Biltmore: Ritzy Home, Real Farm
The largest private home ever built in the U.S. is also home to a thriving—and modern—agricultural operation.
By Des Keller | Photos By Art Meripol
Biltmore, as seen from atop the estate’s hilltop vista, offers what is arguably the finest view of 19th-century American grandeur. A testament to the Gilded Age, its towering limestone façade hints at the opulence of its 250-room interior—and 4 acres of floor space—while its 75 acres of manicured lawn and gardens offer a striking contrast to the Blue Ridge Mountain wilderness just beyond.
The crowning achievement of George W. Vanderbilt—a grandson of 19th-century railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt—the French Renaissance chateau-style mansion was completed in 1895 just outside Asheville, N.C. It is the largest privately owned home in the U.S. and annually attracts more than 1 million visitors, most of whom come to marvel at the estate’s beauty and imagine the extravagant lifestyle of its original owners.
A growing number of those visitors, however, come to experience Biltmore’s farming operations. The estate’s winery is the most visited in the U.S., while a demonstration farm pays homage to Biltmore’s past, when the property, which was originally 125,000 acres, was self-sustaining.
What’s not as well known is that Biltmore, which today encompasses 8,000 acres, is home to a variety of other farming enterprises, including cattle and sheep operations totaling some 1,500 animals. Though most of the estate’s acres are forested, crops such as corn, soybeans, canola, sunflowers and sudangrass are grown in any given year.
This is the realm overseen by Kevin Payne, Biltmore’s farm manager, who has worked (and lived) on the property for 35 years. He understands the need to work the farm—but do it knowing that tens of thousands of paying guests are watching.
“Everything near the areas that guests see we keep weed-eaten,” says Payne. “We try not to track mud up on the roads with our vehicles, and when we drive in the fields, we do it where guests can’t see the truck tracks.” Overall, he says, “We balance our farm operations with the estate’s more formal gardens and landscaped areas.”
This attention to visual detail, though, doesn’t shortchange their efforts to farm with an eye toward a cutting-edge, sustainable ethos. For example, this spring and summer, 50 acres along hiking and biking trails here were planted to canola, then sunflower crops. No doubt the bright yellow blooms of both were a treat for guests.
The plantings, though, were not all for show. The canola is then processed on the farm (in a renovated 100-plus-year-old barn) into biodiesel used to fuel the businesses’ pickups and farm equipment. Additionally, waste canola oil from restaurants on the estate is processed into biodiesel.
“One of our important core values here,” says Ted Katsigianis, the estate’s vice president for agriculture and environmental sciences, “is authenticity in keeping with George Vanderbilt’s original vision and plan for the estate. You won’t see a water park here.”
Most of the historic barns and buildings at Biltmore have been refurbished and repurposed. The dairy barn that was, until the early 1980s, the centerpiece of Biltmore agriculture is now Biltmore Winery, whose vines were first planted in the 1970s and which has since earned numerous accolades and awards.
Most days for Payne and crew begin early, bringing feed to livestock pastured across the estate’s thousands of acres. “The animals are the first priority every day,” says Payne. “If it’s calving season or lambing time and that work takes us all day, then it takes us all day.”
Biltmore is home to a highly regarded 700-head herd of registered Angus cattle. Their breeding bulls and cows are sold to registered and commercial herds across the Southeast. Katsigianis, an animal scientist by trade, came to work at Biltmore 30 years ago at the request of William A.V. Cecil, George Vanderbilt’s grandson.
Nearly 800 head of White Dorper sheep are also pastured here, and a large flock of free-range heirloom breed hens is kept for its eggs and moved about the property in portable coops to help with pasture fertilization. Cattle, sheep and the eggs are all used at Biltmore restaurants.
The emphasis on agriculture originated with George Vanderbilt himself. The youngest of eight children, he ran the family farm on New York’s Staten Island, then fell in love with the Asheville, N.C., area when visiting with his mother in the 1880s. He used his fortune, which was actually the smallest among his siblings, to begin construction of Biltmore in 1889.
Vanderbilt has since been credited with advancing “scientific farming” in animal breeding and forestry. The Biltmore School of Forestry, founded in 1898 on the estate, was the first in North America, and when Vanderbilt died in 1914, his wife, Edith, sold 86,000 acres to the federal government for what would become the Pisgah National Forest.
Edith was just as involved in the operation and the community. She was a longtime proponent of state agricultural fairs and was elected president of the N.C. State Fair in 1921. Subsequent land sales eventually trimmed Biltmore to today’s 8,000 acres. By 1930, parts of the house were opened to tourists for the first time, and the last members of the Vanderbilt family to use parts of the house as a residence moved out in the 1950s. While the house itself has never served as an inn, the owners did respond to a demand to stay on the property by building the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate a decade ago.
Today, Biltmore, which employs roughly 1,800 people, remains a major economic driver for the region. The estate is still privately owned by Vanderbilt heirs who run the operation, day to day.
Kevin Payne and his wife, Becky, have had the privilege of living on the estate for nearly 30 years. Their 100-year-old house is tucked just off a hilly road near the barn where livestock feed is stored. Becky homeschooled their three sons here, while their dad would have the boys measure out feed as part of their math lessons.
“It’s not so much work as it is a lifestyle to us,” says Payne. “The boys grew up here, staying in the woods all day.” Employees who live on the grounds are allowed to hunt the expansive wooded mountains and fish the ponds and the French Broad River that bisects the property.
One son, Carson, now works full time with Kevin—and lives on the property as well. “He’s never really left Biltmore,” says Payne. “We’ve been blessed.” Millions of visitors here would be inclined to agree.