Small game grows scarce as farm ages

CorrespondentJune 25, 2014 

Years ago a 450-acre farm in Granville County, about an hour north of Raleigh, produced a bountiful crop of tobacco, enough to support five families who lived and labored there. Small game – quail, rabbits and squirrels – were plentiful and provided many a meal for the farm workers.

In those days, no deer or wild turkeys or coyotes roamed the fields.

Today the small game is gone for the most part. Nearby I-85, headed north and south, records a constant hum of tractor trailers and cars. The modern world has invaded William Samuel “Bullet” Dean’s farm. He started assembling this place 100 years ago at age 24. Piece by piece he added to his holdings as adjacent land became available. He farmed and hunted and fished the land with his sons and grandsons until his death in 1968.

The farm passed to one of his sons, William Graham Dean, to oversee. He, too, considered this land a sacred trust and carefully managed the farmland, crops and small game. At one time there were 35 barns and sheds and eight houses and several ponds here. The mainstay was tobacco, supplemented by corn, soybeans and a few Angus cows.

The Deans, who were in the cotton business in Roanoke Rapids, visited the farm weekly but never lived there. They entrusted Curtis and Louise King as overseers of the day-to-day operations.

As W.G. Dean aged, he selected one of his three sons, Jim, to learn the farming operation.

“He wanted me to learn what to do while he was still around,” said Jim Dean, who at age 8 started hunting and fishing the farm with his grandfather and father.

He has witnessed the farm transition from a booming enterprise to a slower place. Now the tenant families are gone and some of the land is rented to a large farming concern down the road. Twenty acres went into a public park.

Dean says he has witnessed a steady and irreversible decline in small game on the farm, replaced by deer, turkey and coyotes.

“Our farm is pretty typical, in some respects, as to what has happened in North Carolina,” he said. “Lots of land has gone on the market and sold for development. Pesticides and herbicides and predators have taken a toll on wildlife. I remember at least seven covey of quail. We’d sit on the porch about this time of day and listen to ’em call. There are only a few rabbits now and very few quail. It’s nothing like it used to be.

“In the early days there was more food for small game and less timber management. It was heavy farming with lots of edges along the fields for game. My father and grandfather both had bird dogs and loved to hunt so food plots were spread all over for game.

“Many factors have caused this change in wildlife; it’s not just loss of habitat but many factors and it’s complicated, but the farm is still here. Sure, there have been changes. Very little is like it was, but this is still an agricultural farm. The small game are gone, replaced by a new genre of wildlife. It’s not necessarily bad but it’s different.”

Dean, who plans to maintain the farm’s traditions, says he would not look too kindly on a real estate developer driving up to the place.

“My first thought is that I know the sheriff’s phone number by heart and that he’s trespassing …”

Dean, 74, and his two brothers, Graham, 70, and John, 65, own the farm as a partnership.

“We get along well, and all of us love and use the farms,” the elder brother said. “I doubt that the farm is seriously at risk (certainly not the main core anyway) regardless of who gets it in any split that we eventually come up with.”

Dean, retired editor of “Wildlife in North Carolina” magazine, continues to write a bimonthly column. He also has penned two sporting books and many articles for angling magazines. Dean often rocks on the porch of a restored cabin at the farm awaiting the cool of the day before taking up his fly rod.

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