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‘Developer’s dream’ on the market

Mary Louise Corn and Billy Johnston are two of the five Johnston siblings that have put Tap Root dairy on the market for $26.5 million. Mary Louise Corn and Billy Johnston are two of the five Johnston siblings that have put Tap Root dairy on the market for $26.5 million.

FLETCHER — The Johnston family’s roots in dairy farming go back a century and a half to the day when George Washington Vanderbilt first traveled to Asheville looking for land. Among the thousands of acres he bought for his vast Biltmore estate was the dairy farm of C.W. Johnston.
Johnston took the money from the wealthy New Yorker, bought more cows and kept on milking.
Johnston passed the dairy operation down to his son, Samuel Ervin Johnston, who passed it down to Samuel E. Johnston Jr. After outgrowing a farm in Fairview, the family moved to the Tap Root dairy in Fletcher in 1979.
“My father went by S.E.,” says Mary Louise Corn, the fourth generation of the dairy family. “They called them different names so they could keep them apart.”
Samuel Ervin Johnstons have kept on going. Samuel E. Johnston V is known as Quint. But even if the youngest S.E. Johnston has the most durable family name he’s probably not going to be in the family business. In fact, the generation of Corn and her brothers may be the last to operate Tap Root dairy. It could be developed for homes, shopping, industry or something else.
It’s not the first time the Johnstons have had the 320-acre farm on the market. But for the first time, they’ve listed the property with an agent.
Eight years ago, the Johnstons had a tentative deal with a Charlotte company to sell the land for a development that included a shopping mall with a Bass Pro Shop, a Western Carolina University branch and a medical clinic. The proposal came after the real estate had crested — in fact just before its steep plunge. This time, the Johnstons are ramping up the marketing effort just as the real estate market is climbing.
“You can look at us and tell we’re not getting any young,” Corn says.
“And the job don’t get any easier,” adds her brother, Billy Johnston. “It gets harder.”
Billy runs the day-to-day farming operation with two brothers, Bradley and Timmy. A fourth brother, Samuel E. “Sammy” Johnston III, owns Fletcher Lawn and Garden.
“To sign with a Realtor, we’ve never done that before,” Corn says. “This is just one more step in our efforts to be sure there’s a wide net.”

Technology advances

The connection to the land and the dairy herd kept the Johnstons going through four generations. The fifth and sixth are not interested in taking on the seven-day-a-week work of milking cows and growing crops.
“It takes almost 200 cows per family to make a living,” Billy Johnston says.
At one time, he says, Tap Root was the biggest dairy in seven states, milking 1,500 cows and raising all its own feed. Now the Johnston boys are milking 515 Holsteins. When they look down the family tree there are no more Johnstons on the way up to farm.
From a second floor office, Billy looks down at the milking barn and points to the cows.
“Each one has a collar around her neck that has a computer chip in it,” he says. “When she comes in to be milked her milking station already identifies her. How many pounds she produces and how long it takes her to produce it is recorded in the computer.”
The farmers can also use the computer system to segregate cows and to open and shut gates.
“Bradley can put in a list of cows before he goes home and the next morning they’re all standing in the pen ready to do whatever,” Billy says. “It’s a huge labor saving device.” And yet by 2015 standards “this is already obsolete. The big thing is robotics. … We came over (to Tap Root) and started milking in ’76. It was a state-of-the-art barn but before we ever milked the first cow, it was obsolete. It moves so fast.”

