Betty Vollmer was the daughter of a salesman. She spent her youth living in cities everywhere from Boston to New Jersey, Richmond to Raleigh. When she fell in love with John Vollmer, she did not know that she would wind up living the majority of their married life on his family farm in Bunn.That decision was borne out of her concern that the busy life they were leading was keeping them from spending enough time together. In the end, it was worth the trade-off – she and John spent 48 years together, raised four children, and ultimately became pioneers in North Carolina’s agritourism industry, trading growing tobacco for strawberries and chemicals for organics.
And in the 40 years they lived on the farm, this city girl found a niche for herself in the small community of Bunn, even though she was not a fan of working a kitchen garden.Betty Vollmer died in late May after a 10-year battle with emphysema. She was only 69, but a childhood of second-hand smoke partnered with decades of smoking as an adult made her made her vulnerable to the debilitating disease.
The Vollmers had decided to convert the farm away from tobacco years before her diagnosis, and initially it was a decision based on finances: The small farm would not be sustainable in the 1990s with the increase in state and federal regulations placed up the crop.
Still, she became quite proud of the work Vollmer Farm produced in terms of fruits, vegetables, and innumerable memories for the school children who visited the farm over the years, eager to learn about how bees make honey, and how chickens lay eggs.
Moving away, then home for family
Betty Vollmer was an only child, and she met John Vollmer just after graduating from St. Mary’s College (now St. Mary’s School) with a two-year degree. She was working for the Social Security Administration, and the two married while he was still earning his undergraduate degree at NCSU.
“I went to school and worked, and Betty worked and we supported ourselves from the get go,” John Vollmer said.
Once they were married they embarked on an eight-year absence from North Carolina, living in or outside cities in Mississippi and Indiana. John worked in sales, applying his degree from NCSU in crop sciences by selling agricultural chemicals.
But three children later, Betty Vollmer felt their marriage was not headed in the right direction, and that had a lot to do with the nature of John’s job. “Betty said to me, she said, ‘John, I didn’t marry you to be apart from you while we are living our lives. I think it’s time to make a change,’ ” he recalled “ ‘If you decide not to, that’s OK, but I’m not sure where our relationship is going.’ ”
The two considered their options, and in the end a return to North Carolina was the best choice. John Vollmer ultimately started a farm supply store with his brother and cousin, for which Betty kept the books for the next 20 years. They also took over the responsibilities for the farm itself, and it became her job to take the tobacco her husband’s family had been growing for generations to auction.
She was one of the few females – and a non-local to boot – involved in that market, her husband said. “This was Betty functioning in a man’s world,” John Vollmer said. “She thrived in that scenario.”
A careful watcher on the coffers
Betty would become the financial keyholder in the Vollmer family, and her matter-of-fact manner when it came to money was something the family can still joke about.
“Mama was a true-blood accountant,” remarked her son Russ Vollmer at her funeral service. “She wasn’t afraid to challenge Dad anytime he came in asking to borrow money to buy a piece of farm equipment. One time Dad told me after one such discussion with Mama that it would have been easier to find a way into Fort Knox!”
Among friends and family, Betty was known for her authenticity, and that she was always there for you in times of need, showing up with a meal if a family member fell ill and always ready to listen without judgment.
Betty was also considered a mentor, particularly when it came to motherhood. She spent the first eight years of her married life at home with babies, and then the next 40 balancing the consuming job of working a farm with the even more consuming job of raising a total of four children. “She was a wonderful mother,” said Marsha Strawbridge, mayor of Bunn. “We used the Vollmer kids as a standard because Betty did such a good job.”
She never faltered, friends say, andmade a point of teaching her children about a world beyond Bunn’s bucolic fields. “I just remember her always having my ear [saying], ‘There’s a big wide world, Jess. You don’t have to stick around here to make us proud,’ ” said her daughter Jessica Vollmer of Charlottesville, Va.
Though the family was very much expected to help with farm chores – which included a lot of grueling labor in the Carolina heat – each summer the children were allowed some time off the farm to camp or travel or do whatever they wanted to try. They never felt pressure to take up the family business, though their eldest, son Russ Vollmer, in recent years has returned to do just that.
On the cutting edge
For the foreseeable future the Vollmer farming legacy will continue, though now the focus is much different than from just one generation ago.
“North Carolina agriculture has been in transition for a long time from its dependence on tobacco, and Betty was on the cutting edge of that transition,” said Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. “Recognizing that tobacco would no longer sustain their third-generation farm, and that farms were fast disappearing in their area, she and John made a leap that few conventional farmers would have by moving to organic produce.”
In the mid-1990s, the Vollmers switched the farm’s focus to that of organics, offering a CSA program, and also initiated agritourism. Betty began booking school and church groups so children could learn about where food really comes from.
“When the kids came, she wanted them to have a place to play. She wanted them to do more than pick a pumpkin then go home,” her husband said. “We put in a classroom to talk about bees and pollination and chickens and different crops.”
Vollmer Farm can be rented for company picnics and birthdays alike. The business now includes many seasonal events as well such as an autumn harvest, ice cream in the summer, and now a holiday festival.
“She understood that farmers have power when they stand up and represent their communities, and she used that power well,” Reynolds said.
Her husband can still marvel in thinking about the transition she was willing to make in terms of their lifestyle: city to country, a nine-to-five for the perpetual investment that is a life of farming.
“For her to be willing to let go of that for something that was totally unknown, that was really good,” he said.