He's keeping farm, legacy alive

Roy Grier still hears his daddy every time a cow gets loose, or he has to slog through ice and mud to milk his 14 Holsteins and Jerseys on the farm his family has worked since the late 1700s.

“He'd stop everything and holler: ‘Anybody who messes with milk cows, is a damned fool!'”

Reckon his youngest son's been a fool most his life.

Since boyhood, Grier's days have been defined and streamlined by this farm, his animals and hard relentless work.

His hours are long. His profit margin is short. And his family's acreage amounts to a windfall that could turn a working man into a rich one overnight.

Grier knows his family could cash in handsomely on its 124 acres. The land is tucked in the once-rural Steele Creek community, just south of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport and half a mile from Interstate 485. New subdivisions, shopping centers and industrial parks close in on his world locked in the middle of the last century.

The land's worth millions. And milk prices don't climb with same vigor as expenses for a dairy farmer's staples of fuel, feed and fertilizer.

Grier's older twin brothers want to sell. But Roy, 51, is not interested. The farm, one of Mecklenburg's three surviving dairies, has written his family's legacy – and still stirs one man's passion to avoid its epilogue.

So every morning, Grier rises before the sun and shoos cows from the pastures and woods for their 5:30 milking. Most days, quitting time comes long after dark, after the evening milking and the fields of hay and barley are tended.

“I need to keep milking,” he said one recent morning as he hooked up a 1940s milking machine to his oldest cow, Holy Cow.

“If I stop, this farm dies.”

The family's story

His ancestors settled on the land shortly after the Revolutionary War. Family legend: Griers from Pennsylvania fought in North Carolina, liked it and moved here after the war.

Roy's parents, Ralph Jr. and Edith, raised Roy and the twins, Ralph and Robert, in a brick house on Brown-Grier Road. Across the road, Roy's grandparents, Ralph Sr. and Nell (she was a Brown) lived in the two-story farmhouse a Grier built in 1836.

They grew cotton then. After Ralph Jr. returned from World War II and joined his father, they started milking cows.

Roy was barely walking when he began tagging along. By the time he graduated from nearby Olympic High, his brothers were at Appalachian State.

He was hooked on farming.

At that time, there were 15 to 20 dairy farms speckling Steele Creek. But by then farmers were selling land to developers, and, in the early 1980s, the area began to change.

Roy's dad saw it coming.

“When times got rough, he'd say, ‘We're going to quit farming and start selling land,'” Roy said. “He tried to talk me out of farming, but I just kept milking.”

When his father died in 2001, his mother milked cows but soon had to stop. Roy was on his own. He said he couldn't afford hired help.

“He works constantly, and that worries me,” said Edith, who owns the farm and pays the biggest bills. “His brothers have no interest in farming. I think they'd rather me sell it.

“This land is my family's story. I'm grateful to Roy.”

Profit vs. expenses

Dairy farming has never been easy. In the 1950s, there were 5,300 milk-producing farms in North Carolina. Now there are 300, said Geoff Benson, an N.C. State extension economist who specializes in dairies.

In a souring economy, that number's likely to shrink.

“It's a challenging way to farm,” Benson said. “Milk prices have always been volatile.”

Farmers have little say in what they get – the price of milk is set primarily by supply and demand, Benson said. The current price is $21.54 per 100 pounds of milk (or 11.6 gallons). The past five years, he said, the price has been as high as $24 and low as $14.

Grier's cows produce 500 to 1,000 pounds every two days.

His expenses keep rising. Diesel fuel doubled the past year. Since 2006, corn, soybean meal, and fertilizer to grow hay, barley and oats doubled, too.

He pays $30 every two days to truck his milk to Spartanburg, where it is processed for PET Milk.

Between milkings, he grows and harvests hay and grains for feed, which helps his budget. He bales and sells the hay that his cows don't eat, and he raises a few beef cows for auction.

He tends to sick cows unless they need a “real veterinarian.”

He mends fences, cleans all the milking equipment twice daily and makes his own repairs on farm machines. A lot can break down: Two weeks ago, the late-1960s combine Ralph Jr. bought in 1983 had a bearing wear out, then a belt break, then a blade split and finally a hydraulic hose blow.

After expenses, the farm hardly clears $30,000 a year.

“It's a hard life, and it's not lucrative,” said wife Debby, a “city girl” raised in the Midwest. “Roy's reward is keeping the family legacy going.

“It's also his burden.”

Staying at it

Debby works as a financial secretary at Olympic High for the health insurance and to supplement the family income. There's no mortgage, or car debt. Roy despises credit cards.

They live in Roy's grandparents' house, where Debby first saw her future husband in 1989 on a cold night standing by the fireplace. “He had this long beard and I thought, ‘Who is this? Grizzly Adams?'”

Debby admires his pluck. She's seen him milk cows on 3-degree mornings – with a brace protecting his injured back. She's seen him milking with the flu, walking outside to vomit, then returning.

She also knows the work kept him from seeing his daughter, Katherine, play softball last year.

“We talked about him giving up dairy farming and just raising beef cows. Roy didn't like that idea,” she said. “It makes him feel better to get milk from cows and not send them off for slaughter.”

So he keeps rising at 5. He flips the switch on the two naked bulbs that light his milking barn. He spreads feed in troughs, and assembles his milking machines. Then he goes to the pasture and calls “the ladies.”

Slowly, they appear from the darkness and amble to the barn. They find their familiar stalls and a breakfast of barley, soybean meal and molasses.

Milking takes 45 minutes.

It is that way every day. The cows need milking every 12 hours. He takes no vacation. Debby and the girls (Katherine, 13; Caroline, 8 and Alexandra, 14 months) go without him.

It took prostate cancer last year to get him to stop and let friends take turns milking. As part of his recovery, he and Debby went to Myrtle Beach for three days. But he spent the time worrying about his cows.

In Steele Creek, Roy's something of a folk hero.

“He's one of the last of the Mohicans,” said lifelong friend Eric Lanier, who grew up there. “His dad farmed; his grandpa done it. All of us are proud of what Roy does.”

Richard Edwards' family sold their farm in the 1970s to make way for Carowinds. He applauds Roy for staying at it.

“He's happy farming,” Edwards said. “The longer he keeps doing it, the more his land will bring.”

Enjoying the simple life

Every month, developers send offers to buy the farm.

Robert Grier said he and the other twin, Ralph, want to sell.

“But we know how much Roy enjoys it, so we don't push the subject,” said Robert, a retired banker. “I do think Roy thinks about it. He's got three daughters and the farm is very confining.”

Roy and Debby know the land's value. Real estate brokers familiar with Steele Creek, say an acre in a strong market would sell for $50,000.

“We could sell off a chunk of this land, and live pretty good,” Roy said. “But I don't want to live next to a shopping center. The airport's bad enough. You hear I-485 up there all night.”

They'd miss their simple life.

“Our daughters don't watch a lot of TV because there's so much to do outside,” Debby said. “A lot of people pay a ton of money for that simplicity.

“All you have to do is live Roy Grier's life.”