Shipley farm

Watauga County’s longtime civic and agricultural leader, Robert G. Shipley Sr., at 103, is pictured back on the family farm with his son, Bob, and grandson, Gray. The Shipley Farm will be a featured stop on the upcoming farm tour sponsored by the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture.

Robert “R.G.” Shipley is celebrating 103 years of life on his family farm in Vilas this week, returning to the land that he has loved for decades.

Following two years in Raleigh with his son, Bob, after the death of his beloved wife, Agnes, Shipley is glad to be home again, if just for a short while.

This week, he was eagerly awaiting family members for a belated birthday gathering and another occasion to honor their heritage.

Overlooking the pastoral scene from his mountaintop home, Shipley reminisces about days gone by on the 115-acre farm, established by his ancestors in 1872 and recognized by the N.C. Department of Agriculture as one of the state’s “Century Farms.”

It’s especially poignant now that his fields are grazed by cattle once again, and will be a featured stop on the Saturday, July 18, farm tour, sponsored by Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture.

That idea delights Shipley, who, as the patriarch of three generations of cattle farmers, has long been revered for his expertise.

Livestock and leadership

With a lifetime of agricultural leadership locally and statewide, and national recognition more than once, Shipley was 101 when he was honored during the livestock show at the North Carolina State Fair, where, many years prior, he was among the first class of inductees into the N.C. Carolina Livestock Hall of Fame. He is also a longstanding member of the WNC Agriculture Hall of Fame.

An innovative farmer, Shipley was inspired by his father, the late W. E. Shipley, who brought the first registered Hereford to North Carolina nearly 120 years ago, walking the bull behind a buggy from Virginia to their Valle Crucis farm.

Shipley was born in Valle Crucis, one of seven children to William Edwin and Minnie Woodie Shipley.

His father did quite well in the cattle business, he said, until about 1918.

“My father signed several bank notes for other farmers right before the cattle business declined,” Shipley said. “The farmers could not pay off their loans and neither could my father.”

His father lost his farm while trying to help others, but later acquired another.

Shipley was a fourth-grader when his family moved near Bristol, Va., where he became involved in 4-H. He made an impression on his leader, who later helped him get his first job, in 1929, with the dairy department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, now Virginia Tech.

Shipley worked his way through college, hand milking cows and maintaining records in the experimental station. He became a proficient dairy judge, tying for second place in a national judging contest.

Aspiring to become a veterinarian, he graduated college in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in animal husbandry. He worked hard, attended summer sessions and became eligible for two additional degrees. “But, administration said it wouldn’t look good on them if they let me have them all,” he said.

He began his teaching career in vocational agriculture at the Patterson School, assisted with the school’s 1,300-acre farm and oversaw the dairy operations.

In 1934, he transferred to Boone High School, which became Appalachian High, where he started the first agriculture program.

Four years later, he moved to Augusta, Va., where he taught while continuing his education.

In 1940, he received his master’s degree in agriculture from Ohio State University and accepted work as an agriculture extension agent in Grayson County, Va., where he met Agnes Davis. They married in 1942.

In 1943, Shipley entered the Air Force, served as a gunnery instructor on a B-24 bomber and was later assigned to the first hydroponics detachment in the South Atlantic’s Ascension Island.

Upon discharge, Shipley accepted a temporary teaching position in Cove Creek, teaching vocational agriculture; after consolidation, he retired from Watauga High in 1977.

He also conducted a veteran’s farm training program at the school two nights a week, with, at one time, 120 men enrolled and six instructors.

Shipley believed in giving students hands-on opportunities and kept them in the fields, enrolled in competitions at state fairs and on educational trips to New Mexico and Canada.

Many of his students — today’s farmers, lawyers, economists, teachers and doctors — credit Shipley for their success.

Shipley raised livestock, was active in organizing the Watauga County Hereford Association and served several terms as president and vice president of the N.C. Hereford Association.

He was requested by the N.C. Future Farmers of America to select bulls in Texas to improve the state’s livestock.

Shipley was also an expert in sheep, having raised and showed them and taught sheep shearing. He led three students to win national shearing contests and served multiple terms as president of the N.C. Sheep Producers Association. He operated a sheep dipping business for many years to help local sheep breeders control parasites.

He raised horses and through the Cove Creek FFA organized and managed the Cove Creek Horse Show for 20 years.

Shipley has been a Grange member for many years, helping launch the local chapter, and was honored in 1998 by the N.C. Grange with the Grange Community Award.

A longtime member of Watauga Farm Bureau board, Shipley served as president and state delegate to multiple national conventions.

He raised burley tobacco and served many years on the board of directors for the Burley Stabilization Corporation for North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. He chaired the N.C. Tobacco Growers and the county and community committee of the Farm Service Agency and served on the board for the Council of Burley Tobacco, Lexington, Ky.

Agriculture and education were always important to the Shipleys, who both taught in public schools until their retirement.

In 2007, the couple was honored at the Watauga County Farm City’s 50th anniversary with the establishment of the Robert and Agnes Shipley Foundation.

For more than 50 years, Shipley was involved with the Watauga County Farm Bureau, Rotary (60-plus years), Ruritan, Burley Stabilization Corporation and Henson’s Chapel Methodist Church.

The Shipleys loved to travel and toured Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South America and Europe.

Together, they had three children, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The Shipleys often attributed farm life for developing a good work ethic in their children, which is evident today.

Back to their roots

Not only does the Shipley family return for special occasions to the mountain home, but they have recently returned the land to a beef producing enterprise.

With the guidance of his father, Bob Shipley, and his son, Gray, established Shipley Farms LLC two years ago.

“Dad is our consultant and we are building off of his legacy,” Bob said. “He is still quite sharp, with a lot of good insight into the business.”

The Shipley farm is once again producing beef, in particular hormone and steroid free pasture raised beef, becoming widely known throughout the Southeast as “R.G. Shipley Signature Beef.”

It’s all about “coming back to my roots,” said Bob, who grew up in his father’s shadow; his son’s background is in agri-science.

“We’ve got our feet on the ground and now have our second set of steers in the pasture,” Bob said. “We are able to provide a healthier, tastier beef for those who are health conscious and appreciate understanding what goes into its production.”

It’s not a large commercial business, by any means, he said, adding with a laugh, “We don’t think we will disrupt Omaha Steaks anytime soon.”

The family is pleased to participate in the upcoming farm tour.

“Dad is a big part of the reason we decided to do it,” Bob said. “He is a great historian and we know that a number of folks will be glad for the opportunity to visit with him and glean a bit of farm knowledge from him.”

On Aug. 8, the Shipleys will host another tour for existing customers, friends and folks who want to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with their farming family.

Few, if any other Watauga County residents, have had a greater impact on local agriculture and community development than has Robert Gray Shipley Sr., a great civic leader, teacher, visionary and steward of the land, many agree.

For more information about the Shipleys, visit www.facebook.com/ShipleyFarmsBeef.

For more information about the upcoming farm tour, visit www.farmtour.brwia.org.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.