Askville: Green acres

Warren Wilson College graduate Chase Hubbard has spent his entire professional life in agriculture. After serving as the school’s assistant farm manager for seven years, he’s now taken charge of running the 275-acre commercial operation in the fields surrounding the campus.

Chase Hubbard

In the middle of a working day, Hubbard took some time to talk about the farm’s role as a model business and learning experience, as well as the challenges facing farmers in the 21st century.

Mountain Xpress: How’d you end up working at the farm here?
Chase Hubbard: When I went [to school] here, all I wanted to do was manage this farm. It’s a real special farm and a real special program, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What makes it special?
Partly the people—working with the students is a lot of fun. Farming is great work, but when you live in some back holler, it’s a hard life with very little return. But in this situation, we have a beautiful land base—several hundred acres of beautiful land here in the Swannanoa River Valley—and a great group of students who work on the crew here. The scope of the farm is challenging. It’s a commercial farm; it’s big enough to keep you challenged. The students are great personalities.

How exactly does the farm program work with Warren Wilson’s curriculum?
It’s part of the work program. Every student here at the college works roughly 15 hours a week; about 25 of them work on the farm crew. They have to apply; it’s pretty competitive, because it’s very demanding. They work more than 15 hours a week, typically. In the summer they can work more than 80 hours a week.

We’ve got three students in leadership positions: One manages our swine operations, one manages our cattle operations, and one manages our meat sales. So they get a lot of experience either in animal husbandry or in business.

Personally, what’s drawn and kept you in agriculture?
The challenge and the complexity. It’s hard to get bored. With other work I’ve done, there’s the feeling that you’re “nailing it” after a few years. There’s no “nailing it” after many years in agriculture. You come in and there’s always challenges. I came in yesterday to a sow that was having major distress in labor. The range of what you have to know to be successful in this business is immense. You’ve got the business aspect and marketing. … You’ve got animal husbandry and veterinary medicine (we do all our own veterinary work here, primarily). Then you’ve got the shop aspect: welding, torches, tractors, equipment. You’ve got multiple species; it’s really endless. Then there’s agronomy. I’ve got to be an expert at growing corn, growing forages, making hay, pigs, selling meat and being a part of a college community. I could hardly be creative enough to dream of a better job.

There’s a lot of talk about how agriculture is changing and how many farms are disappearing. What changes have you seen, and how does this farm stay viable?
Being a college, we don’t have the pressure to develop. The farm program is so crucial to our mission that it really gives it some security. Along with that, we practice viable agriculture here, and that’s spun off into other enterprises in the area, [such as] Hickory Nut Gap Farm. Others have also adopted a model similar to ours and capitalized on the market, which is pretty vast in this area. We sell all our product out in a month to six weeks in the fall, with very little advertising.

Creating a model for people to make money in agriculture has helped farmers in this area. We like to think of ourselves as a little bit of an idea generator—we can try something out, and others can look at our successes and failures and learn from them.

As far as changes here, this farm has been operating continously since 1894—which is really unique [in] this area—and it will continue to be an agricultural operation.

What changes would you like to see take place on the farm in the future?
Mostly getting better at what we do. Our swine operation, I’d like to expand our land and use some more forages and grazing. We’re going to start branching out into products like salamis and bacon. We’re also looking at new initiatives to encourage wildlife on the farm and environmental protection.

A big part of it is making the experience better and more challenging for students—that’s a big part of what we do.

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