Log in Newsletter

The Kirby File: West Fayetteville farmer takes his place in Agricultural Hall of Fame

'My father would be proud that we're still here for him and maintaining the agricultural base here in the county,' Joe Gillis remembers J. McNatt Gillis, the former longtime Cumberland County commissioner who was inducted into the shrine in 1990.


Joe Gillis loves the land, and particularly the soil in west Fayetteville along Gillis Hill Road.

There’s nothing he can’t tell you about farming.

It’s been in his blood all of his life.

“When you think about Joe Gillis and what he’s done on the farm over the years, I just hope that my legacy will be that he was some somewhat of a success,” Gillis, 76, humbly said on Nov. 17 after becoming the 58th inductee into the Cumberland County Agricultural Hall of Fame.

The ceremony was held at the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners' chambers at the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Cumberland County Courthouse, where 39-year-old Jessica Gillis Lee also was honored as the 52nd Cumberland County Farm Bureau Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year, an honor Joe Gillis received in 1973.

Gillis and Lee were presented with the honors by Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Al Aycock, president of the Kiwanis Club of Fayetteville, a long supporter of the awards.

“We could not be more excited to have him added to the wall of agricultural leaders,” said Lisa Childers, the county extension director.  “Joe Gillis has devoted countless hours to serve on agricultural-related committees and he is what I would call a behind-the-scenes kind of guy always there to support, but never wants to take any credit. For more than 200 years, Gillis Farm has served as a cornerstone of Cumberland County agriculture, while each Gillis generation before him has the experience of their own sense of challenges and successes. Joe has experienced challenges they probably never could have imagined” including “the challenge of exponential urban growth. Joe has embodied the kind of resilience, the wisdom, the foresight and the innovation required to maintain a successful family farm.  He believes to be successful in agriculture, you must be willing to adapt to change and you must be a good steward of the land.”

For Joe Gillis, his brothers and sister and cousins along Gillis Hill Road, farming always has just been a way of life, where mornings came early and the days were long. From cultivating tobacco to cotton, corn and soybeans to herding the hogs and the cattle, be assured, those days were long. They learned farming under the watchful eyes of father J. McN. Gillis and uncle Malcolm Gillis, good stewards of the land, like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great parents before them.

Joe Gillis came out of Seventy-First High School, was graduated from N.C. State in 1967 and returned to the family farm, where he oversaw 300 acres of tobacco, corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and straw, 200 head of cattle and a 1,000-head hog operation.

By the mid 1990s, the Gillis Hill Farms operation covered 2,500 acres, continuing to grow tobacco until the government Tobacco Allotment Buyout Program of 2005. Today, Gillis’ prime commodities are Coastal Bermuda hay and wheat straw, where the operation produces and ships wheat straw to more than 25 states, including local businesses and chain stores.

Still today, the mornings come early out Gillis Hill Road way, and the days only end when the sunset comes.

At the center of it all, you’ll find Joe Gillis at the Bicentennial Farms, circa 1816, that follows in the footsteps of the Gillis lineage of David Gillis, the farm owner from 1816 to 1884; John Gillis, the owner from 1884 to 1902; William Gillis, the owner from 1902 to 1911; Maude Gillis, the owner from 1911 to 1933; M.D. Gillis, the owner from 1933 to 1984; J. McNatt Gillis and Malcolm D. Gillis, owners from 1984 to 1993; and current owners Joe and brother Jimmy Gillis. 

‘Mr. Gillis, you are so worthy’

“Mr. Joe Gillis has definitely made a significant contribution to agriculture in Cumberland County,” Toni Stewart, chairwoman of the Cumberland Board of County Commissioners, told those in attendance for the induction. “Mr. Gillis is the ninth generation of farmers who have tilled the soil on the historic Gillis farm in western Cumberland County to raise up crops from the ground. He has also taken the many decades of experience passed down through his family ancestors as he has added his innovations, such as tobacco cleaning machines that contribute to the increased sales of quality clean tobacco leaves.”

While farming operations have declined nationwide, dating back to the 1980s, Stewart reminded us that Gillis Farms has stayed the course.

“In a profession that has suffered due to the loss of succeeding generations that have decided to turn away from farming, the Gillis farm is still going strong,” Stewart said. “Mr. Gillis’ example of hard work, dedication and consistent improvements in agriculture have served as an inspiration for his grandchildren, who are carrying on the family tradition of farming. Mr. Gillis’ efforts helped sustain the family farm past the 200-year mark and recently earned recognition as a Bicentennial Farm.”

She would look directly toward Joe Gillis.

“Mr. Gillis, you are so worthy of this induction into the Agriculture Hall of Fame,” she said. “We salute you and honor you, and we thank you for your dedication and giving so much back to Cumberland County.”

Gillis, according to a county news release, has been a member of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau board of directors since 1970, has served on the Farm Advisory Board, the Cumberland County Civic Center Commission, the Cumberland County Board of Equalization and Review and the Cumberland County Livestock Association. He has assisted with the Cumberland County Fair livestock shows. 

A farmer tried and true

Joe Gillis did not attend his induction into the Agricultural Hall of Fame dressed out in suit and tie, and his Sunday best reserved for Galatia Presbyterian Church adjacent to the farm. He came attired in his blue jeans and farm boots.

Nothing pretentious about Joe Gillis.

He’s a farmer … proud and tried and true.

“Well, I'd just like to say thank you and it’s such a great honor to receive this,” Joe Gillis said. “And I'd like to thank all my family and friends that have supported me over the years. It’s been a good trip. We’ve had a few rough rows to hoe, but we've come through most of them with pretty much success. One more person I'd like to acknowledge. John D. Gillis is somewhere here,  I do believe. He’s one of the ones that helped train me through the early years. He’s one of my mentors, and I’m certainly glad he’s here.”


Beg my pardon, if you will, as thoughts on this autumn day of induction brought back memories of Joe Gillis’ late parents, J. McNatt Gillis and Mary Stewart Gillis, who lived in the white home across from the farm, and where his mother could serve a country dinner like no other. And his uncle, Malcom D. Gillis.

J. McNatt Gillis and Malcom Gillis owned and grew up on the farm, too. J. McNatt Gillis, a county commissioner from 1950 to 1974, 1976 to 1986 and a final term in 1988, was inducted into the Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1990. Malcom Gillis was inducted in 1989.

“My father would be proud that we're still here for him,” Joe Gillis said, “and maintaining the agricultural base here in the county.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.