He participated in Grange youth programs as a child and teenager and earned two degrees in agricultural education—including a master’s degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He spent the next 16 years in education, first as a high school agriculture teacher in Montgomery and Iredell counties and then as a principal at Sharon and Union Grove elementary schools.
In 2002, he left school administration and went back to his agricultural roots with the NC Grange. This year, Gentry will have another opportunity to interact with North Carolina farmers as the keynote speaker at the Small Farmers’ Appreciation Luncheon, the highlight of the 34th annual Small Farms Week. Presented by Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, Small Farms Week celebrates the work of small-scale, limited-resource growers and offers educational programs, demonstrations, tours, and other events on the N.C. A&T campus and across the state.
Small Farms Week runs March 22-28 and a kickoff event that precedes the week will take place March 20 in Murphy, the Cherokee County home of 2019 Small Farmers of the Year Harold and Nancy Long. Gentry’s keynote speech will be part of a luncheon program at which the Longs will pass their Small Farmers of the Year crown to the 2020 recipient.
“It’s an honor to be part of Small Farms Week,” says Gentry. “We still have the challenge of helping small farmers thrive and presenting a true perception to the public of what is really going on in agriculture. This program presents a true picture. The fact that there is recognition of a small farmer of the year is wonderful. It helps tell the story of what small farmers do, and that is so important.”
Gentry, who lives with his wife Anita in Statesville, was elected president of the NC Grange in 2003. Since then, he has been elected to the National Grange Board of Directors, served a year as the board’s president, and spent 12 years as its vice president. One of his two grown daughters, Jennie, works for the Grange in Raleigh. The other, Terri, lives in Alabama.
“It’s been a blessing to work with the Grange because it brought me back to a direct connection to agriculture,” he says. “The Grange is dedicated to the future of agriculture in our state. Like the Extension programs in the state, we believe helping our rural communities thrive helps our farmers and farm families.”
As someone who has spent his whole life involved in North Carolina agriculture, Gentry says the most exciting fact about farming in North Carolina is its diversity.
“We grow a wide variety of products from animal agriculture to crop agriculture, and research continues to improve yields and find new alternative crops,” says Gentry. He credits Cooperative Extension with giving farmers access to research-based information that can help them adopt new practices, conserve natural resources, and market their crops. That access to information makes it easier for new farmers to enter the industry and helps existing farmers sustain and grow their operations, he adds.
As a leader in the state’s agriculture sector, Gentry says he is convinced that technology is the key to farming success in the future.
“With so much farmable land being lost to development there have to be ways to improve efficiency and production while being good stewards of the land,” he says. “Technology will be the way to get there, not only with new equipment but with biotechnologies that improve yields and resistance to disease.”