In a picturesque landscape just south of the Roan Massif, farms with rolling fields, pastures, and forests contain a rich repository of stories and memories, along with agriculturally important prime soils and stream sources. Sam and Ronda Silver, the seventh generation of a local farming family, wanted to make sure that their beautiful Century Farm would be passed down to future generations intact. So, they worked with SAHC to protect 111 acres with an agricultural conservation easement.
“Sinkhole Creek Farm is absolutely stunning,” says Farmland Protection Director Jess Laggis. “Its rolling pastures provide sweeping views of the nearby mountainscapes and the land contains a high concentration of important agricultural soils – a rarity on such a large mountain farm. The Silvers have long been stewards of the land, and they implemented a stream bank mitigation easement in 2011 that fenced cattle out of the headwater streams and provided vegetative cover to protect water quality. We’re so thrilled they have committed the entire farm to conservation.”
Sinkhole Creek Farm primarily produces corn, hay, and cattle. The farm contains 66.7% unique soils, meaning that a high percentage of soils found on the farm have national, state, and local importance for their ability to sustain agricultural production. The Silvers have partnered with Mitchell County Soil & Water Conservation in several projects, implementing best management practices to improve water quality on the farm — including a feeding structure, feeding pads, fencing and rotational grazing. Currently, Sinkhole Creek Farm sells pasture-raised steers processed locally in Avery County; for more info, they can be contacted through their Facebook page.
The Silvers want to keep the farm in productive use and be able to eventually pass it down to their son, Jake. According to Sam Silver, his ancestor George Silver was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who settled in this area near Bakersville, NC after the war, and the land has been passed down through the family for generations. His grandfather farmed it in the early 1900s, and his father acquired the land and started a dairy operation there in 1955. Sam farmed along with his father, as the Sinkhole Creek Farm operation transitioned from dairy through burley tobacco, Frasier Fir Christmas trees, and beef cattle.
“Driving near Sinkhole Creek, you’ll see plenty of “Silver” on road signs and grave markers,” adds Jess. “The family has a long and storied history in Mitchell County, and claims the infamous Frankie Silver as a member.”
This project was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a grant from NC Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, private philanthropic contributions by Brad & Shelli Stanback, donation of a portion of the conservation easement value by the landowners, and support from SAHC members.
Landowner Perspective: Sam Silver
Sam speaks with pride about his family history of farming, love for the land he wants to preserve for the future, and a keen sense of humor. “We have lean cattle. Do you know why that is? Because the cattle learned to lean to go up and down the hills,” he quips. But that humor is tempered by deep concern for the future of the land.
“If you look around these counties, there were a lot of little farms that people made a living on, and they are no longer there,” says Sam. “When people passed on, their descendants divided it up or sold it. Just up the valley where I was raised there are several farms that have been cut to pieces and there’s nothing left. I think the SAHC route of conserving land is a great thing to preserve these local family farms. We didn’t want our farm to be cut up and divided. God only gave us this land for a certain amount of time, and we want to leave it better than we got it. We want to leave it for the next generation and for the future generations so if they want to farm it’s there.”
“I grew up farming here,” adds Sam. “My daddy farmed it all his life. We may not make a lot of money, but there is more in this life than money. Farming has a lot of pleasure in it as well as headaches. There’s enjoyment in looking back at end of day or end of season and saying ‘hey we had a good year’ – and then we always want to make it better.”
Bringing federal farmland preservation funding to WNC
In 2017, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) announced funding allocations from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which included an unprecedented $8 million awarded for farmland conservation in Western North Carolina. This allocation for the Blue Ridge Forever coalition’s proposal “Forever Farms; Easements at the Eminence” was directed to protect working agricultural land and clean water sources across the region.
Jess Laggis, who helped secure this allocation as a former Director of Blue Ridge Forever, is excited to work on projects which now bring those federal funds into the land. “This historic $8 million allocation was specifically for farmland conservation projects that protect both headwater sources for drinking water throughout the state and broader region, and the preservation of important agricultural soil resources,” she says. “It’s very exciting now to be ‘on the ground,’ seeing that allocation actually used to make conservation projects like this possible.”
For more info on the RCPP funding allocation, check out this article in the Smoky Mountain News.
The Tale of Frankie Silver
All conservation projects have some stories of people and land – but few projects have contained such a link to local folklore as Sinkhole Creek Farm. Sam Silver’s ancestor was a brother to Charlie Silver, who was the husband of Frankie Silver. Frankie was convicted of murdering Charlie in December of 1831, and the tragic, mysterious circumstances of that fateful night have worked their way through numerous renditions of story and song.
Frances (Frankie) Stewart Silver was a young teenager when she married Charlie; at this time of the murder, he was 19 and she was 18, with a 13-month-old baby, Nancy. Throughout the trial and 180+ years of folklore, Frankie has been portrayed alternatively as a jealous wife angry about her husband’s infidelity and a victim of abuse (members of the jury later petitioned the governor for her pardon, which was never granted). Frankie was marked in history as the first white woman to be hanged in WNC, executed in 1833 for murdering her husband and attempting to conceal the evidence. The tale of this doomed couple has been the subject of folksong and poetry, books – including The Untold Story of Frankie Silver by Perry Deane Young and The Ballad of Frankie Silver by Sharyn McCrumb, film (The Ballad of Frankie Silver, 2000 and 2010) and more.
This article by Don Haines in Blue Ridge Country magazine captures the highlights of the tale.