Modern Homesteading in the Blue Ridge Mountains

As America becomes more aware of our food and more concerned for our land, our rural counties have seen resurgence in farming the old way. From crop rotation and small-scale butchering to backyard chickens and root cellars, a new homesteading generation has been rediscovering the wisdom of old ways through modern technology. It’s created a whole upsurge of folks who are working the land with a longer view and a different outlook that harks back to traditional agrarian values of living in harmony with the land.

At the center of this movement is Josh Draper, known to his massive YouTube channel audience as the Stoney Ridge Farmer. Raised on a 350-acre cattle farm in Virginia, but stuck on 1/3 of an urban acre beekeeping and raising organic veggies, Draper had a vision to return to country life in a big way. He and his wife took the leap of ownership of 200 acres of brushy, overgrown former tobacco farmland in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains with a long-term vision to return the raw land to health, prosperity and sustainability. Through more than 600 entertaining and informative videos he’s documented the never-ending journey of working the land back into productive harmony.

Bruce Mitchell in Liberty bibs

"That's kind of the farm thing - there is a journey and it's from start to never-ever finished"

Bruce Mitchell in Liberty bibs

Where did this all start?

I told my wife on my first date that I wanted to get back to the country. I wanted to move back closer to home, closer to my parents. I asked all of my patients if they had any land for sale and one of my patients said “yeah, me”.

We came and looked at this patch of land. It was grown up with brush and briars and pine trees. You couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you. So we bought it and we proceed to start clearing land and in the meantime 90 acres across the road came for sale. It was a brushy mess also with a little bit of timber on it. And lo and behold 40 acres came up for sale right beside it. Now we’re close to 200 acres of land and we’ve been clearing new pastures and building fences and chasing the dream. It went from a 1/3 of an acre to 200 acres really quick.

What role did the YouTube videos play?

I was doing a lot of stuff that I had looked up YouTube videos on. I was doing a lot of cool stuff and I thought that people would want to know about this—what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and how we’re bringing the land back. So I started the YouTube channel and the rest is history.

Now I’m 100 percent employed by the farm with YouTube being a major supporter of that cause. There was a move back to country and it was a calling. So now I’m an advocate for farmers and advocate for veterans. I’m the go-to guy for folks that want to buy a crappy piece of land and build it.

Did you have an idea of what you were getting into when you dove in?

I had an idea of what I was getting into and I don’t sit still very good anyway. It was right up my alley, it was a challenge. I’d taken my 1/3 of an acre in my crummy house and made it into something awesome and beautiful and increased the value of the property a ton in two years without hardly spending a dime, just using some organic gardening techniques, a little paint, a little of this, a little of that.

I didn’t know what I was quite getting into the spread I’m into now. Never would of thought I’d be this overwhelmed and this entertained—having such a good time doing it. It’s just fun to live the dream of agriculture.

What strikes a chord with others about what you are doing?

People see what I am doing on the farm—and that take the time to follow what we are doing—are learning a lot, are absorbing a lot. They are enjoying the journey from start to never ever, ever, ever being finished. That’s kind of the farm thing. There is a journey and it’s from start to never-ever finished. There is so, so much to do here.

Any good Liberty stories?

I actually proposed to my wife in a pair of Liberty overalls. I was in my backyard working in the garden, covered with dirt from head to toe, stinking and nasty. I had the ring in my pocket so long I broke the box. And finally, I was like I’ve got to do this man. So I walked up to her in my bib overalls and proposed to her on the back porch covered in dirt. I didn’t want to start this under any false pretenses.

What was the vision for the farm from the beginning?

When we first bought our property, our idea was to raise some pastured poultry for meat and to have mobile chicken coops for eggs. We would graze the cows and move in the chickens behind the cows. That was the goal and we haven’t lost sight of the goal. We’re establishing pastures and we built two miles of fence two weeks ago and we’ll be building three more miles of fence before it’s all done.

The goal is to have a working cattle farm with poultry, cattle, pigs—the whole works. It was a former tobacco farm that they stopped farming fifteen to thirteen years ago. No topsoil whatsoever. So it’s all a soil building exercise right now and hopefully we can get the four-legged lawn mowers in here to mow and produce some fertilizer for us.

Why traditional farming?

When I was 28 years old I thought about how I could make an ecosystem on a small piece of property and now we’ve taken it to a larger piece of property with an ecosystem. Basically the ecosystem is herbivores cruising the land, mowing for us and producing butt fertilizer—that’s what we call it on the YouTube channel—then the poultry comes in behind there.

Our product will be a grass-fed beef of high quality and pastured chicken of high quality. The whole system here is geared to be a self-sustaining system where we are not bringing any seed or any fertilizers into the farm, we’re only bringing things out of the farm.

Why is there such interest in that style of farming?

I think that people see that it is not right to have a monoculture, it’s not right to dump chemicals on the land and watch the land explode with growth for four weeks and then die back down. There’s a calling to keep our streams clean and to keep pollutants down—and to reduce our dependence on the oil, on petroleum products. Reclaiming the atmosphere, reclaiming the land, reclaiming the air, reclaiming the creeks, and reclaiming the rivers. There’s proof in the pudding everyday when there is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from all the fertilizers that are running off the land from all the floods we’re having.

You’ll never meet a guy who is more concerned about the health of his land over a short-term period than a commercial farmer, but you’ll never see someone more concerned about the health of their land in the long-term than somebody like me. A short-term goal would be to get this crop out this year, a long-term goal would be to get this crop out in fifteen years and to continue to make it sustainable. A lot of factory farms don’t do that—they look at the goal at the end of the year. We’re not looking at the bottom line on this farm, we’re looking at the bigger picture.

Do you have to be more self-reliant with what you are doing?

There is an element of being self-reliant on our farms and there is an element of teaching other people to be self-reliant on their farms or just a smaller piece of property. On the YouTube channel we teach people how to process their meat bird chickens, we teach them how to process meat. Simple as it sounds—but how to grow grass.

Or how to use a chainsaw?

It’s a lost art and everybody knows how to do it better than you do.

Did it surprise you that traditional methods and modern technology would come together around the YouTube channel?

It did. In no way did I anticipate YouTube taking off the way it did. It became an addiction, an obsession. The first video I posted was me working on my tractor—and I believe I had a pair of Liberty overalls on in that video. I was sharpening the bush hog on my tractor and the video got 250 views in the first week. It was like playing a poker hand that always wins. I had no idea you could make money at this.

What has the community been like that you’ve built around the channel?

Most people are very, very supportive. If you do make it bigger there are always people who are going to try and tear you apart—there are a lot of haters, there’s a lot of negativity. Learning how to deal with that negativity was one of the hardest parts of having a YouTube channel. Maintaining your integrity and maintaining who you are and not letting the people who are trying to be against you win by getting to you. That’s the hardest part. You ask ten farmers the same question; they’re going to give you ten different answers. I get those ten answers times one thousand with every video I post.

What are you most proud of on the farm?

Every morning when I wake up and look out my window I can see what it used to be and I can see what it is now. Every day I am more and more proud of what we do. It may be a frustrating day and there may be something frustrating going on, but at the end of every day on the farm, every time I lift my finger, I know it’s going to be a better place and a more beautiful place and a great place to raise a family and a great lifestyle.

There is stuff going on all around you all the time, you just don’t see it unless you stop every once and a while.