CEDAR GROVE — Thomas Crisp Jr. stood at the edge of a wire fence recently in northern Orange County, two bales of hay laying at his feet.
"Baaaa! Baaaa!" he shouted across the field and clapped his hands. Sheep streamed in from all directions, the lambs careful to avoid their hungry elders.
"They can be over on the back side, and I clap my hands, and they come running to me," said Crisp, who runs the Captain John S. Pope Farm on Efland-Cedar Grove Road.
Owner Bob Pope Jr., the great-great-grandson of the farm's founder, raises more than 150 hybrid lambs and sheep, has a small vegetable garden and cultivates hay in the summer to supplement the lambs' grass-based diet.
Without hormones or antibiotics, it takes time for a lamb to grow to 80 pounds or more, but it's healthier for the lambs and the customers, Pope said. Roughly 80 percent of the meat is sold to Triangle restaurants.
"People who eat this lamb say they've never tasted anything like it," Pope said.
The Pope Farm has been in business since 1874, and Pope wants to keep it that way - in part by attracting more visitors interested in farming and local foods. He is among a growing number of N.C. farmers looking to agritourism to help make ends meet and keep their traditions alive.
Pope's latest steps are to get a National Register of Historic Places listing and a conservation easement from Orange County to ensure the farm's continued agricultural use. He has been a member of the state's Century Farm program for several years. The Century Farm program recognizes farms in the same family for more than 100 years.
County officials said the Pope Farm's 20 agricultural outbuildings are one of the county's largest and best-preserved collections. The architecture of the 138-year-old farmhouse also is distinctive, they said.
Jessica Dockery, National Register and survey specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office, said the National Parks Service could approve their National Register listing within 45 days. There are other active farms on the register, including several in the Triangle, but a commercial farm is a little unusual, she said.
"It acknowledges in a very concrete way the history of the property," she said. "It's a wonderful way to help preserve the history of North Carolina."
John S. Pope secured part of the 73-acre farm in 1856 as a wedding dowry; the rest was added later.
The couple started building the farmhouse in 1861 but postponed their plans while Pope served in the N.C. 31st Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. In about 1874, their growing family finally put down roots there.
For 150 years, the farm's money crop was tobacco, although they did produce a little corn liquor during hard times.
Pope was born in 1937, the same year the farm got electricity. Six years later, the family installed plumbing.
They were self-sufficient in those days, Pope said. A 1935 agricultural census reports the family had 19 acres of tobacco, 10 acres of corn, four acres of wheat and three acres of rye. They also cared for 30 fruit trees, four workhorses or mules and four milk cows. By 1945, there was more tobacco, along with hogs, sheep and chickens.
"They tried to make me work hard. They did the best of it," Pope said, laughing.
But machines changed the farm, and young folks were encouraged to seek greener pastures, he said. He graduated in 1960 from N.C. State University days after marrying wife Jil, a Peace College alumna. In 1985, Pope retired after 25 years with the DuPont company.
Today, Pope is one of many fighting to preserve the state's rural heritage. In 1960, 62 percent of the state was agricultural. But by 2007, only 27 percent was being used for farming. Agriculture contributes about $70 billion to the state economy and provides more than 650,000 jobs, state officials said. But farmers are looking for new ways to pay the bills, including agritourism, which can include anything from farm tours to working vacations.
Noah Ranells, Orange County's agricultural economic development coordinator, said there are no hard numbers, but that retail sales represent one of the state's top agricultural growth sectors and show the importance of agritourism. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of Orange County farms grew from 25 to 78, with total sales growing from $25,000 to $683,000, he said. The county now has eight farmers markets with consumer sales estimated at $1.3 million for 2012, he said.
Tina Fuller, with the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau, said they get a lot of calls about how to visit farms, especially among parents with younger children who want their kids not to just go to the farmers markets, but also to get an up close and personal experience.
A 2011 N.C. State University agritourism survey found that of 195 farm respondents, most reported that visitors had increased as much as 29 percent since 2011.
Orange, Durham, Chatham and Raleigh are developing an online campaign to capture that interest, said Shelly Green, president and chief executive officer of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. Orange County also has an eight-page insert for its tourism brochure, said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of Orange County's visitors bureau.
Farmers like Pope, who are taking an active interest, will encourage others, she said.