N.C. Supreme Court justice is also a farmer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012

By Steve Huffman
For the Salisbury Post
CREEDMOOR — Paul Newby said when he spoke to a garden club recently on the subject of being a gentleman farmer, he noted the words are something of a contradiction.
“You can be a gentleman or be a farmer,” Newby said. “But once you go to farming, you roll up your sleeves and get to work. It’s not very gentlemanly.”
Newby, 56, is a justice on the N.C. Supreme Court, elected in 2004.
He and his wife, Macon, and their four children — who range in age from 16 to 23 — live in north Raleigh. The couple also owns a 120-acre farm in Creedmoor in northern Wake County. It’s a rural setting, only a stone’s toss from Granville County. They bought the property in 1996. It includes a beautiful old farmhouse built in the late-1800s.
Newby said he bought the Creedmoor farm for reasons based largely on the principles he wished to instill in his children.
“I wanted to show them a life away from computers, away from gadgets and electronics,” he said.
The Newbys lived on the farm from 1996 until 2002 when they moved back to Raleigh. The decision to return to a more urban setting was based largely on the travel involved with Paul’s work and the fact the couple’s children were growing and becoming more active in school and their social lives.
Making trips to soccer practice and whatnot took a considerable amount of planning from Creedmoor. The Newbys now rent their farmhouse, their tenants helping with the upkeep of the farm and its livestock.
Newby was born in Asheboro and raised in Jamestown, where he graduated from Ragsdale High School. He’s been interested in the outdoors from his earliest days, as a teen earning an Eagle Scout Award through the Boy Scouts and as an adult having served as a Scoutmaster.
Newby received his undergraduate degree at Duke and his law degree at UNC Chapel Hill, which is where he and Macon met. Macon is also an attorney, though she hasn’t practiced law since becoming a mother.
Following law school, Paul Newby worked four years in private practice in Kannapolis. He was appointed assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 1985 and held that post almost 20 years, until being elected to the N.C. Supreme Court.
The Newbys bought their house in Raleigh in the 1980s, but always dreamed of owning a farm. What finally prompted the couple to make the plunge and buy the property, Newby said, was to “help people know how to work.” The people he was referring to, he said, were his children.
Today, Newby smiles when asked the success of his stab at making farmers of his children. They’ve turned out to be fine young people, the proud papa said, but he said farming seems to have had a more long-lasting impact on him and his wife.
Macon visits the farm about three times a week. Newby drives out as often as his work allows, usually about once a week. On their visits, they take care of the needs of their animals and often go horseback riding.
There was a time when Newby was far more active at the farm. While living there, Newby tilled and tended a garden patch that measured an acre – large by most part-time farming standards. Newby laid a line from a downhill pond and pumped water to irrigate water corn, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and more.
Across the road from the family house, with the help of his wife and children, Newby planted holly bushes and maple trees. A dilapidated barn was refurbished and the Newbys began tending sheep, goats and horses. They even bought a couple of cows, though Newby drew the line when it came to buying pigs.
“As messy as cows are, pigs would be even worse,” he said.
Today, the cows and vegetables are gone, but the Newbys continue to raise sheep and goats. They’ve also got five horses. They see the farm as a respite from the lives they lead in urban Raleigh.
Admittedly, it’s a respite that brings with it a great deal of work, a labor of love.
“Paul, we need to check Pumpkin’s right hoof,” Macon called to her husband while they were inspecting the animals on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in December.
Dealing with hoof rot (a degenerative foot disease often found in sheep and cows) and plenty more animal ailments are a typical part of a farmer’s day, the Newbys learned. Disease and death are as much a part of life on the farm as birth and life.
A ram they raised was bitten by a copperhead snake and died. The Newbys worry about one of their old horses that is growing dangerously thin as it ages.
A lot of what they’ve learned about farming comes from practical experience. Washing a sheep in Woolite, they’ve discovered, is the best way to bathe the animals.
Some parts of the job, they’ve learned, are best left to others. Newby remembers an era when he used to try and shear sheep.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that paying someone $10 to $15 per sheep to do it was a wise investment,” he said.
Today, at any given time, the Newbys raise an average of 12 ewes and one ram. They sell about 20 sheep a year, one means by which they maintain the property’s status as a working farm.
A couple of goats are included in the pasture where the animals graze.
“Goats are smart and sheep are not,” Newby said, a conclusion quickly reached by most any farmer who has dealt with the animals. “Those Biblical references to humans being like sheep, it’s not a compliment.”
They open the farm to others on a regular basis. Members of their church stage a live nativity scene in the barn during the Christmas holidays. The younger members of the congregation, the Newbys said, are especially enthralled at seeing Mary and Joseph and their newborn there among the animals.
Underprivileged children from the Raleigh Rescue Mission are often invited to the farm where they’re given the chance to ride horses and mingle with animals they’d otherwise never see anywhere but in the pages of a book. Members of the Wake County branch of the N.C. Farm Bureau have visited the farm more than once.
“We have loved it, and just prayed that other groups would, too,” Macon said of the farm.
Paul Newby said that while he, his wife and his children enjoy the farm, he sometimes wonders if the work involved delivers enough of a reward.
“Even now,” he said, “there are times I vacillate between staying or selling and buying a beach house.”
For the time being they plan to stay.
Newby said that as a Supreme Court justice, he’s a member of a ruling board that decides an average of 80 cases a year. A far greater number of cases, Newby noted, the court opts not to hear, instead letting the decision of the lower courts stand.
He said maintaining a farm helps him in more court cases than most people might imagine. Cases involving environmental issues and animal cruelty are often linked to farms, Newby noted. When North Carolina was involved in a buyout with the state’s tobacco growers, Newby wrote the court opinion on the matter.
“It gives you an appreciation of a variety of issues,” Newby said of the life of a farmer.
He admitted his dabbling in the trade has made him all the more in awe of a person who devotes himself to full-time farming.
“I can’t imagine taking the majority of my life savings and putting them in the ground in the hope that something comes up,” Newby said. “That, to me, is a brave, brave task.”