Life stories

John Vollmer among the first to convert his tobacco field to more sustainable fare

CorrespondentJuly 3, 2014 

  • Norbert John Vollmer

    Born Nov. 9, 1942.

    FAMILY: Marries Betty Vollmer in 1964, and they start their family in 1966 with the birth of Russ Vollmer, followed by Helen Vollmer Sisk, Jessica Vollmer and Joy Dingfelder. He goes on to have eight grandchildren.

    EDUCATION: Graduates from NCSU in 1966 with a degree in crop science.

    CAREER: Starts his career selling agricultural chemicals before returning to Vollmer Farm in 1972. He co-founds an agricultural chemical supply company which runs for 20 years. In the 1990s he begins going organic, switching crops to fruits and vegetables. Vollmer Farm also focuses on agritourism and education.

    Dies June 3.

John Vollmer’s decision in the 1990s to transform Vollmer Farm, which had been in his family for generations, came after a number of omens that seemed worth noting.

Vollmer had made his living not only in farming, but also in supplying local farmers with agricultural chemicals. His soil wasn’t rebounding, crop after crop as it once had. New federal regulations were going to make his small-scale tobacco farm far less profitable.

The notion that pesticides and fungicides might not be as helpful, or innocent, as previously thought began to take root, and he and his wife, Betty Vollmer, decided that a future growing organic pumpkins and educating children about where honey comes from made a lot of sense.

The couple ripped out dozens of acres of tobacco and in its place planted strawberries and broccoli. In the end, it simply felt better than continuing on with their conventional single crop.

North Carolina was still the country’s largest tobacco producer, and the Vollmers were among the first in the state to adopt sustainable practices and convert their tobacco fields into something more palatable. John Vollmer, 71, died this month after a years-long battle with prostate cancer. His wife, Betty, died in 2012 and was also featured in Life Stories.

“The culture of organic farming at the time was not necessarily welcoming to third-generation tobacco farmers or former chemical salesmen. The amazing thing about John was that he kept on,” said Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

“He broke down barriers.”

A family enterprise

Vollmer was raised on the family farm in Bunn, and studied crop sciences at N.C. State University. Upon graduation he married and moved away for eight years, peddling agricultural chemicals. Their decision to return to North Carolina was brought about by Betty Vollmer.

“Betty said to me, she said, ‘John, I didn’t marry you to be apart from you while we are living our lives. I think it’s time to make a change,’ ” he recalled in a 2012 interview. “ ‘If you decide not to, that’s OK, but I’m not sure where our relationship is going.’ 

From 1972 on, they worked Vollmer Farm with their children, adding a fourth to their brood. His children recall his being a loving, but tougher father in their younger years – they received no special treatment as part of the farm crew.

“He put a work ethic in us where . . . 16-hour days are nothing,” Russ Vollmer said.

They also say he softened quite a bit in his later years.

‘She will work with us’

In 1972 he also co-founded an agricultural supply business called Farm Boys Agri-Service, selling feed and chemicals, as well as the service of applying them to crops.

For the next three decades not a whole lot changed – until Vollmer began to wonder about the future of tobacco. Since the Vollmers ripped up the crop and converted to organic farming methods, Vollmer Farm has been a model to other farmers wondering if there is life beyond the state crop.

Chad Ray, a fellow Bunn farmer and longtime friend, wrote about Vollmer’s impact in a recent journal posting for Ray Family Farms. Vollmer was one of his heroes.

“[Vollmer] has known for a long time we can’t kill all the bugs, weeds, and nematodes. We can’t use all the water on the crops and heat all the houses with all the gas. We must work with nature and she will work with us. That is the only way we will feed the world for generations to come,” Ray wrote.

In the 1970s Vollmer was part of a small team of farmers sent to Africa by television station WRAL to film a documentary on ending hunger. His children wonder if the trip planted some of the mental and emotional seeds for his organic fruits and vegetables.

Exploring strawberry world

Vollmer was known for a natural curiosity, one that never rested.

“He wanted to push himself. It’s such a Vollmer thing,” joked his son.

When not physically farming, Vollmer was lobbying state legislators and researching new farming methods. He was among the first in the region to work with cover crops to naturally restore nutrients to the soil, and was often in touch with scientists like Gina Ferndandez, a professor in the department of horticulture science at NCSU.

“He used to call me up when I first moved to North Carolina and ask lots of questions about the strawberry plant that no one else has ever asked before or even since,” she recalled. “He was a keen observer of plants and shared his observations. I think I learned more from him about growing strawberries than he learned from me.”

Expecting the best

Just a few weeks ago, Russ Vollmer lost power during a storm and as a result, saw damage to 1,500 pounds of broccoli. It didn’t spoil, but it did yellow a bit, rendering the veggies unsellable. He wasted no time in calling the list of churches, soup kitchens and shelters his father had compiled, those who would benefit from his loss.

“He always taught his children, and me indirectly, to err on the side of not caution, but generositywhen it comes to people. He taught me to never be afraid to be good to other people whether you knew them or not,” Ray recalled.

About 15 years ago, Russ Vollmer made a very like father, like son decision to move back home and help with the farm. He maintained his day job selling crop insurance until his father became seriously ill, but it was an easy decision to take over Vollmer Farm with his passing.

“This farm becomes a part of us, a very, very special place that gets into you,” Russ Vollmer said.


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