After school day ends, Stinsons (’00) continue education on the farm

by Chuck Gordon

Chris and Melody Stinson consider education an ongoing pursuit. Life on their Anson County farm presents learning opportunities at every turn, especially with their three kids each running a business. 

Gracie Stinson drew up her first business plan when she was 10 years old. She needed the plan in order to secure a $5,000 loan to buy animals to raise on her family’s Anson County farm.

“I decided to do pigs because nobody around here had any, and I thought they were cool – when I was 10, I guess,” says Stinson, now 16.

She still thinks pigs are cool, especially now that, over five years later, she owns four sows and is delivering thousands of pounds of pigs to the processor every few months.

Gracie is one of three children of Chris and Melody Stinson, 2000 Wingate University graduates who successfully educate other people’s kids during the day but in their off time are teaching their own children life lessons through the use of small-scale agribusinesses. Last month, the Stinson family was named Farm Family of the Year by the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Anson County.

Gracie has a small but prosperous pork operation. Jackson, 12, will have about 100 sheep once the lambing process is finished this month. And Walker, 11, has 55 chickens, including a handful of free-range birds.

Gracie Stinson and one of her sows

They all work hard, as a family, to make sure their interests are more than just a hobby. Two weeks ago, Gracie had a volleyball match the night before she was due to ship a trailer full of pigs to eastern North Carolina for processing, so the Stinson team was up until midnight logging pigs’ weights.

“The boys couldn’t go to the game, because we can have only so many in the gym,” Chris says. “By the time we got home they already had the pigs pushed up into the barn. They had a lot of the work done, so we just had to run them through the chute, mark them with paint, weigh them.”

Gracie’s Hog Wild Farms operation creates plenty of opportunities for her to learn how to run a business, and to do it ethically. The end result for the porkers is, of course, the processing plant, and Gracie sells meat to local restaurants and individuals while also selling by the hoof to wholesalers. But Gracie decided early on that she wanted to treat them as humanely as possible before they got there, so she adheres to regulations necessary for her to receive Animal Welfare Approved certification.

“I have pastured-raised pork,” she says. “They’re not in houses. Animal Welfare Approved is the cleanest meat you can have.”

There is a cost, though. To satisfy the auditors, Gracie has to log every weaning, feeding, weighing and castration. She has to carefully consider every eventuality, so she can care for her animals humanely no matter the curveballs thrown her way. What is her plan if there’s a hurricane? What does she do if the truck breaks down in the middle of summer while she’s hauling pigs?

It’s all part of the educational process.

“It’s always been important to us to have them do it,” says Melody, who teaches music and art at Wadesboro Primary School. “We could do the work and go through the audit, but we have them do it. Chris will walk through the audit with Jackson this time, since it’s his first time, but Gracie’s to the point where she does it by herself.”

The AWA certification aside, there’s plenty of real-world math problems for the kids to do. Gracie has to figure out how much feed she needs, and how much she can afford. And because of bottlenecks at the processing plant, she has to get on their schedule months in advance, which means she has to calculate precisely when to breed her sows and boar hog and how much to feed the resulting pigs so they’ll be the preferred weight when it comes time to ship them off.

“It’s really a learning opportunity,” Chris says. “We wanted the kids to learn real-world schooling. Running all those ratios on profit margins, looking at feed conversions, average daily weight gains, calculating all that stuff – they can all do it now.”

Profitable projects

The idea for the kids’ agribusinesses came to Chris during his time as founding principal at Anson New Technology High School, which employs a project-based curriculum. He and Melody figured that, being educators, they could implement the basics of project-based learning into their parenting plan as well.

“Gracie was probably 8 or 9 years old at the time,” Chris says. “She was like, ‘I want animals.’ I said, ‘We’re not going to get animals just to get animals. We’re going to make it a project.’ It just kind of kept going.”

Jackson Stinson petting a donkey

Now there are animals everywhere on the Stinsons’ 14-acre farm four miles south of Peachland. Rhode Island Red chickens peck their way close to the porch of the 130-year-old house Chris and Melody bought, gutted and started rebuilding nearly two decades ago. A kitten sneaks under the electric fence to get a close-up view of Pandora, one of Gracie’s 400-pound sows. Across the dead-end road from their house, sheep graze and a horse and donkey have an acre or so in which to lazily munch on grass and watch the occasional combine go by.

Chris came to Wingate from south Florida in 1996 to play linebacker on the football team and study physical education and biology. “I didn’t know anybody’s name in the state of North Carolina,” he says. Wingate helped him grow up, forcing him to make new friends and fend for himself. He worked as a welder in Monroe when he wasn’t studying, playing football or leading the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Oh, or catching wild hogs in the woods around Wingate and in rural Anson County. “I still do it,” he says. “Catch them with my bare hands.”

By the time Chris was earning SAC Scholar-Athlete and Academic All-District awards his senior year, he and Melody Nance were an item. She was a music education major who’d grown up near the house they now call home, and it didn’t take much to convince Chris to settle down in the area.

Both Stinsons have been teaching or leading schools in Anson County for two decades, and education is an all-encompassing part of life with the Stinsons. When something needs doing, the Stinsons consider it a learning opportunity: The family spent one weekend not long ago building a barn out of discarded power poles. And the two boys did most of the construction work on Walker’s two chicken coops.

Ultimately, Melody sees the farm turning into an educational opportunity for people outside her immediate family. “That’s what we’re moving toward,” she says. “We want to be able to teach people and have people come in and visit our farm and see and learn.”

If they wanted an opportunity to educate their kids, 2020 has provided them with one. The whole family has had to learn on the fly as the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on supply chains, grocery stores and restaurants.

Stinson family relaxing on their farm

“We were just getting in the swing of things when it hit,” Chris says. “We backpedaled a little bit. We couldn’t move products the same way. All of a sudden when the grocery stores started having problems, everybody was wanting to come here and buy. We didn’t have any products, because we couldn’t get into a processing plant.”

Gracie’s business is the farthest along, since she had a four-year head start. All three Stinson children got $5,000 Youth Farm Service Agency loans to get their operations started, and Gracie paid hers back years ago.

Jackson’s Rising Sun Farms has been operating for a little over a year. He has an agreement with a 146-acre solar farm in Wadesboro whereby his sheep graze on the farm to keep the grass from growing too high and disrupting the work of the solar panels. Once the ewes’ lambs are weaned, they are brought back to the land the Stinsons’ lease across the road from their house. Jackson has 46 ewes and hopes to eventually grow his flock to about 100.

Walker, who is just getting started, has mostly mixed-breed chickens, and he runs an incubator for other farmers in the area, delivering eggs on the family’s four-wheeler.

The Stinsons are a close-knit family, but the parents have been careful not to push their kids into anything. They haven’t really had to. All three children are good students and love spending their free time on the farm.

“We’re not playing video games in this house,” Chris says. “They’re outside. A lot of time they’re outside in the barn building something. We’re like, ‘Boys, it’s 10 o’clock. Come in!’ They’re out there building a chicken house.”

Chris and Melody have taught them well.

Dec. 22, 2020