FarmVille, for real

Steven Leath didn't grow up on a farm.  But he's been hanging around agriculture all his life.

He and his father are one of very few father-son plant pathologists in the country. And his favorite job during his high school and college years seemed to be that of farmhand.

So perhaps it's not surprising that when Leath moved into the academic ranks at North Carolina State University, he and his wife Janet moved not to Raleigh, but to a rural acreage nearby.

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From strawberries

"I wanted a farm," Leath said. Soon, the Leaths had put 10 acres of their own into production and leased land from two nearby farms. On that first farm, the Leaths grew strawberries and other crops for transplanting.

Within a few years, when the Leath youngsters, Eric and Scott, had reached middle childhood, the transplant operation gave way to a cattle operation.

"The boys were interested in agriculture, and we thought they needed some more responsibility," Leath said.  However, Dad nixed the boys' first choice for the next iteration of the family farm.

"They wanted chickens," he said. "I didn't want chickens. So we had a family meeting and decided to get cattle."

To cattle

The family started a small cow-calf operation, raising cattle and growing their own hay.

"The boys eventually took responsibility and were fattening cattle and selling them for beef," Leath said. "It became kind of a comprehensive, but small, operation. It worked out really well."

The Leath boys' entry into high school and college took a toll on the cattle business.

"I lost my two right-hand men," Leath said, of the decision to move from cattle to a tree farm.  Soon thereafter, the Leaths purchased land in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north corner of the state and were planting Fraser firs.

To Christmas trees

The tree farm now boasts 50,000 Fraser firs and is a bit of work.

 "It's not like corn," Leath explains. "Every tree is fertilized individually, sheared individually, sprayed individually."

However, Leath said he and his family have enjoyed the tree farm.

Good therapy

 "It is therapeutic. Jobs like I have are often fairly high pressure and you're with a lot of people. So sometimes it's nice to be in the tree fields."

Leath said his agricultural forays have proved useful in his academic endeavors.

"When I was overseeing agricultural research at NC State, it helped keep me current with a lot of problems farmers were facing, whether it was labor, or regulations, or marketing, or research needs."

However, the new ISU president said there's probably not an Iowa farm in his future. 

"I think the time constraints in these presidential jobs are too great," he said. "I'm trying to get one of my sons to take over the tree operation for us."