Duke University Alumni Magazine

June 1, 1999






KEEPING NATURE'S BALANCE
JAMES COMAN III
BY TOM PATTERSON

Photo: Bob Bamberg

The practices of a sheep rancher and farmer are consistent with his deeply held environmental convictions.

t's a gorgeous, mild, late-summer afternoon in Alleghany County, North Carolina. The crystal-blue sky is almost cloudless, and sprays of newly blossomed goldenrod are intermingled with the tiny white flowering tops of Queen Anne's lace alongside the gravel lane that leads from a winding two-lane blacktop highway onto Stoney Knob Farm, 211 secluded acres of hilly pastureland and woods located about a mile from the New River and adjoining the Virginia state line.

James Coman III '69, M.F. '71, who bought this place and moved here from the North Carolina Piedmont a dozen years ago, stands on a steep hillside about a hundred yards below the rocky peak for which he named the farm. He surveys the idyllic domain where he lives and tends his flock of some 335 sheep. To a visitor's untrained eye, it might look like paradise, but Coman picks out the scrubby brownish grass and other signs of a summer-long drought that has plagued this part of North Carolina and much of the rest of the Southeast.

"Usually the pastures look a lot better than this," he says, "but it's been an extremely dry, hot summer. There hasn't been enough grass to feed the lambs in the last month, so I've got them penned up and on a special diet of high-protein feed."

Coman is neatly dressed in suede work boots, faded blue jeans, and a long-sleeved, forest-green sport shirt. His salt-and-pepper crewcut is covered by a khaki baseball cap emblazoned with a Nature Conservancy logo. Scanning the rugged Blue Ridge mountain landscape to the south and west, he points out a cleft between forested ridges that marks the winding path of the New River. Despite its name, it's the second oldest river in the world, a waterway whose preservation has become a major concern for Coman in the years since he moved to this part of his home state. Threats to the river's ecosystem have led him to take an increasingly strong role as an environmental activist.

After gazing toward the riverbed for a moment, he turns his eyes upward and takes note of a solitary bird gliding back and forth in the azure sky. Even before taking up his binoculars, he recognizes it as an accipiter and, more specifically, a Cooper's hawk, identifiable by its size, its slightly rounded tail, and the distinctive brown-and-white-striped pattern on the underside of its wings.

"I knew there was a hawk around here somewhere," he announces, "because you don't hear any birds calling, and that's unusual for this time of the year and this time of day."

Coman has been raising sheep and watching birds for most of his life, ever since he was a child growing up on a small farm near Hillsborough, North Carolina. "Despite my faults," he says, "I've got a lot of determination, and I'm bullheaded. I've had several main interests just about all my life--sheep, farming, land preservation, and birding--and I've just followed those interests and kept at it."

Even while attending Duke, Coman was immersed in the pursuit of these same interests. As a day student who commuted to the university from the family farm in nearby Orange County, he chose to major in forestry. "I was probably the only student who's gone to Duke while taking care of a flock of sheep," he says. "One day I had an exam, and that morning the 1949 Dodge I usually drove to school wouldn't start. So I got on our twenty-some-year-old, two-cylinder John Deere Model B tractor and chugged in to school at seventeen miles an hour."

Coman acknowledges that he was something of a misfit at Duke during that politically charged era of radicalism on American college campuses. "I was the archetypal square peg in a round hole. I'm very conservative in many ways, and I was very disaffected with campus life and student attitudes, but I stayed for five and a half years and got my master's degree. Like I said, I'm bullheaded."


Coman's ties to Duke go back two generations on both sides of his family. His paternal grandfather, James Hilary Coman, grew up in the mountains of Haywood County, in southwestern North Carolina, and, after finishing high school in 1911, walked some 250 miles to Durham to enroll at what was then Trinity College. After earning a degree in physics and serving a military stint in World War I, he worked for about three years as an associate professor in the physics department at Trinity before resigning to take a higher-paying managerial job at Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. When James Coman's mother, Billie Crouse, was a child, her own widowed mother married A.S. Brower, who was comptroller at Duke from the mid-1930s until the late Fifties. The family lived in the house where the Duke alumni office and the editorial offices of this magazine are now headquartered. Coman's parents met while they were students at Durham High School. After graduating, they both enrolled at Duke; she took a pre-med curriculum and he majored in forestry.

