Fayetteville, North Carolina
The Gillis family grew tobacco in North Carolina for more than six generations -- until a major change hit their industry.
Support from Cape Fear Farm Credit helped the Gillis family make the changes they needed in order to keep their operation going, changes that transformed their family farm into a local agritourism destination.
A long history of agriculture
The Gillis Family has lived and worked this piece of property in North Carolina for over 200 years. Their ancestors were part of the emigration from Scotland to America that began as a trickle in 1739 and resulted in the largest concentration of Highland Scots on the North American continent.
Their story is one that represents the stories of many American farm families throughout the history of the United States. It is one of ordinary people who persevere in a new place, working hard to sustain their families and establish themselves in the new community they are helping to build.
The Gillis family story in the U.S. begins with the arrival of Malcolm Gillis. He, like most immigrants receiving a land grant, found himself with a piece of property covered with trees, which naturally led him into the timber business.
Over the generations, as farmers cleared the land cleared, the Gillis family moved from timber, to tobacco and row crops, to agritourism. Today, Gillis Hill Farm is worked by John Gillis Sr., his son, John Gillis Jr. and his grandsons, William and Andrew Gillis.
“I'm the sixth generation that's been here on the farm and we just pass it down, trying to help the new generations come on,” John Sr. said.
From tobacco to tourism
Today, a Gillis Hill Farm visitor can expect to find everything from school tours to homemade ice cream on the Gillis family farm.
The 2005 "tobacco buyout" meant that John Sr., John Jr. and William Gillis had to quickly diversify to keep their family's operation alive.
“Tobacco was our cash crop for generations,” John Jr. said. “But then, when the Tobacco Buyout came through, that's when we knew we had to diversify and try and support our farming habit.”
Cape Fear Farm Credit was there to support the Gillis family through the great transition. William said, "Farm Credit helped us identify an opportunity and take advantage of it."
Whether they found themselves in good times or in bad, Cape Fear Farm Credit was there to help.
"You never know when you're gonna have a really bad year," said John Jr. "That's when it's really important to have a good partnership. Cape Fear Farm Credit has helped us overcome some of those challenges."
Reflecting on his life on the farm, John Jr. remembers a time when visitors to the farm would talk about how their parents used to farm, and then a time when people would talk about how their grandparents used to farm. And now, it seems to him that people are generations disconnected from the farm.
Agritourism is one way John Jr. feels he can help his community reconnect with agriculture and learn what it means to be a farmer.
“I would just like to be a part of helping to educate people and let them know a little bit about what it's like to live and work on a farm and what the farm provides for them,” John Jr. said. “And through the school tours on our farm, that's one of the things that we're able to do."