BANNER ELK – First-generation farmer Lee Rankin of Apple Hill Farm was recently announced as a finalist for North Carolina A&T State University’s Small Farmer of the Year Award.

Each year, the university’s cooperative extension presents the award to a small North Carolina farm who they recognize as an innovator in livestock or crop production and marketing, a contributor of time or resources towards community growth, a steward of the environment, or runs their farm in a wise, entrepreneurial manner.

Situated atop Valle Mountain just outside Banner Elk, Apple Hill Farm not only specializes in alpaca fleece products such as yarn, socks and winter glittens, but also has a strong focus on agritourism. Visitors to Apple Hill have the opportunity to participate in a 45-minute, guided walking tour where they will learn about the farm’s livestock and tidbits about agriculture.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Apple Hill Farm has had to make several adjustments in order to ensure the safety of both visitors and staff alike. These changes included reducing the size of their tours, mandating mask and implementing an online booking policy.

Though unsure if their commitment to agritourism is what led to their nomination, Rankin notes that she believes their tourism model is something that sets them apart as a business.

“I think that’s the cherry on top for who we are. We offer something that is very unique and very special,” said Rankin. “We are also involved in teaching other farmers about getting into agritourism.”

According to Rankin, Apple Hill staff led 1,100-plus tours of the farm this past year. Following a year fraught with challenges, the news of the farm’s nomination was a welcomed surprise to the Apple Hill staff.

“We are so excited, we work really really hard at what we do and to get that kind of recognition is huge,” said Rankin. “We’ve just come through a year where we’ve had to adapt in so many ways, it’s been a little emotionally difficult to navigate the year. So it comes at such a perfect time to have an acknowledgement when we’ve worked harder than ever.”

North Carolina A&T will announce the winner of the Small Farmer of the Year Award on March, 24, at 1 p.m. via livestream, part of the university’s Small Farm Week. To learn more about the Small Farm Week visit

To learn more about Apple Hill Farm visit Apple Hill Farm can also be found on social media at

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