On October 20th, Ezra and Marian Gilliam placed a conservation easement on their 75-acre farm in eastern Rowan County. The tract is entirely comprised of either prime farmland or soils of statewide importance. For 2/10th of a mile, the property borders an unnamed tributary of High Rock Lake on the Yadkin River, and it is adjacent to Alcoa lands. The easement protects the property in its current state and allows for one more residence to be built by a family member.

It was Ezra’s father, Coke Gilliam, who planted the conservation seed, the spark of inspiration. The Gilliam’s desire to see their family’s farm preserved and kept intact was also Coke’s wish, who bought the farm before the Depression. He was a blacksmith, and they moved here from Jersey City (a community of Salisbury on Kerr Street). Marian remembers Coke Gilliam telling her that he was looking for a farm “so the children could learn to work and wouldn’t grow up in the streets.” In 1922, he bought the farm for $3,200.

They raised corn, beans, apples, cucumbers, pumpkins, peanuts, sweet potatoes, grapes, peaches, and they had chickens and hogs. They were a poor family and lived through the Depression, but they always had food on the table and meat all year long because the farm sustained them. His parents had 8 children, and could have divided the farm equally amongst them, but his father firmly believed that the farm should be kept intact, as a family farm that could support them in case of future depression times. According to Ezra, “We had everything, but we were very nearly poor. During those years we heard about the Depression but never suffered, and it was all because of the basic philosophy of my mother and father.” So, Coke gave the greater portion of the farm to Ezra, and gave his other 7 children other assets of equal value that wouldn’t divide up a piece of excellent farmland. During a time when food security wasn’t a buzz word, the Gilliam family believed in it. They believed that if you take care of the land, it’ll take care of you.

The LandTrust received funding from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC), a $10,000 grant that paid for a survey and stewardship of the property. Barry Williams with CTNC enjoyed working with the Gilliams. “This is a great project, and I cannot say enough what an amazing couple the Gilliams are,” says Williams.

Ezra has lived his life guided by 4 guiding principles his parents encouraged: “righteousness, value of work, integrity, and dependability.” He is a community leader of days gone past, a principal at the all black Dunbar High School, as well as an active community volunteer with civic and agricultural groups. He recently rotated off as an advisor to the Farm Service Agency, and is a member of the Farm Committee of Cooperative Extension. He is an active Board member of the Nazareth Children’s Home and of the Dunbar Alumni Association. “The conservation easement is protecting a piece of prime farmland, but it is also protecting a way of life that is disappearing, the small family farm,” says Michele d’Hemecourt, Land Protection Specialist with The LandTrust. “This farm and the Gilliam family’s philosophy are an example of how the farm can be kept together through generations, and how a piece of land can sustain a family. I hope their story inspires others as much as it has inspired me.”