Dreaming Big in Western N.C. Agriculture

by | Dec 21, 2022

We Are Agriculture is a year-long series that will highlight the hard-work done by employees across the Department of Agriculture. Kaleb Rathbone, Assistant Commissioner of the WNC Ag Programs, is one of those employees. Stay tuned each Wednesday here on the blog or any of our social media accounts and join us in honoring those who continue to drive our state’s agriculture industry forward each day!

Sometimes life requires a leap of faith to take us to our destiny. Kaleb Rathbone, Assistant Commissioner of the WNC Ag Programs, comes from a family of dreamers and risk takers that have helped shape his career in N.C. Agriculture. As a young boy, Kaleb’s father knew that he wanted to be a farmer. “My dad didn’t grow up in agriculture, but he always had a love for it and knew that he wanted to be a part of this industry,” Kaleb said, “so, one day, he took a leap of faith and started our family farm from the ground up.”

The bravery and confidence of his father is what inspires Kaleb day in and day out. Growing up on the farm, Kaleb and his family raised beef cattle and burley tobacco. Through the years they have dabbled with a variety of produce, including strawberries, and today grow hay to feed their cattle. “I must admit, working in the tobacco fields as a kid did not give me a love for this industry,” he said. “It wasn’t until I started learning about agriculture in school and took an internship with the Mountain Research Station at the age of 16, that I truly fell in love and knew agriculture was my home.”

During his high school years, Kaleb took an internship at the Mountain Research Station that he maintained all through his high school and college years. He attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where he obtained an agricultural degree and then came back home to take a job as Tobacco Research Supervisor at the Mountain Research Station. “The research station made me fall in love with agriculture in a way that I didn’t know was possible,” he said. “Not only did I have a front row seat to all the new projects and techniques being undertaken in the industry, but I got to build relationships with those farmers and even work with them on some of those projects.” After working five years as a supervisor, Kaleb transitioned to Superintendent of the research station and eventually Director of the Research Stations Division before taking on his current role as Assistant Commissioner of WNC Ag Programs in 2021.

A day on the job for Kaleb varies highly on time of year, what’s in season and the current agricultural climate. “I am responsible for representing the department and the farmers in Western North Carolina to make sure that they have the resources and connections that they need to do their job,” he said. “I visit with farmers in this area of the state, help them with any issues they are facing, connect them with retail markets to sell to, including our WNC Farmers Market, and assist them in any other ways possible.” Kaleb is also responsible for several large-scale project, events and businesses in Western North Carolina, like the N.C. Mountain State Fair, the WNC Ag Center, the WNC Farmers Market, overseeing the Small Farms Division and disaster assistance when necessary.

The N.C. Mountain State Fair is a year-long process for Kaleb and his team. In fact, they are already in the planning stages of the 2023 fair! Each year, the fair brings the people of Western North Carolina together in a way that shows appreciation for agriculture in that part of the state as well as gives families a fun, entertaining and delicious outing together. Kaleb’s favorite place to eat at the N.C. Mountain State Fair is Pickle Barrel because he loves their sirloin tips. “It’s definitely a must have for me each year,” he said.

Throughout his career, Kaleb has been involved with many rewarding projects, including disaster relief and assistance following Tropical Storm Fred. In August of 2021, Tropical Storm Fred hit the Western part of North Carolina, leaving many farmers with devastated crops and wounded land. “Both during and after the event, I supported NCDA’s efforts in helping these farmers get the help and assistance they needed to restore their farms and get back on their feet,” Kaleb said. “We even created the Relief Program that helped get money to those who lost their entire crop. It was very rewarding to see and hear from farmers how much this meant to them and how it helped them survive in the midst of the storm.”

Although Kaleb loves many aspects of his job, the best part for him is the staff that he works alongside each day. “Our team doesn’t understand the word ‘no.’ We do whatever is needed to get the job done, whether it is in our specific job descriptions or not,” he said. “Everyone here truly has a heart and passion for the farmers and workers in this industry and we are intentional about doing all that we can to help them. Being a part of this team and having a hand in all that we accomplish together is the best part of what I do.”

When he is not working, Kaleb can be found working on the family farm with his father, wife of 17 years and four children. Him and his family also enjoy camping and hiking together in the mountains. Join us in thanking Kaleb for all that he does to protect, promote and preserve agriculture in Western North Carolina!