Coman's father, J.H. Coman Jr. '42, joined the Navy and served out the remainder of World War II as a lieutenant on a destroyer that patrolled sections of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Discharged at the war's end, he returned to Durham, helped his own father start a lumber company there, and married Coman's mother. The third James Hilary Coman was born in Durham in October 1947. About two years later, his parents decided they wanted to live in a more rural setting. That decision led them to buy the seventy-five-acre Orange County farm where the younger Coman would spend the remainder of his childhood and early adulthood, by which time his father's purchase of an adjoining land tract had enlarged the farm to 150 acres.

"My father had every intention of building up the farm to the point that he could get out of the lumber business," Coman explains, noting that, as things turned out, his father didn't actually retire until 1985. "It wasn't long before he had a hundred sheep, a hundred and fifty hogs, and some horses. We decided that hogs were too much trouble, so we sold them. We kept the sheep."

Coman joined the Orange County 4-H Club upon entering elementary school in the fall of 1953. Before he finished second grade, he assumed full responsibility for the sheep on his family's farm as a 4-H project, and he single-handedly fed and cared for them for thirteen years. In 1967, with his studies at Duke occupying more of his time and his father busy running the lumber company in Durham, he and his parents decided to disperse the flock.

When Coman graduated with his master's in forestry and forest management, he entered a job market that was almost impossibly tight. Richard Nixon had begun his first term as president two years earlier vowing to balance the federal budget and, with that aim in mind, had greatly reduced the staff of the U.S. Forest Service. As a result, Coman and other graduates of forestry schools across the country found themselves competing for jobs with longtime Forest Service veterans.

Having decided against pursuing a Ph.D., Coman says he felt that, under these circumstances, he was limited to two options: military service, most likely in the Vietnam War, or going to work for his father in the retail lumber business. He was deferred from the draft due to a history of debilitating migraine headaches and a spinal injury he had sustained in a childhood fall from a rope swing.


Photo: Bob Bamberg

At the time, the U.S. Army was recruiting foresters to work on the deforestation of Southeast Asia. Coman almost certainly would have been accepted as a volunteer in that effort, but he says he found the prospect horrifying. So he spent the next six years working in the family lumberyard in Durham. He started his own landscaping and grounds-maintenance business as a sideline.

He continued to live with his parents during those years so he could save enough money to buy a small farm of his own, and he spent most of his spare time traveling around eastern North Carolina in search of available farmland. In 1977, he found Melrose, a 160-acre farm in Caswell County, only thirty miles from his homeplace. The land hadn't been tended since the 1920s, and the 200-year-old farmhouse was somewhat deteriorated. But Coman saw a lot of potential in the place and invested everything he had to meet the $145,000 asking price.

That same year, he won a contract from Central Carolina Bank to maintain the grounds of all its branch banks in the surrounding Piedmont region. The resulting guarantee of a steady income enabled him to leave his lumber company job and become fully self-employed. He hired a small crew of workers to assist him in fulfilling the CCB contract, and for the remainder of the Seventies, any time and energy he didn't devote to supervising their efforts went into restoring the house, fields, and pastures at Melrose.

One of Coman's intentions in establishing himself at Melrose was to start a containerized nursery that would augment his landscaping work. He soon abandoned that plan because of increasing domination of the nursery business by large-scale operations with which he felt ill-equipped to compete.

His other agricultural goal was a return to his childhood specialty of raising sheep. Soon after he bought the place, he acquired a flock of about forty sheep that grew to nearly 100 within three years. At first he marketed the wool they produced by attending regional craft fairs and selling it from the back of a pickup truck. Then in 1982, he incorporated this enterprise as Caswell Sheep and Wool Company and began selling to retailers within a 300-mile radius. This expansion of his wool-marketing business came about as an indirect result of a serious bout of heatstroke he suffered in the summer of that year. That episode caused him to scale back and eventually terminate his work as a landscaping contractor. It also led him to start thinking about moving to where the climate was milder during the summer months.

By this time, Coman had restored the farmhouse at Melrose, filled it with an impressive collection of antiques, and arranged for it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "I had put a great deal of effort into it and turned it into a showplace," he says. "But I was beginning to decide I wanted less show and more place." Standing on the hillside overlooking his present farm in northwestern North Carolina, he smiles with satisfaction and says, "This fits the bill nicely, I think."

"When I decided to move to the mountains," he says, "I looked from Asheville to Staunton, and the more I got to know about Alleghany County, the more impressed I was. What I was looking for when I came here was a decent community, good pastureland, reasonable land prices, and a cooler climate. I subscribed to local newspapers in different mountain communities and began talking to chambers of commerce. I talked to people in adjacent communities and asked them about their neighboring counties. And I kept hearing the same thing about Alleghany County: 'There's almost no industry there, and there's a limited infrastructure, but the people are nice folks.' So I looked around, and that's my opinion, too.

