From Working Farm to Living LegacyThe idea for the N.C. Farm Center for Innovation & Sustainability was born a decade ago when landowners Steve Quinn and Sharon Valentine began thinking about retirement and what kind of legacy they wanted to leave for the people of North Carolina. At that time, their 5,895 acres in southeastern North Carolina, which they had purchased in 1988, housed a working farm. They raised turkeys, Boer goats and field crops and lived in a converted hunting lodge. Yet they had come to believe that the land could offer so much more and began taking steps to return their farm to its natural, wild state.
“We began to realize the land is the link to both our past and our future,” Valentine said. “It’s really not our children who are our link to immortality; it’s the land. I’ve watched the land transition, almost like a person. I could see there were going to be needs if the land were to be sustainable for the future.”
The first major project was the restoration of a 6-mile stretch of Harrison Creek, which had been ditched in the early 1980s to drain hundreds of acres for cropland. Quinn and Valentine negotiated an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ecosystem Enhancement Program that would allow them to restore the creek to its meandering origins, return surrounding acres to wetlands and place a permanent conservation easement on 430 acres. In exchange, the state would gain valuable mitigation credits to offset roads projects that destroyed wetlands in other areas. Steve Quinn died a few weeks after the project began, but Valentine saw the work to completion in 2005.
Valentine continues to work with local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on projects that will preserve the farm’s forests, wetlands and wildlife. While conservation is itself a lofty goal, it is not quite enough for Valentine, whose feisty, entrepreneurial spirit compels her to seek innovative solutions to modern problems. Through the creation of the N.C. Farm Center, Valentine, along with a host of local business professionals, conservationists, farmers and foresters, hopes to provide a place where the community can gather to learn about and experiment with new ideas in sustainable agriculture and green entrepreneurship.
“There has to be innovation,” she said. “You have to look at different solutions and how you can work with change and, certainly, with sustainability. So I wanted a nonprofit center where we could really get out and try things, kick the tires, as we say on the farm. Try it, see if it works.”
The Farm Center was designated a nonprofit organization in 2008. Together with the center, its executive director, and a diverse group of advisors and board members, Valentine continues to seek better ways to manage the farmland and launch creative projects that have the potential to change the rural landscape and improve life for generations to come. Her plans include building a sustainable lodge. Through personal visits, conventions and retreats—and the eventual creation of a 3-dimensional online tour—Valentine hopes to share her vision of sustainable land management and innovation with people in North Carolina and in the global community.