Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture will hold its annual High Country Farm Tour on June 28 and 29. The tour allows visitors to weave through 20 different farms in two counties in the High Country. In the weeks leading up to the event, BRWIA affiliates visited different farms on the tour, meeting the owners and their families and learning the story of each property. Here, Laura Johnson, a doctoral student working with BRWIA, visits the animals at Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk.
One visit to Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk will show that its slogan – “A place where animals talk and people listen” – rings true.
“The goal is to connect people with animals,” says Lee Rankin, owner and farmer. A year-round working farm and agritourism destination, Apple Hill Farm offers a public tour featuring their many animals everyday from mid-May through mid-October – last year they welcomed about 3,000 visitors to the farm.
“We walk all around the farm,” Lee explains. “So people get a chance to see every pen, every kind of animal we have, meet all the animals and hear the stories of the rescue animals that have come to us. With animals there are always funny stories of stuff that’s happened.”
There are goats, donkeys, ponies, horses, alpacas, chickens, honey bees, dogs and their resident rescue pig, Mr. Pickles, who bunks up with Snickers the cat.
Many visitors have never been on a farm or had personal interactions with different kinds of animals, Lee says.
“We’ve had people say, ‘You know, I never thought about it but animals do have feelings,’” she recalled. “They see how the animals are this working organism within our farm. Everybody has a job, everybody has a name … People can’t imagine that we know all the names of the animals, and they all have personalities. So they get to see that first-hand.”
The farm wasn’t always an agritourism destination – Lee and her son, now 14, moved to their scenic mountain-top property in 2001 and began raising animals in 2003. They started with alpacas and quickly added donkeys, llamas, goats and horses. “It was crazy,” Lee says with a laugh. “It was a crazy year.”
“Then people started hearing about it, and they would come up and want to meet this crazy lady up on the hill,” she continues. As interest from the public continued to grow, the Rankins decided to host a daily tour from May-October. “Last year we did 341 tours of the farm,” Lee said. “Which is pretty impressive I think, for a working farm.”
Visitors would be hard-pressed not to be affected by the love and respect given to the animals living at Apple Hill. “We’re kinda crazy about the way we treat the animals,” Lee said.
“I come out every night and I tuck the horses in. Last night I combed manes, and they get tucked in with a carrot and a kiss. Mr. Pickles gets a little something, and the cat gets a little something. And then on Christmas Eve we read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to the horses, and everybody gets a stocking. We’re nuts!” she laughs. “We’re nuts.”
The High Country Farm Tour fits in seamlessly with the farm’s visitor-friendly design. “It’s really fun,” Lee says. “The Farm Tour visitors are so supportive. They’re like, “Keep doing what you’re doing, this is fabulous. It’s different.’”
“I really feel like farming is a community activity,” she continues. “I really feel like there’s this real community of people here. I couldn’t do this alone.”
— Laura Johnson
To find out more about Apple Hill visit their website. For more information on Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s High Country Farm Tour, visit farmtour.brwia.org. Check back for more profiles from the High Country.