Perspectives Online

Ties That Bind. A partnership between Cooperative Extension and an Avery County family has proven beneficial to both. By Dave Caldwell

Avery County Extension Agent Jerry Moody (left) is the latest agent to advise Keith (center) and Conlee Huffman in their greenhouse and nursery enterprise - and to use their site for on-farm demonstrations.
(Photo by Dave Caldwell)
The first time Conlee Huffman had occasion to call his county Extension agent was in the early 1970s; he thinks it may have been 1973.

Huffman, who was born, raised and has lived all his life in Avery County, deep in the North Carolina mountains, had found a bag of Christmas tree seedlings lying in the road. He called Waitstill Avery, then an Extension agent in the county. North Carolina Cooperative Extension was then the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, so Avery would have been the Agricultural Extension agent.

Keith Huffman guides a school group through his greenhouse.
(Courtesy Keith Huffman)
Huffman wanted to know what to do with the bag of seedlings, whether Avery might be able to find the owner. Avery told Huffman it was unlikely the owner could be determined; why didn't Huffman just plant the seedlings and grow some Christmas trees?

Huffman took Avery's advice. It was the start of what has been a long and mutually beneficial relationship between the Huffman family and Extension.

Huffman had a little land. He and his wife, Carolyn, had purchased an acre from Huffman's mother and built a home. He planted the 250 trees in the bag on the hillside beside his home. That's how Conlee Huffman became a Christmas tree farmer.

Today he's still raising them, although he and his son Keith also grow considerably more than Christmas trees.

As it is for many people in the mountains, farming is a part-time occupation for the Huffmans. Until the plant closed, Conlee Huffman, who is now retired, worked at a hosiery mill in nearby Spruce Pine. Keith supervises residential construction.

Moody conducts a demonstration at the Huffman facilities.
(Courtesy Keith Huffman)
Over the years, Conlee bought three acres adjoining his original acre, which allowed him, with Keith's help, to grow more Christmas trees. And over the years, the Huffmans have gone through a few Extension agents. After Avery, there was David Massee, then Jeff Owen, and now, Jerry Moody.

"Anytime we had a problem, they'd come out," says Keith.

Clearly, the Huffmans benefited from the expertise provided by the various Extension agents with whom they worked over the years, but Extension benefited as well.

Moody points out that on-farm demonstrations are a crucial part of Extension programs, and such demonstrations would not be possible without cooperators like the Huffmans. Demonstrations enhance Extension programs by adding a hands-on element.

"They can go out and feel it and touch it and smell it," is the way Moody puts it.

The Huffmans are open to trying new things, and Extension agents and specialists have partnered with the Huffmans to experiment with and demonstrate how to grow a range of plants beyond Christmas trees.

The Huffmans also have another purely happenstance connection to North Carolina State University. Dr. Gerald Elkan, professor emeritus of microbiology, is a neighbor. The Huffmans and Elkan struck up a partnership under which Elkan provides the land on which the Huffmans grow various plants.

Sometime in the late 1980s, for example, the Huffmans began experimenting with rhododendrons and flame azaleas on Elkan's land.

"We were new at this, so we called Extension," Keith recalls. "Dick Bir [Extension horticulture specialist stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Research and Extension Center at Fletcher] came out and worked with us on these native plants."

The Huffmans also worked with Dr. Jeanine Davis, also an Extension horticultural specialist at Fletcher, growing ginseng and goldenseal. They've also partnered with Extension to grow borage, coneflower and gerber daisies.

"We did the work," says Conlee. "They brought the idea to us."

Over the years, the Extension connection has brought the Huffmans a number of visitors, and the operation has been the site of various Extension workshops. A bus full of folks from N.C. A&T State University stopped by once. And the Huffmans are hosts each year to local school children, who tour their four greenhouses. The tours are sponsored by the local Farm Bureau and arranged with the help of Moody and the county 4-H program

The Huffmans built their first greenhouse in the early 1990s.

"This was a hobby house" is the way Conlee describes the project. Raising various bedding plants and hanging baskets in the greenhouse was to be Carolyn Huffman's hobby.

"By 1994 the hobby was gone, and we had a business," Conlee says.

arolyn and Keith's wifeAt the time, all the Huffmans - Conlee, Keith, C, Rita - were employed elsewhere. While the Huffmans began selling their greenhouse plants to both wholesale and retail buyers, they eventually decided to concentrate on retail sales. But that presented a problem. No one was home most days. So for a time, the Huffmans sold on the honor system.

They left the greenhouse open, posted a price list and relied on their customers to pay for their purchases.

Conlee lost his job in 2000, when the hosiery plant closed, so at age 61 he went back to school, earning an associate degree in horticulture at nearby Mayland Community College.

"I'd been out of school for 42 years," he recalls. "I did it to help me in the greenhouses." These days, the college sends its horticulture classes out to tour the Huffman greenhouses every year.

Conlee claims he's largely retired from the greenhouse business, which is now run by Keith and Rita. But Conlee still tends his Christmas trees.

"We could never have done this without the Extension Service," says Conlee. "We'd still be in the dark."

Keith adds, "Anything we're not sure of, we call them."