INEZ, NC — This is a story of an exemplary farmer who can trace his success to a dizzying failure.
This is the story of the varied history – encompassing the development of great wealth, war, decline, resurrection, a young man being forced to grow up quickly and another resurrection – of one piece of land, in the far eastern reaches of North Carolina’s Piedmont.
This is the story of Ernest Boyd (E.B.) Harris, of Warren County, North Carolina.
E.B. is a cattleman and has been since before he graduated from high school. The heart of his operation is a farm which has been in his family for 99 years and its been farmed since the latter part of the 18th century.
The plantation is known as Buxton Place. It was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, in part for being “associated with events which have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.”
In the antebellum years, Warren County was one of the most prosperous parts of the Old North State. John Buxton Williams, the eleventh child, was one of its most prominent planters.
In 1857, Williams built an impressive farmhouse with a red roof and eaves ornamented with drop brackets, that today remains the architectural cornerstone of Buxton Place. The adjacent smokehouse also dates from the middle of the 19th century.
By 1870, Williams’s non-real estate property was valued at less than a seventh of what it had been a decade before. He was land rich and cash poor. He started deeding land to his children. (He and wife Temperance had 10 children and also were guardians to a number of nieces and nephews.)
The property passed out of the Williams family’s hands in the early part of last century. Tenant farmers used it until 1916, when E.B.’s grandfather Ernest Linwood (E.L.) Harris bought the property.
On the day they moved from Louisburg, in adjoining Franklin County, they left at two in the morning to drive their cattle to their new farm. Supplied with sugar biscuits, it took them until the mid-afternoon to walk their herd to their new home.
The grand old estate had fallen into disrepair. A ladder rather than stairs was used to access the porch.
Inside the home, Harris found hay being stored and horses being kept.
He set about to resurrect the plantation’s productive history, initiating a program to raise livestock as well as crops. He raised cows, hogs, sheep and goats.
He stopped raising tobacco during the Depression, when one year the crop fetched only eight cents per pound. After that, E.L. no longer directly raised tobacco himself (though he did have tenant farmers grow it).
E.L. found success in his new efforts. He was the first farmer in the county to grow soybeans, the first to grow lespedeza. He built a number of outbuildings, including a cotton gin. As he prospered, he was able to reassemble some of the plantation’s landholdings that had been dispersed over the years.
His son James C. continued to accentuate the farm’s focus on livestock. But James C. came down from Parkinson’s disease, which thrust E.B. into the running the farm at an early age.
His senior year of high school, E.B. drove a school bus. Some days his principal would let him return home after dropping off his classmates so he could take care of the farm, before coming back to school to take his classmates home.
His first few years after high school, E.B. set out to make it as a farmer by raising crops. But the harvest of 1972 put him under, upside-down and in debt. “I was lower than that ditch,” he said. A lawyer suggested bankruptcy – after all, E.B. didn’t have any assets. “None except my name,” he said.
He was determined to make good on all of his debts. To do that, though, he quit farming – mostly, and temporarily. But at the moment, as far as he could tell, he’d never be a success at farming.
He kept a few cattle and went to work at Lancaster Stockyard in Rocky Mount. He started hauling, mostly livestock, but whatever there was to haul. He went to auctioneer school, in Fort Smith, AR. He held his first auction next to the old plantation house, a sale of used farm equipment.
Over time he built up his hauling and auction businesses, and was able to resurrect his farming and cattle operations as well.
“When I had a little money left over, I’d buy a calf,” is how he explained it.
Today E.B. works some 30 or more auctions per year, mainly in North Carolina and Virginia. Over his career he estimates he’s overseen at least 1,000 auctions. He works with a team of auctioneers, including one, Eli Detweiler, who was named the World Champion Auctioneer in 2010.
Every spring he holds an annual used equipment auction on his farm that he calls his “cow pasture auction.” It attracts about 1,500 people. E.B. runs two auctions simultaneously, one from each side of the auction wagon.
Harris continues to operate his trucking business. He builds lots of feeder cattle to be taken to stockyards, and hauls cattle to local sale barns. He also operate a livestock supply business, selling gates, feeders, and the like.
He doesn’t do it all by himself, though. In addition to the auctioneers, his wife Anne and their son Shane, as well as a few full-time employees, help make Harris’s various enterprises run smoothly.
Harris keeps his own cattle on retained ownership, something he’s done since the 1980’s, selling to packyards in Kansas and Texas.
Used to be, he would ship his cattle at 800-weight. But when corn prices went through the roof in 2007 and 2008, he started keeping his calves until 1,000 or 1,100 pounds. He can feed more economically with the grass and hay he grows and the byproducts available to him. He’s also started growing and feeding his own silage since 2010.
This year, thanks to optimal rainfall (as well as killing the wheat he had on his corn ground overwinter, letting it add to the soil’s organic matter), Harris is estimating silage yields of 22 tons or more per acre.
Like his grandfather, Harris isn’t afraid to try new things. He’s been practicing silvopasture for a number of years.
He’s also rigorous in his cattle management systems, keeping records of every cow and calf.
When selecting cattle, Harris looks for size, confirmation, disposition and soundness of structure and then looks at the performance of the dam and sire. He also looks for short-haired cattle, both because they tend to do better in the area’s climate and because they tend to do better on fescue.
Harris uses natural service. He does have some registered cattle, but mostly his herd is Angus-based commercial.
Harris has bought bulls from Wehrman Angus on many occasions, and also brings in other species, including Simmental, Senepol and Brahman. When he uses a more exotic breed like Senepol or Brahman, he will go back on heifer calves with an Angus bull or a Simmental-Angus cross.
Every year Harris holds a sale at the Granville County Livestock Arena in Oxford on the second weekend of November. He sells bulls, bred heifers, and older bred cows. Buyers at the sale have the option of selling back to E.B. the first offspring of their purchase, at a $25 premium for steers and a $50 premium for heifers.
He’s willing to offer that guarantee because he’s confident in the quality of his cattle.
“I couldn’t think of anything more important to do in life than what I’m doing now,” Harris said, “working to make my herd better.”
Much like the farm that he works, Harris has experienced much variety in his life.
There’s no doubt he’s been able to shape the story of both his life and his farm into one that’s destined to be remembered as a classic, with storybook results.