Digging In Deep with North Carolina Agriculture

Duke World Food Policy Center Director Kelly Brownell and staff met with state farm bureau officials and farmers

Part of the Duke in North Carolina Series
From left: Sarah Zoubek, Debbie Hamrick, Mitch Peele, Jay Boyette, Keith Larick, Kelly Brownell, Alex Treyz, Jen Zuckerman, Larry Wooten, and David Chestnutt. Photo by Deborah Hill
From left: Sarah Zoubek, Debbie Hamrick, Mitch Peele, Jay Boyette, Keith Larick, Kelly Brownell, Alex Treyz, Jen Zuckerman, Larry Wooten and David Chestnutt. Photo by Deborah Hill

Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC) Director Kelly Brownell and staff joined North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten and his senior team for a two day, dawn-to-dusk deep dive into North Carolina agriculture.

The group traveled last month from Raleigh to farms in Shannon, Maxton, Rowland, Elizabethtown, Currie, Ivanhoe, Kenansville, Mt. Olive, Clinton, and Princeton. Farmers talked about their challenges, introduced their families, and their shared stories and experiences.

In addition to the Wooten and his travel team, Brownell and the WFPC staff met Farm Bureau officers in Lumberton and Kenansville.

“To understand food systems, one needs to begin where the food is created. So meeting the farmers and seeing the farms was incredibly instructive. Since I’ve been back, I can’t stop telling people about the experience,” Brownell said. “I have so many vivid recollections: how complex farming is, how talented farmers are, how much risk and uncertainty they face, how hard they work, how deeply embedded the farms are in families, and how nice the people are. It is has been a long time since I learned so much in two days. I could not have hoped for anything more.”

"The trip also reinforced the fragility of our food system and the innumerable issues that North Carolina farmers have to deal with: climate change, financing, debt, contracts, labor, and more," said Jen Zuckerman, director of Strategic Initiatives at Duke’s WFPC.

Many of the farmers we spoke with talked at length about how the many unpredictable factors they face, including weather. 

The design of Robeson County poultry farmer Mary Ballard's chicken houses included a wall of evaporative cooling cells, automatic feed and water dispensers and temperature-triggered window shades. She shared how she is still starting over after Hurricane Matthew wiped out her entire flock, and all the equity she had built up over seven years of poultry farming. She was able to get some federal assistance to recover and said she appreciated it greatly, but it was a drop in the bucket of her overall losses.

Organic farmer Stefan Hartman, in Pender/Bladen County, saw his 25-acre farm and home flooded by the same hurricane. He gutted his house down to the studs after the flood waters receded, and sheet rocked the walls himself. He is in the process of reducing the size of his farm to a more manageable three acres. Greenhouse vegetable production (primarily tomatoes) allows him to meet demand for his niche markets: higher end farmer’s markets and restaurants. Hartman, who was born in Germany and immigrated with his parents, runs his farm with just one additional worker. Like all farmers in rural areas, he depends on his neighbors for help, such as when his tractor got stuck in the ditch, and he gives back to his neighbors in kind.

Entrepreneur Roderick McMillan watched YouTube videos about hydroponic agriculture each night after he was laid off from a job. He bought a used poultry house frame and enlisted his family’s help to convert it into MG3 Farms—a hydroponic produce greenhouse (of his own design) where he now grows basil, lettuces, collards, melons and more. McMillan would love to have a refrigerated truck to expand his distribution, but that's not in the cards yet. He says a significant challenge is the cost of packaging. Stores want clear plastic "clamshell" style packaging, and that would make his product less competitive at retail at this stage.

At the other end of the scale, large-scale farming organizations like Kornegay Family Farms and Produce (6,000 acres) continually explore crop diversification as a hedge against the vagaries of weather, and trade deals that affect commodity crops and farm labor. Yields also shift based on what consumers want. Kornegay is a major producer of, corn, soybeans, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and other crops such as asparagus.

"Not so long ago, we ate sweet potatoes twice a year at Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Larry Wooten, NC Farm Bureau president. "Now restaurants everywhere offer baked sweet potatoes and sweet potato fries, and there is a big demand because of marketing efforts by the growers through the NC Sweet Potato Commission and postharvest research by NC State University."

Consumer likes and dislikes change crops, packaging and even distribution plans. Duplin County produce farmer David Chestnutt in Magnolia, NC, said customers like buying produce in a Ziploc plastic bag because the low-tech bag somehow makes the food seem more ‘fresh-off-the-farm.’ He listens to customers and watches trends. A recent experiment was to grow the sweet-tasting bright yellow canary melons now so prevalent in grocery stores.

Access to reliable internet is a game changer for farmers, and technology is an integral part of each farming operation as well. For example, Willie and Neil Moore of Ivanhoe Blueberry Farms, Inc. use spectroscopy technology to sort berries by ripeness and a laser to identify berries with blemishes.  

Family is an active thread through North Carolina farming. Sampson County pig farmer James Lamb works a full-time job as an environmental scientist at Prestage Farms and raises pigs, soybeans, millet, and Bermuda hay on the land where his father was born. His mother keeps an eye on things while he is at work during the day. Cattle rancher Karen Scalf introduced her young son and daughter to us as her working partners. She had a framed picture of her father on hand for our tour. And, Bo Stone's family in Rowland, NC, has been raising corn, wheat, soybeans, timber, hogs, cattle and strawberries for generations. He is actively developing his business so that his children can raise their own farming families there.

“I deeply appreciated getting to see the depth of relationship that Farm Bureau has with farmers of all sizes and types across North Carolina. Farm Bureau truly represents the voice and interest of the farmer,” said Zuckerman. “I want to thank Farm Bureau’s Larry Wooten, Debbie Hamrick, Keith Larick, Mitch Peele and Jay Boyette for making sure we saw so many different aspects of NC agriculture and the people responsible for the food we eat.”