Family Plows New Ground to Maintain Farm Life

Posted June 21, 2007 7:21 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina has lost about 300,000 acres of farmland in the past five years, but one Cumberland County family is determined to maintain the farm lifestyle as the city encroaches.

The Gillis family has tilled land in west Fayetteville since George Washington was president. It's a hard life, but it's a family heritage, John Gillis II said.

"My brother and my family all have a very strong tie to the land," Gillis said. "My boys are the eighth generation of my family, and they have just come back to the farm now."

Andrew Gillis, 20, and William Gillis, 22, are helping their father sow the seeds of agritourism to help attract paying visitors to the 2,000-acre farm.

"Dad didn't say I had to come back. He encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, but I couldn't imagine doing anything else," said William Gillis, a North Carolina State University graduate.

Gillis Hill Farm will offer visitors animal demonstrations, wagon rides and tours of a tobacco barn, a chicken house and a smoke house. Tours require reservations. The farm also sells ice cream churned with the help of an old John Deere tractor engine.

The family has gotten marketing ideas from the Agritourism Networking Association, which has at least 250 members. They expect to have about 10,000 students visit the farm in the coming year.

The farm, which is within the Fayetteville city limits, has subdivisions squeezing it on one side and a Wal-Mart and other commercial development about a half-mile down the road on the other side.

John Gillis said he sees agritourism as a way to fend off the city and preserve the only lifestyle he's ever known.

"If money is what it's all about, yeah, there's a lot of pressure. There's more to life than money, and we enjoy this way of life -- the farm way of life," he said.