Interstate and river frontage

The Johnstons don’t know how much longer they’ll be milking cows.
They’ve put the farm on the market for $26.5 million and they don’t sound eager to take less. The words of their father stuck.
“In 1979,” Billy recalls, “we had a family meeting and he said, ‘Y’all can do whatever you want to. But always price it so you can all retire.’”
“Truly a developer’s dream,” the listing says, the Tap Root farm is bordered by I-26, the French Broad River, Cane Creek and the Broadmoor golf course. It’s level and features a half-mile of I-26 frontage and almost three-quarters of a mile along the French Broad. “Rarely does an assemblage of this magnitude become available,” the real estate agent, Curtis Burge of CoveStar Investment Realty Advisors, wrote in the MLS listing.
The availability of the land would seem to dovetail with efforts by the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development to preserve large parcels of land for manufacturing plants that bring jobs.
“We’ve always marketed the property as an available site,” says Andrew Tate, president of the partnership. “We’ve always partnered with the landowners. The property’s now listed with a broker and we’ll continue to work with the broker and the owner to present the property.”
As for buying it, “The price prevent us from really engaging,” he adds.
The Johnstons say county officials have eyed the land for industrial use since the late 1970s.
“The Henderson County commissioners came to our father in 1979 with a plan for a future industrial site,” Billy Johnston says. “They worked out all the details and the commissioners backed out on it. Then in the ‘80s the commission changed and they came back again. They had a plan for it, all the roads laid out, and then they backed out.”
Whether it’s done by Henderson County or a regional economic development agency, preserving the parcel for a job creating plant would be best, the dairymen say.
“It is crazy that they don’t tie this thing up because this is the last one in Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania county that’s situated like this, with interstate access and virtually no grading,” Billy Johnston says. “It’s flat. There’s a Duke Power substation. We’ve already got sewer, gas, water. Airport’s across the creek. It’s ideal. If somebody comes along and wants to put in a mall or a golf course it’s gone and it’ll be gone forever. Commissioners will just be out. This region will be out.”
The Johnstons know the property has liabilities when it comes to access.
“If this road was widened and three-laned from here to 25 — just that one thing would make a tremendous difference for any industry to come in,” Bradley Johnston says. “To me, the biggest thing that hurts this land is the mentality of the politicians in these tri-counties — the near-sightedness that they’re going to screw around and let this only good tract of land for major industry get gone.”
Tate agrees with the Johnstons’ assessment of both the assets and the liabilities.
“We’ve put the property through Duke Energy’s site readiness program,” he says. “We’ve done some preliminary engineering work to determine utilities and extensions and cost to extend. We worked with DOT on the process to extend wastewater from the other side of the interstate at Meritor. So we’ve done a good bit of analysis on the property to make sure we understand it and that we can mitigate risk for a client.”
The developer would have to be big enough to pay for major work, or the number of jobs so great that the state would step in to build an interchange and improve Butler Bridge Road.
“It’s a narrow road, it winds, it’s got heavy residential development already on it,” Tate says. “There’s a small narrow bridge going across the interstate. So one hurdle for the property to sell is someone’s going to have to take on responsibility to develop and make improvements there.”

Regulations and the public’s intolerance for the dust, noise and smells of farming don’t make life any easier for the dairymen. The EPA in May fined Billy Johnston $80,000 for a spill of cow waste into the French Broad River. He and Bradley call the violation a “dead issue” that has nothing to do with their listing the property. They’ve been willing to sell since 1980, they point out.
It’s just time, they say, to get out.
A shutdown of the dairy operation would be closely monitored by environmental agencies.
“Cows would have to be sold,” Billy Johnston says. “Once all the animals are off the property the lagoons have to be cleaned out, certified clean and then it’s clean water. The new owner can tear ‘em out, leave them for fishing ponds, whatever they want to do. You get a soil and water plan, then you clean them out, down to the dirt.”
Tate has brought industrial prospects to look at the property as recently as three weeks ago, Corn says.
“We’ve had all kinds of conversations,” she says. “Originally, we said it’s got to be at least a hundred (acres) and we compromised some more.” Now, the owners have told the Partnership they’d sell parcels as small as 50 acres.
Although it wasn’t industrial, the development proposed in 2007 by Collett and Associates of Charlotte would have brought regionwide benefits.
“They were the perfect kind of developer because they were willing to put together the entire property,” Corn says. “They had the vision of commercial retail but also things that would be beneficial like a hotel-convention center.”
For now, this “developer’s dream” is still home to the classic black-and-white Holsteins, dutifully hoofing their way to the milking barn and providing millions of gallons of milk per year for Ingles supermarkets.
“We’ve been told that it’s the most desirable piece of land between Charlotte and Knoxville,” Corn says, “but we’ve been told that for 40 years.”