearby neighbor.
We have chosen to re-name the Tuckasegee farm in honor of the giant Sycamore tree that grows near the barn and gracefully shades a lower pasture. Like the tree our farm has been abundantly nourished by this mountain land with deep roots in the past and towering branches stretching into the future as we continue our parent's farming legacy.
Education and success was very important to our parents, and they encouraged us to finish high school and receive a college degree. Each of us chose to pursue professional vocations in public education and nursing instead of farming. Two of us built homes and live on Sycamore Hill and one of us lives in nearby Sylva, North Carolina. Having retired from our professional careers, we have chosen to restore and revitalize our family farms, continuing the legacy of our parents.
The amount of mountain acreage they purchased is difficult to maintain without the aid of grazing animals to forage and tend the grass lands and wooded areas of the farm, so we decided to continue our dad's legacy of raising beef cattle, but move in a slightly different direction focusing on 100% grass fed beef and selling directly to the consumer in a pasture to plate model. Sycamore Hill is an ideal place for cattle who enjoy the freedom to roam our mountain pastures and valley flats.
As the next generation of rural mountain farmers, we are moving forward to ensure that our farms thrive and Dad’s visionary legacy continues. The challenge before us is to revitalize and meet the challenges of today’s small, family owned, mountain farm, just as he did many years ago with tobacco, beef cattle, and Frazier Fir each an agricultural product of his era.
Dad’s visionary leadership and challenge is always before us. He believed products and profitability with the small, rural mountain farm was possible in the 20th Century, and likewise we believe it is possible for the 21st Century. Our farms’ products must be grown utilizing mother nature, the “cycle of life”, ever mindful of our committed spirit to a stewardship of this land and mountain people.
Our Parent's Story
Real mountain people
Parent's Early Days
Dad and mom both grew up in the remote rural regions of the Carolinas in the early 1900s. Our parents were mountain people at heart and their roots run deep into this land. Dad was from the upper South Carolina region and mom grew up near our Frazier fir Christmas tree farm in Glenville, North Carolina. Our grandparents and parents both believed that knowledge was power and that formal school was important to success and achievement. However, formal schooling during their era in the remote, rural region of the Carolinas was difficult to access. For Dad his schooling occurred at home and in the one-room-schools of the day. Mother was more fortunate but even for she, walking a long distance to Glenville (Thorpe Lake region) to the local school was certainly a challenge. My maternal grandmother (Emma Lanning) having taught school prior to her marriage into the local Fowler family, Cashiers, North Carolina, provided the necessary inspiration for all her children to graduate from high school.
For Dad his walk to the one- room school also meant miles of walking twice daily, carrying lunch in a small metal pail and completing homework and chores when darkness had long settled in. Dad’s father during these early years worked in the timber business for Blackwood Lumber Company which meant the one-room school and a formal education was more distant than ever from home. Unfortunate circumstances in his family further complicated his pursuit of formal schooling as his father was killed in Panther Town Valley where he was a property watchman. Dad was 12 years old at the time of his father’s death and with his mother widowed so early the families very survival was at stake. So, his mother took her young brood, a family of eight (8) back to Mountain Rest, South Carolina to be near her family and parents for guidance and support. Dad was the second to the oldest child and family responsibility came around fast and hard for he and his older brother Otto.
Dad’s Education and Boarding School: Recognizing the need for Dad’s formal education and the dilemma in accessing it from Mountain Rest, South Carolina, his mother sent he and all of her children (as age appropriate) to the Tamassee DAR Boarding School near Pickens, South Carolina. Once there, Dad and his brothers and sisters attended classes, worked daily after school, and then stayed much of the summer to work off their room, board, and tuition. Both our parents earned formal High School Diplomas that during this era was relatively rare for most folks. Our parents were proud of their level of achievement in education and had great expectation for each of us with school. Mother often commented that she was one of the few who graduated from high school in her family and she was always proud of her accomplishment.
Once at Tamassee DAR School, Dad thrived. He learned informally many technical/vocational skills in the work study system Tamassee utilized in that era. Dad often times commented that the students of Tamassee learned how to get along with one another. Dad played sports, a lot of basketball, and he had a great love and skill in the game of horseshoes. Dad learned electricity and electrical systems, how to plumb and carpenter; Dad also learned to cut hair and the skills of being a barber. He truly became a self-sufficient man well capable of all the duties of being a farmer. Tamassee life instilled in its students the value of stopping work to take the time to relax, play and enjoy life. These values were so entrenched in Dad’s life that although he spent long hours working a job and farming, he found time for the family to play and enjoy life together as a family; he valued time to relax and play as we grew up. True to this value, Dad bought and kept a ski boat; he taught us all to swim and ski in the area mountain lakes here in Jackson County, NC.
Dad was always proud of his years and accomplishments and thankful for all that he learned while at Tamassee DAR. Near his graduation from high school he was offered a scholarship to Clemson University but being next to the oldest of 8 children the demands of a family staying together, clothed and fed left the Clemson offer an unaffordable opportunity.
Over the years Dad worked tirelessly serving the Tamassee Alumni Association and its education and scholarship opportunities until his death in 2017. Dad gave of his wealth to the school for student needs and school initiatives. He always remembered the school with 20 Christmas trees for student cottages and the school’s cafeteria in December each year. He was indeed appreciative for the life he lived and enjoyed while attending Tamassee DAR School.
