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Franklin County’s Farming Matriarch Paves The Way For Women-Led Agriculture: Meet Martha Mobley

News & Observer
Martha Mobley's father milked 23 cows before going to school each day. Once Martha was old enough, she took over. Now managing her family farm, Mobley rears Angus cattle for meat and keep four Jersey cows as "pets".

Martha Mobley just cannot stay away from the farm. She grew up on a 1,000 acre livestock operation in Franklin County started by her grandfather in the early 1900s. Some of her earliest memories are of joining her father to deliver sows in a building still standing behind their house. Even when she went away to college at North Carolina State University, she traveled back home every weekend to tend to the livestock. Since her husband passed away in 2013, she has been managing the Meadow Lane Farm operation by herself. Mobley is grateful for an upbringing full of hands-on training, but — thanks to the precedent her mother set as a farmer, teacher, and pilot — she knows that it is not enough to focus on just her own farm’s success. She is on the board for the Durham Farmers' Market and is Franklin County's livestock and beekeeping extension agent. Each year, she also hosts Dinner in the Meadow, a farm-to-table gala on her family's farm to fundraise for small farmers.

Carrying on her mother's dedication to women's education, Mobley also teaches and brings together women farmers across the state. The most recent outgrowth of the Women in Agriculture program is a forest stewardship called ForestHer. There is a sense of urgency to Mobley's inexhaustible enterprising. While she draws hope from the local food movement, Mobley feels that small farmers are always on the brink and that political and economic changes can quickly lead to abandoned farms. Host Frank Stasio talks with Mobley about women's role in shaping a promising future for North Carolina agriculture.

A young woman in an NC State beanie and full denim arranges flowers on a table next to a burning fireplace.
Credit Courtesy of Martha Mobley
Courtesy of Martha Mobley
Mobley was an early proponent for agritourism, hosting weddings on the family farm. Above, sixteen year-old Mobley arranges flowers in the guest cabin she now lives in.


On the history of her family farm:

Where I work now, as an extension office, was the grazing land for the dairy. That dairy furnished milk for Louisburg College and the town of Louisburg with the milk in a cart and a milkman that made those deliveries back in those days … Then [my family] farmed seed corn and also tobacco … They really got into livestock when they got out of the tobacco … They actually stopped all of the tobacco in 1977 when I went to college ... I was one of their main labor forces. And I would run the machinery and kept the looper. We did tobacco the old way with the stick barns … I remember trucking, not with tractors, but with mules that were voice trained that did not need a truck driver. We would just tell them to come up and then to stop. Then the men would put the tobacco in the wagons.

Credit Marion Wolcott Post, for United States Farm Security Administration / Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Farmhands loaded tobacco onto driverless wagons on Mobley's family farm. The only issue, Mobley explains, was turning the mules around.


Credit Courtesy of Martha Mobley
Courtesy of Martha Mobley
Mobley's mother, Marjorie, was a pilot, an advocate for women's education, and a home economics teacher for 42 years in Franklin County.

On women in agriculture:

In 2015, I started a group ... It was a three-month series on women in the woods. A lot of these older women such as myself, even younger women, they are widows. And they were being taken advantage of when they came to sell their timber. And timber is normally a one-time sale, you know, in your lifetime is a one-generation sale. So they had a huge investment there … [I] wanted to make sure they had the proper training, not just with marketing timber, but knowing about diseases and how to plan … And then when the three months was over, they didn't want to stop ... So I said: Okay, we'll do a very informal meeting once a month … We bring in guest speakers of whatever topics they want to know about. But we have also taken travel trips, you know, to a cut-flower symposium in Virginia, or wherever they want to go to learn a new part of agriculture and adding value. We are in an ideal situation in Franklin County, only 30 minutes from Raleigh. So we have a lot of opportunity to market. 

On the threat of rural real estate development:

A lot of my farmers are being pressured now, especially with the proposed four-lane road, which is a blessing, and then it can be a negative to some of the agricultural land. But the land is being developed. I was able to find one little sliver of land this past year that was owned by two absentee landowners … but I had to pay residential real estate prices … So that's what a lot of farmers are facing … The farmers are getting older … Some of them do not want to keep the land… [The] quick money is development.

On helping struggling farmers:

I've been woken up at 4 a.m. in the morning by one of my farmers that had big poultry houses and they say: Martha, help me. I have lost my contract with this big company. What am I going to do? I've just borrowed $40,000, to do what they told me to do to put in new waters, new field lands, what am I going to do with this big house. And this is how I make my living … I'm calling the university specialist and saying: Is there any other way that this farmer can keep his facility going?

On migrant farmworkers:

This story is not being told. They are just talking about the illegal immigrants here .... But I've been dealing legally since 2012 ... And I asked [Mario] if he wants to come and help us on our farm as an H2A worker … But in the last several years we've been trying to get his legal status so he can stay here year round ... I have been through four immigration attorneys, I've spent over $20,000 trying to make it legal, and the process has taken forever. We are right now in the final stages and this team of immigration consultants with the government — my life is in their hands. His life is in their hands.

Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

[Mario] is the manager on my farm. He works with my other H2A workers. He knows everything about my farm. So I can be an extension agent. I can work night meetings, whatever weekends, I can be an extension agent. [If Mario had to leave] my farm would have to shut down and a lot of other farmers would have to shut down. Who is going to go out there when it's 100 degrees ... And go out there and harvest these vegetables? … We cannot do without them … I think that they should be allowed, personally, to have an easier route to be documented. 


Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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