"I first saw this farm in 1985, and I thought I could make something out of it. I bought it in part because it's virtually invisible from the road. It was originally used for dairy cattle and riding ponies, but in the late 1970s, it was rented out for beef cattle, and there were way too many of them for a farm of this size. That and several years of drought in the early Eighties had left the place pretty well picked barren when I bought it in 1986. It was covered in broomsedge and blackberries and not much else. It took four years for the native pasture to recover."

Coman's Alleghany County farm is situated on the outskirts of Piney Creek, an unincorporated community of about 150. "Piney Creek is a place that's special in the late twentieth century. It's as much a state of mind as it is anything else." When he bought the farm, it included a large, red dairy barn, a few smaller outbuildings, and an old farmhouse that had been so badly vandalized that he was unable to restore it. He disassembled the house and used much of the salvaged lumber in the 1,400-square-foot, log-walled home he designed and--with the help of two or three additional construction workers--built for himself in a grove of apple trees that were once part of a larger orchard on the hillside below Stoney Knob.

Ten years later, he designed and built a major addition that doubled the size of the house so that his parents could move in with him. They had sold their farm in Orange County in 1987 and bought a home in Sparta, the Alleghany County seat, less than twenty miles from Coman's farm. A massive stroke in the spring of 1996 had left his mother bedridden, and his father needed help caring for her.

Every year since Coman restored it, Stoney Knob Farm has produced about 100 tons of mixed orchard grass and white clover hay, a small crop of ornamental gourds, and some pine-tree trimmings for use in making Christmas wreaths. He occasionally sells a small amount of timber as well. But the farm's primary enterprise has been direct marketing of sheep fleeces to individual craftsmen and lambs to members of growing Muslim communities in the North Carolina Piedmont, whose dietary customs include a preference for fresh lamb meat. The sheep he currently maintains are descended from those he bought more than twenty years ago for his farm in Caswell County. The flock is now sufficiently large and healthy to produce about 2,400 pounds of wool a year. "It's a calm, healthy, crossbred flock," he says. "They know the farm and they know me. It's easier to work with calm animals."

Coman's farming practices are consistent with his interest in preserving wildlife habitats, his concern for water quality, and his other deeply held environmental convictions. He supplies his sheep with water in gravity-fed basins from two small ponds on his property. Strategically placed fences keep the flock out of the small creeks that traverse his farm. A number of the wooden fence posts are surmounted by birdhouses regularly used by nesting bluebirds, kestrels, and wood ducks.

"Here I am making a modest living on a farm," he says, "and I'm convinced that I do not have to contribute to any water-quality problems, unlike many agricultural operations today. Not only am I making a living here, but I'm managing a flock of sheep under a rough approximation of natural conditions. I'm careful about my carrying capacity and about moving my sheep from paddock to paddock so that I don't damage my pasture. And in the past twelve years, this farm has become much more biologically diverse than it was when I bought it. I've been a member of the Carolina Bird Club for years, and we have an informal competition to see which member can identify the largest number of different bird species in his backyard. Stoney Knob Farm holds the state record. I've recorded 172 species within ten years. Admittedly, I've got a bigger backyard than most people, but this is an area that's not known to be ornithologically unusual."

Aside from his ecologically sound farming practices, Coman has backed up his strong environmental convictions through his longtime involvement in organizations that promote the preservation of land and wildlife. He has been a member of the National Audubon Society since he was eighteen years old. From 1967 until he left Orange County in 1986, he was active in the Eno River Association, which supports conservation of land along the Eno River near Durham and Hillsborough. Since moving to Alleghany County, he has worked closely with several groups committed to preserving land in the surrounding mountain region.

The National Committee for the New River (NCNR), in particular, has been the beneficiary of Coman's considerable energy. This nonprofit river advocacy organization was founded in 1973 to stop the proposed construction of two hydroelectric dams that would have flooded some 40,000 acres in Alleghany and adjacent counties along the New River in both North Carolina and Virginia. Its preventive effort succeeded in 1976, when President Gerald Ford designated the targeted section of the New as a National Wild and Scenic River.


"I became a member of NCNR in the late Eighties, not long after I moved here," says Coman. "Initially, I was most concerned with the water-quality and wildlife-habitat aspects of the river, but in the early Nineties, we began to see a quantum increase in second-home development along the river. As this development juggernaut began to gather steam, the preservation of riverfront land came to the fore as a major concern."