The Farms' Beginnings
Hilltop Farm & Chris Burrell Christmas Tree Farm
Our parents’ marriage and early family years at Hilltop Farm: Dad was highly influenced by all he learned at Tamassee; he always spoke lovingly of his responsibilities in the cattle barn. Tamassee maintained a modest heard for both milk and meat supplies for its children and students. Dad tended the cows, milked twice daily, and often times spent the night in the barn during calving season. It was at Tamassee that his love of cattle farming was nurtured and that love played out on his own farm. Dad’s love and respect for these animals was always evident as he whistled during his twice daily walk to the barn to milk, feed, and watch over the calving process. He always provided for the needs of his herd as they provided for the family both food and support monies. Going to the barn daily was an activity for him well into his 80s and occurred regardless of the long hard day he had endured or how feeble he had become as he grew older. Mom on the other hand never worked outside the home except to occasionally help the Postmaster if she was needed as a substitute. Mom chose to raise a family and farm alongside Dad. She allowed Dad to take the lead in decisions about the farm supporting him in whatever was his next endeavor. Mom was reared conservatively so taking chances, opening up to indebtedness was never her forte; she always influenced him to be cautious.
Burley Tobacco at Hilltop – “A Quick Cash Crop” - With 67 acres purchased to carve out their life together, Mom and Dad In those early years farmed burley tobacco, a cash crop here in the mountains. Our farm and growing tobacco was a family operation. We worked with our parents from planting time to harvest. Tobacco monies were much needed and provided for our Christmas along with school clothing and supplies. Dad and mom always had a huge vegetable garden and enjoyed together all the work that was required to grow, harvest, and preserve the produce for our long winter. Dad’s long working hours with mother at his side provided for us an exemplary life of commitment and purpose.
Beef cattle Farming at Hilltop – “A Sustainable Commodity” - Simultaneously with tobacco farming as a major summer initiative Dad began to invested in a modest herd of Polled Herford beef cattle. After some years he later changed the herd to the Charolais Cattle breed. These cattle were big, beautiful and had all white colored bodies. They were spectacular at Hilltop Farm; the entire community enjoyed and commented on their beauty as they grazed the lush green fields here in the valley. However, with major calving problems and huge losses, because of their size, Dad soon turned away from the Charlois breed. Next, he purchased a few black Angus. however, Dad never found them to be gentle enough to suit him and soon sold this breed of cattle. Next, he chose a mixed breed of cattle that didn’t need as much personal care and tending from him. By this time, he had closed out the tobacco allotment because of all the health issues and moved into the Christmas Tree Industry. Farming was a journey for our father and mom moved steadfastly behind him supporting him in whatever might be next.
Amidst all this farming Dad worked for Nantahala Power and Light Company (now Duke Power) and after 31 years of shift work, he retired. In retirement he remained a visionary farmer taking a turn into contract house construction for a short period of time but soon determined farming was his first love and where he wanted to spend the later portion of his life. At that point in time , he had become good friends with a dairy farmer and rented pasture land from this southern gentleman in the Big Ridge, Community of Glenville, North Carolina. Dad determined after much study and thought that there was a profit to be made in growing Frazier Fir Christmas Trees here in the hills of Carolina and that he would do just that Thus, began a 30 history of farming Frazier Fir Christmas Trees; Dad went every day to the Tree Farm except for the last 4 years of his life. He died at 94 years of age and was a hard-working mentor to all that knew him. Our Dad was truly a visionary farmer in his own right. He saw risk as necessary to progress with farming but only after well thought-through, carefully planned change strategies.
Frazier Fir Christmas Trees – CE Burrell Christmas Tree Farm (now Sandy Gap Farm) - Dad operated his tree farm at an elevation of 4500’ in the Big Ridge Community of Glenville, NC on rented land to begin with. His word and a “sound” handshake were his bond. He always did what he promised and expected others to do the same. His successful vision for the trees and the tree farm placed him at one time as one of the three largest growers in Jackson County. He had 100,000+ Frazier Fir trees under cultivation much of the time. He showcased his products in the homes of Johnny Cash and Donald Trump. Dollywood was decorated in the 80s with 60 or so of his first quality Frazier Fir Trees. Dad was a man for the ages in his own personal way. He lived with style and grace provided for his family, supported his neighbors, community, and church. It was his visionary style for farming, for trying new crops, and different processes that we see as the necessary approach in our focus now that we have returned home in retirement. And so, we begin anew with the birth of Sycamore Hill Farm and Wye Angus Beef Cattle offered at a premium price to conscientious health driven, beef consumers.
In this journey toward beef cattle farming it occurs to us that simultaneously revitalizing historically rural, mountain farm lands for 21st century agriculture, is an excellent initiative that we wish to participate in and promote. Too often today, families inherent farm land and in the press of today’s world turn to bulldozers, roads, lots, and house construction as the only viable opportunity left to them to manage large acreage short on cash flow in these beautiful mountains. We believe this is not necessarily so, these rural mountain farm lands historically can be viable again. They can farm beef cattle and crops producing products for our culture’s demands in an organic wholesome manner, just as they have historically done. These historic farms can be responsive to the demands for products that are organic, hormone and antibiotic free, no synthetic fertilizers and chemicals just as they have always done. They can do this, so that what we eat is not damaging to our bodies or causing disease as so much health and medical information is pointing to today.
We Are the Next Generation of Rural, Mountain Farmers
We know mountain farm land and mountain farming is declining rapidly in today’s modern economy but we choose not to add to these statistics. We cannot allow Hilltop Farm or CE Burrell Christmas Tree Farm to be taken over by bull dozers and home builders converting the land to sub-divisions and housing developments. We choose to follow Dad’s lead, continue his legacy, and be visionaries in our farming efforts. Our farms renamed are under new managers but managers who are closely connected to the past of this land. Our revitalizing efforts have provided much of what was needed in buildings, fencing, pasture management and new watering systems. Our two rural mountain farms are under preservation efforts that will, allow them to survive and hopefully ultimately thrive in this century.