Farming is key to Haywood County’s culture and heritage, but that doesn’t mean it is stagnant. What strikes me when looking at hundreds of old farm pictures in The Mountaineer’s archives or in Haywood County history collections is how much change is a part of agriculture.
We may be sentimental about old-time ways, but we can’t survive on them. So farming, like many parts of our history, is a blend of new ideas and technology, with a sentimental attachment to its past.
In times to come, we will on occasion look back at Haywood county farming and how it has changed. Today’s collection of old photographs looks at some animals that are no longer produced in Haywood County on a large scale — and one that is still the most popular livestock animal, though it’s a much leaner version than its bovine ancestors.
That refers to a leaner, trimmer version of beef cattle, of course. Fifty years ago, most of the beef cattle in Haywood County were Herefords, with a reputation of being gentle and easy to manage.
That was in the days when folks loved their steaks and their roasts flavored with fat, when warnings of saturated fats were just beginning to cast a shadow over culinary indulgence. A prized Hereford or Angus today looks far different.
Pictured are some prize calves from the 1950s and 60s. If they seem kind of short, that’s because they were. Do they look broad, even – fat? They are, compared to today’s emphasis on defined muscle. Consumer health concerns drove many changes in cattle breeding, while others are arbitrary, or the work of genius promoters. Consider, for example, the premium some people will pay for “Black Angus” beef.
Sheep were once a significant source of income for Haywood County farmers. In the 1960s, Haywood and neighboring counties had enough sheep producers to put together “lamb pools” several times a year, when farmers would sell together.
Many sheep producers were small-scale farmers, but two sales in June and July of 1965, for example, marketed more than 700 lambs heading, as The Mountaineer cheerfully reported, to New York, to become lamb chops.
Today there are few sheep farmers remaining in Haywood County. As many of them left the business, they consistently named one culprit in the decline of sheep farming — domestic dogs.
People couldn’t understand, livestock farmers often said, that their sweet household pet, when left to roam, would often join up with other dogs and joyfully launch into a flock of defenseless sheep, slaughtering for the pleasure of the kill.
It was a distinction unique to the domestic dog; wild animals go after sheep, but usually kill only what they can eat. The Mountaineer once sent a young photographer to Cruso to get shots of a sheep kill there caused by domestic dogs. I have never forgotten how shaken he was at the carnage.
Domestic dogs may have delivered a death blow to the sheep industry in Haywood County, but their coyote cousins contributed in smaller part. As the sheep business was on the wane, coyotes migrated into east Haywood and other Western North Carolina counties in the early 1990s, eventually populating the entire state. While coyotes are not known for killing wastefully, they will strike a flock repeatedly, making the almost defenseless animals hard to protect. It can be incredibly difficult — and expensive — to fence out a coyote.
So people are now looking at other options, particularly guard animals. As some people try to raise goats or sheep, they have been bringing in other animals to act as guardians. Donkeys have been used with some success. Great Pyrenees dogs are also known for guarding livestock. A few folk have tried llamas and alpacas.
In the 1950s and 60s, many farmers here had from a few hundred to several thousand laying hens for egg production, or raised “broilers,” for meat. In 1951, The Mountaineer did a series of articles, describing each community’s homes and farmers. Three chicken farms in the East Pigeon community together housed or produced for sale about 10,000 laying hens a year, while at least 15 other farms in the community produced enough chickens or eggs to sell commercially.
Several other communities had commercial broiler or egg laying operations, including Ratcliffe Cove, Saunook, Cruso and Center Pigeon, where the West farm sold about 15,000 broilers a year. A few farms featured turkey production.
In Francis Cove, Pink Francis (also well known as an apple producer) teamed up with his brother Bob (trained as a mechanical engineer) to raise chickens. But profits from the poultry business plummeted in the late 1960s.
Farmers in mountain communities could not compete with their large-scale neighbors in the flatlands, and most went out of the business by the early 1970s. Pink and Bob Francis did try one other venture, however, going into turkey production for a brief time before Pink focused full-time on apple production.
As for Francis, he went into another livestock industry. He and his sons became the county’s largest hog producers, with his sons continuing after his death and into the 1990s. A tragic fire and, again, the competition from eastern farms that could operate on such a massive scale, compelled the closure of the hog farm.
In recent months, however, hog production of sorts has returned to Haywood County in its old style – that of folks wanting to do for themselves by buying live hogs and slaughtering them at home.
The beef industry may also be experiencing a similar transition as part of a national “farm to table” movement. As consumers express increasing interest in knowing the source of their foods and seeking healthier alternatives, a grass-fed beef industry is growing in Western North Carolina.
So perhaps history will cycle through once again as people want their meat to come from sources closer to home. There may be some future in small livestock farms – this time with a few llamas and shaggy dogs thrown in for extra protection.