Alum finds success and happiness in move from office to farm

November 19, 2013
By Bill Krueger

Richard Holcomb loved growing up around his family’s feeder pig farm in Whiteville, N.C. — so much so that he considered going into farming himself. When his family moved to Conway, S.C., he worked on local farms as hired help.

But when Holcomb graduated from high school in 1979, he says the conventional wisdom in farming was “get big or get out.”

“I got out,” he says.

He studied computer science at the University of South Carolina for three years and and then started his master’s in the same field at NC State in 1983. A year later, he left State to work in the software industry for more than two decades, founding and investing in more than 30 local software companies. Along the way, he returned to State and completed his master’s degree in in 1989.

“Software when I started it in my early 20s was really exciting,” Holcomb says. “The IBM PC had just been invented, things like Microsoft Windows had just come out. Everything was new — everything needed to be done. A small company with just a couple people could make a really big difference.”

But by the early 2000s, Holcomb says the industry had changed and the days of garage startups were all but gone. Much of his workdays were spent attending business meetings and watching PowerPoint presentations. Holcomb says it was time for him to change course.

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Richard Holcomb tending to the chickens (Photos courtesy of Jamie DeMent, Coon Rock Farm)

In 2004, he moved from his inside-the-Beltline home in Raleigh to the 65-acre Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, N.C. to get in on the local and organic farming movement.

“It was time for something new, and the organic and local farming movement was just starting to really take off,” Holcomb says. “I decided if I’m still young enough to make that move, I’ll follow what I wanted to do when I was 17. [Organic farming is] almost like being 20 again because it’s so exciting and fun to do. It doesn’t involve a lot of meetings and it never involves a PowerPoint.”

Today, Holcomb and his staff of five full-time employees and five to seven interns grow more than 100 varieties of heirloom vegetables without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. They also raise chickens and grass-fed livestock on the farm and on 300 acres of land in and around Orange County.

On the farm, sheep, pigs and cows are rotated through the gardens to eat weeds and provide natural fertilizer for the crops.

Holcombchickens“Although it’s the farming they used to do 1,000 years ago, it’s exciting and fresh,” Holcomb says. “There’s a lot of new, young people getting into it and the market is growing very rapidly.”

With the ramped-up use of pesticides and genetically modified crops in mainstream agriculture, Holcomb says the growing popularity of organic foods is due largely to health concerns.

“You can look at different scientific studies if you want,” he says, “but at the common sense level, if I’m spraying something on a plant that’s going to kill a bug and then I’m going to eat the plant, is it going to kill me?”

Holcomb purchased a farm-to-table restaurant in Durham, N.C. called Piedmont in 2010 and a produce delivery service called Bella Bean Organics in 2012. According to Holcomb, Coon Rock Farm makes an estimated 500-1,000 shipments each week through Bella Bean and Community Supported Agriculture, another delivery service. Coon Rock also sells produce and meats at various Triangle farmers’ markets.

Holcomb sheepHolcomb says he’s committed to showing that it’s possible to eat local, healthy and organic foods year round, even if it means getting up early on a cold January morning or working through a hot summer afternoon. Although he admits working in extreme heat and cold is one of the hardest parts of his job, Holcomb says days when the weather is just right are by far the best and most rewarding.

“Seventy degrees. The sun’s not too bright, but it’s not cloudy. It’s perfect to be outside planting seed or picking okra or riding the tractor,” Holcomb says. “It’s days like this that make farming worthwhile.”

—Alex Sanchez

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