By the time he joined the NCNR in 1989, its membership had declined from a high of about 2,000 in the 1970s to only about fifty. Then, in 1990, the organization was reorganized and belatedly incorporated as a land trust so that it could buy or accept donations of conservation easements restricting the development of designated parcels of land along the New. The decrease in membership had begun to reverse itself by July 1994 when Coman was hired as the NCNR's executive director. His chief responsibilities in that full-time, salaried position were to continue rebuilding the organization's membership, diversify its funding base, and create an endowment. He was successful in all three areas during his three-year tenure at NCNR's helm, and he was able to make the organization "a land trust in fact as well as in name."

Membership increased to nearly 900, average individual dues rose from $9 to $27, and income from sources other than grant awards escalated from 3.5 to 44 percent of the budget. Also during Coman's term as executive director, an NCNR member gave the organization a tract of land appraised at $449,000. Coman negotiated the sale of the tract so that the proceeds could be used to establish an endowment. In order to ensure that the tract wouldn't be intensely developed, a conservation easement limited its future uses to farming and forestry.

After leaving his paid position with the NCNR in early 1997, he served as a consultant to the organization, helping to negotiate the donation of several new conservation easements. He also assisted in forming the New River Heritage Task Force (NRHTF), which was organized later that year to promote the designation of the New River as a National Heritage River, under a new federal program. That program was designed, in his words, "to help local communities in specially designated river basins lift themselves up by their own bootstraps through community development programs involving sustainable agricultural projects, the funding of easements on threatened properties, and the revitalization of downtown areas." Thanks in part to Coman's efforts, the New won recognition under the program the following year, and at this writing the task force is working with a federal employee assigned to help implement the program in communities along the river.

Coman's interest in land preservation isn't limited to his own farm and acreage immediately adjoining the New River. In addition to his work with these river-advocacy groups, he is a founding member and steering-committee chairman of a relatively new organization called the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust, which works to preserve productive farm and forest lands in northwestern North Carolina, as well as the rural communities these lands support. "We're approaching this on a very local basis," he says of his latest land preservation project, "with neighbors talking to neighbors about conservation easements and the land trust program. We have a growing network of locally respected people representing us on these issues. I'm well placed to work on this, and I want to put half of my time into it over the next ten years."

Why does he believe this effort is so important? "With much of the agriculture in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain rapidly going under corporate control, family farming is making its last stand here in Appalachia," he says. "We've had a tremendous increase in the level of land development that's going on in the mountains in the past six or seven years. And since Alleghany and most other mountain counties have no planning ordinances, this is leading to real problems for the future. The extremely low dairy prices that we've seen in recent years are putting farm families under a lot of pressure to sell their land. We've got to make sure the remaining land here is not cut into half-acre lots. If current land-use trends continue, we're going to lose all our remaining open space within fifty years. So we need to do something about this as a society.

"I'm proud of and happy with my land-trust work. I've been successful at it because I can take a farmer's viewpoint and talk to other landowners in ways that they understand."

Coman's first-hand understanding of the farmer's viewpoint includes a keen awareness of the hardships and occasional indignities that come with the territory. In that connection, he recalls an experience from the particularly severe winter that Alleghany County saw in 1996. "We had had a small snowfall, and it was followed by three ice storms. There was a three-inch layer of ice everywhere. One night at about nine, it was pitch-black and about two degrees above zero, and I was walking on the ice with a kerosene lantern in my hand, trying to get to the barn, where there were two ewes lambing. A third one was out in the corral on a slope. So I creep out on that icy slope and I fall flat on my back. The lantern shatters and I slide down that slope and right up against that ewe. The only other light is from a sixty-watt bulb about a hundred yards away in the barn. My head hurts. And I begin to rethink this whole farming situation."

He shakes his head and chuckles. "And as I'm lying there thinking, 'This can't get much worse,' that old ewe turns around and pisses right on my chest."

That incident and other similarly discouraging experiences might have deterred less bullheaded individuals, but Coman has maintained his commitment to the rural lifestyle he chose long ago. "I know the attitudes of most Duke graduates are not quite mine," he says. "A lot of the things I've done have been worthwhile and rewarding, but most of the rewards haven't necessarily been financial. I'm not living in a $600,000 house with a Mercedes and servants. I'm not independently wealthy, but I'm independent as hell. Sometimes I feel as though I'm paddling against the current, but I'm not unhappy with where I've ended up."


Patterson is a freelance writer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.





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