by Laura Johnson
One visit to Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk will show that its slogan – “A place where animals talk and people listen” – rings true.
“The goal is to connect people with animals,” said Lee Rankin, owner and farmer. A year-round working farm and agritourism destination, Apple Hill Farm offers a public tour featuring their many animals everyday from mid-May through mid-October – last year they welcomed about 3,000 visitors to the farm.
“We walk all around the farm,” Lee explained. “So people get a chance to see every pen we have animals in, every kind of animal we have, meet all the animals and hear the stories of the rescue animals that have come to us. With animals there are always funny stories of stuff that’s happened.”
There are goats, donkeys, ponies, horses, alpacas, chickens, honey bees, dogs and their resident rescue pig, Mr. Pickles, who bunks up with Snickers the cat. Visitors of all ages and backgrounds can meet and interact with the animals, getting the chance to pet and feed them and to make a valuable connection with the animal world.
“It becomes this experience of an animal farm that connects them,” Lee explained. “And I know it transforms them. You know, it has to.” Many visitors have never been on a farm or had personal interactions with different kinds of animals, Lee said.
“We’ve had people say, ‘You know, I never thought about it but animals do have feelings,’” she recalled. “And they get that, and they see how the animals are this working organism within our farm. Everybody has a job, everybody has a name. … People can’t imagine that we know all the names of the animals, and they all have personalities. So they get to see that first-hand.”
"It becomes this experience of an animal farm that connects them."
The farm wasn’t always an agritourism destination – Lee and her son, now 14, moved to their scenic mountain-top property in 2001 and began raising animals in 2003. They started with alpacas and quickly added donkeys, llamas, goats and horses. “It was crazy,” Lee laughed. “It was a crazy year.
“Then people started hearing about it, and they would come up and want to meet this crazy lady up on the hill,” she smiled. As interest from the public continued to grow, they decided to host a daily tour from May-October. “Last year we did 341 tours of the farm,” Lee said. “Which is pretty impressive I think, for a working farm.”
Visitors would be hard-pressed not to be impacted by the love and respect given to the animals living at Apple Hill. “We’re kinda crazy about the way we treat the animals,” Lee said.
“I come out every night and I tuck the horses in. Last night I combed manes, and they get tucked in with a carrot and a kiss. Mr. Pickles gets a little something, and the cat gets a little something. And then on Christmas Eve we read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to the horses, and everybody gets a stocking. We’re nuts!” she laughed. “We’re nuts.”
The High Country Farm Tour fits in seamlessly with the farm’s visitor-friendly design. “It’s really fun,” Lee said. “The Farm Tour visitors are so supportive. They’re like keep doing what you’re doing, this is fabulous. You know, it’s different.”
Collectively, the Farm Tour highlights a vibrant community of farmers that Lee said is crucial to survival and success. “I really feel like farming is a community activity,” she said. “There are times I feel alone, moments I feel alone, but I really feel like there’s this real community of people here…I couldn’t do this alone.”