A Riverside Paradise

Protected Forever

Quail Hill Farm

178 Acres Protected along the Mitchell River

Written by Brianna Haferman, PLC Director of Communications & Engagement

It takes a strong sense of stewardship and responsibility to future generations to make the choice to protect land for agriculture and for nature. Tracy Hayes of Quail Hill Farm has that sense of duty.

“We have to take care of the earth first. Without that we’ve got nothing. Protecting this land is my way of giving back.” 

Tracy Hayes

Tracy Hayes pictured at Quail Hill Farm along the Mitchell River.

These days, farmers see many high value offers to buy their land – to develop residential neighborhoods, to install utility scale solar farms, and lots more. While these are not bad things on their own, these immense pressures to sell are part of why we are losing farmland and open space at the largest scale and fastest pace yet. According to a 2016 report done by American Farmland Trust, North Carolina “will convert 11.6% of its agricultural land—nearly 1.2 million acres—to subdivisions, strip malls, and scattered rural housing” by 2040. This is the second fastest farmland loss in the nation after Texas.

Tracy Hayes has seen many of these offers, but always refused. He had something different in mind. As of October 2023, 178 acres of Quail Hill Farm are now permanently protected by a conservation agreement with Piedmont Land Conservancy. That means this land can never be developed or subdivided. 

Tracy first protected 9.5 acres in 2001 and 11 acres in 2005 as part of the early Mitchell River Coalition efforts, both of which were buffers along the Mitchell River. This year he expanded that protection extensively.

Forested bluffs along the Mitchell River. Quail Hill Farm is on the left.

The Land

Tracy’s family has been living in this area of Surry County, North Carolina since the 1830s. As one of the last remaining members of the Hayes family, Tracy feels a sense of obligation to protect the land to honor his family, but he also shared his concern for future generations, saying “We need to leave some open land for your generation and your children’s generation.”

On a sunny and surprisingly warm day in the fall of 2023, I had a great two hours chatting with Tracy over the hum of his utility vehicle as we drove around to see the sights on his now protected land. The bright show of autumn leaves was just past its prime, but we still enjoyed the remaining colors. 

About 60 of the 178 protected acres are dedicated to agriculture. There’s a field of native grasses that provide both great space for wildlife and a place to train his award-winning hunting retrievers, one of Tracy’s passions. Lastly, the largest portion of the property is dedicated to forested land that buffers one mile of the Mitchell River.

The Mitchell River

This is the other reason the land is special. Lying next to the Mitchell River, one of the last rivers in our region still rated as an outstanding water source, makes it a high priority area for conservation. PLC’s conservation agreement will help preserve that high water quality. 

We drove down to the riverbank, where the acoustic sounds of the gentle rapids and the clear shallow water felt like a wild paradise. Steep bluffs fall down to the river covered in Rhododendron and trees large enough for Pileated Woodpeckers to make their home. In this part of North Carolina it’s even common to see black bears traveling up and down the river – it’s an important migration path for many animals.

Looking downstream as the Mitchell River flows toward the Yadkin. Protected land is on the right.
Rhodedendron blanket the bluffs by the river

At one point, one of those animals was Bobwhite Quail. Tracy’s family named the farm “Quail Hill Farm” in honor of the quail that used to roam this land. It’s been many decades since Tracy saw quail here, a trend seen in many areas across North Carolina. According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, by the 1980s biologists recognized a major decline in Bobwhite Quail across the State, likely due to loss of habitat. The Hayes family named the farm to remember this native species, and Tracy would love to see them return.

Tracy hasn’t farmed since 2000, when he began his business raising and training hunting retrievers, but he leases about 60 acres here for agriculture. Acknowledging that he spent his time farming using methods that were not the best for the greater ecosystem, Tracy has since tried to bring back native species. 

“I’ve spent the last ten years trying to put things back the way they originally were,”

Tracy said. He’s planted native switchgrass. He created a small orchard of heirloom apples and paw paw trees. He’s even planted Chinqua-Pinn Chestnut trees on the forest edge.

The biggest part of his plan to improve the land was to ensure that it was forever protected. Now that he’s accomplished that, he’s even turning his attention to seeing what other land he might buy to then protect with the assistance of Piedmont Land Conservancy.

As of November 2023, this addition of protected land brings the total land protected by Piedmont Land Conservancy in the Mitchell River Headwaters to 9,014.68 acres, and counting. 

Looking east over pasture lands at Quail Hill Farm

Consider giving to

Piedmont Land Conservancy

to protect more special places.