Stewardship of the land for future generations has been a guiding philosophy of the Whitmire family, instilled by the family patriarch E.J. Whitmire, who bought 200 acres in 1951 to start the cattle farm. Over the years, he bought a few acres from one neighbor and a few more from another, eventually assembling what is now over 1,000 acres of pasture and forest.
E.J.’s personal credo was “This land belongs to my people. Some of them are living, some of them are dead; most of them are yet to be born.”
When E.J. passed away in 1998, the farm was turned over to the children who pledged to uphold the legacy of conservation. The children decided to place 695 acres of the farm in a conservation easement with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee. The agreement prevents the land from being developed in the future.
“My dad spent every penny and every hour he had on this farm and my mother sacrificed every day to raise us kids, so we felt it was important to honor their wishes by continuing to use this land as they did,” said Steve Whitmire. “Now, I have to work hard to make this place successful so my sons can continue the farming enterprise.”
Ridgefield Farm has a herd of 275 beef cows.
“This cattle farm is very actively-managed. It has to be profitable or we will change our course so that it can continue as a working farm,” said Steve. Steve’s sons, John and Whit, are both planning their future around the farm. The agreement allows for the construction of a few homes for the family, but the land cannot be carved up and sold off as lots or made into a subdivision.
Lewis Penland, LTLT board member and longtime Whitmire family friend, grew up working on Ridgefield Farm under the guidance of E.J.
“The work was never easy, the hours were long, and the lessons were many,” Penland said.
When E.J. purchased the original farm, it was not in the pristine state that it is now. The land was eroded, the creeks had junk cars and household trash in them, Penland recounted.
“He believed it was more effective to lead by example than to preach, so he hired people to help him clean it up and, soon, those people began to clean up the creeks on their own farms,” Penland said. “Those who worked with him were handed down valuable lessons that have served us all well.”
In addition to conserving Ridgefield Farm, the Whitmire family also decided to protect another 175 acres of mostly forested land, known as Poorhouse Mountain. It again allows for the construction of a few home sites, but not a major development.
“We felt it was important to keep the trees, wildlife habitat, and open space,” said Genevieve Whitmire Burda, who lives in Mars Hill. “They provide us with the clean air and water, and quality of life that draws people to the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“Our family is concerned that the beauty of this region will lead to large scale development and destroy the very qualities that attract people to the area. Our neighbors are all very happy that we have chosen not to develop our land. Many of them have thanked us for not destroying their view,” Genevieve said. “Additionally we have had big concerns with steep slope development occurring in Western North Carolina and we wanted to ensure the slopes of Poorhouse Mountain would never be developed.”
Genevieve is on the Board of Trustees at Western Carolina University. The protected tract of forestland will continue to be used as a field laboratory by the school’s forestry department. Led by Dr. Peter Bates, WCU’s forestry students practice sustainable-forestry techniques and experiment with growing strategies in the outdoor laboratory of Poorhouse Mountain.
“Growing trees is a slow business. It’s great to have the opportunity to observe the same forestland over the years, so we can see which practices are the most successful,” Bates said.
Selling the farm at development prices would have been more financially beneficial to the family but they felt that it was more important to preserve the legacy that was handed down to them. A working farm easement is one of several conservation tools available to landowners who want to ensure that their wishes for their land will be respected forever, no matter who owns the land after them.