When Mike Jones looks across his Franklin County farm, he sees pigs, pine trees and fields of scrubby green clover.
"If you drew a circle 200 yards out from this point, we'd be surrounded by about that many hogs," he says before calling out to Ernestine, one of his favorite sows. "Now I ask you, Is this unpleasant? Does it look unpleasant? Does it smell unpleasant? Does it sound unpleasant?"
The answer is no. Pink-eared piglets chase each other through the trees, and it's peaceful here. Only the occasional whiff of manure reminds me I'm surrounded by hogs. But Jones knows how unpleasant it could be; he started working in the confinement swine industry at 16, and stayed in the business for years before he began raising his own hogs in 2004.
Since then, Jones has made a name for himself selling free-range, natural and humanely raised pork. A barrel-chested man with a tinge of gray in his blond hair, he uses pasture-based farming on his 73 acres to support 220 hogs as well as cattle, goats and chickens. He also works as an extension agent to encourage other hog farmers to adopt sustainable practices. Together with his wife, Suzanne, he sells sausage, chops and ribs at MAE Farm, one of 17 that are participating in the Eastern Triangle Farm tour this weekend (see below for details).
Unlike many of North Carolina's sustainable farmers who are new to the business, Jones grew up influenced by an agricultural heritage. His family raised hogs, and he knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps. Only one thing had to be different.
"No matter who you are or what your background is, everyone has a ceiling to break through," he says. "All my ancestors on both sides of my family have been farmers, but they never owned land. So mine was to own my own farm."
It took him more than 20 years to reach his goal. Determined to make something of himself, Jones became the first in his family to attend college. He finished his degree with help from the GI Bill, then worked for several confinement hog farms—many of which now contract with Smithfield Foods—to learn the business. He did well, but kept looking for ways to improve the system.
"Finally I came to the conclusion it couldn't be done," he says. "I didn't see how the environment could be managed in a way that was tolerable to me. The profit was there, but I didn't want to be there."
Jones' decision to leave was one of conscience.
"I began to get callused to animals' suffering, and this bothered me," he says. "I thought, 'This is how human rights abuses get started.' First the animals get abused, then the people."
In corporate hog farms, the animals live their entire lives standing on a concrete floor, confined to a 3-foot-by-2-foot space.
"They can't move. They can't do anything hogs like to do, like root, graze or wallow. I saw thousands of animals living like this," Jones says.
In contrast, his hogs get plenty of fresh air and room to roam. They sleep in hay beds covered by small metal half-dome houses, and when it's hot, they wallow in a pit of red dirt, which Jones make into mud with a watering hose. "The mud acts like a sunscreen, and it keeps the insects off them," he says.
Hogs can be rough on a place. They root up plants, rub the bark off trees and trample the earth, making it hard to grow anything. Jones says his biggest challenge is raising enough of them to make money while keeping them from damaging their environment.
He describes himself as a low-impact farmer and spends his time fixing fences, cleaning out hog beds and adding lime to the soil before reseeding it with native clover. If the ground is packed too tightly for things to grow, he loosens it with a tractor so it revegetates naturally.
"I'm reluctant to pour concrete and I avoid doing unnecessary bush-hogging," he says. "I don't use chemicals, so I have butterflies, praying mantis and all kinds of birds and spiders that take care of the flies. And I maintain a pasture-based system so the animals spread the waste around the fields where the plants take it up naturally."
Jones likes to work, and he gets pleasure from seeing animals do well. When he's not checking hogs and fences, he works full time as an extension specialist for N.C. A&T University. As part of this job, he works with the small farm unit at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, teaching other farmers to operate small, low-impact hog farms.
"Having Mike's conventional experience in the sustainable food system is invaluable to restoring farmers' knowledge base and keeping people in farming," says Carolina Farm Stewardship Executive Director Roland McReynolds. "He really wants people to learn how to succeed. When he hears a farmer is ready to throw in the towel, he visits him right away to help him figure out a way to stay on the farm."
By legal definition, a small-scale hog farmer is one with no more than 250 pigs. North Carolina has about 100 of these farmers, and Jones has helped almost half of them get into business since 2001, when he started working at N.C. A&T.
"Not all of them farm like I do," he says. "My personal strategy, and the one supported by N.C. A&T and NCSU, is to create a value-added product by adopting farming principles that customers like—make it animal friendly, environmentally friendly and local, and do it without hormones or antibiotics."
The strategy is attracting customers. After selling pork for two years to Niman Ranch, the company known for its humanely raised meat that left the state in 2006, Jones is now one of about 10 farmers who supply pork to all five N.C. Whole Foods stores. He sells about 40 hogs each month to the chain. Customers can also buy directly from the farm via its Web site, www.maefarmmeats.com.
His pigs produce a profit, but his expenses are substantial.
"Due to the rise in fuel and feed prices, I'm looking at an $18,000 increase in expenses that I didn't budget for this year. I'd love to be able to sell only to Whole Foods, but it's hard for me to make it. I need to do more direct marketing so I can increase my income."
Marketing remains the biggest challenge facing North Carolina's small-scale hog farmers. Many, like Jones, would prefer to focus on production. Accessing new markets takes sales skills, and while selling directly to customers through farmers' markets and meat-buying clubs can pull in premium prices, it takes a lot of time.
Jones has learned through years of experience that persistence pays off. "There's always next year to try again; it's not over until you're dead."
When he thinks about North Carolina's agricultural industry, he sees a disturbing trend: The number of citizens is increasing, but the number of farmers is decreasing.
"Small-scale local farmers are critical for our food security, and when farmers face financial hardships, it puts us all at risk," he says.
He feels a moral responsibility to encourage people to be farmers and believes strongly that we have to preserve farmers' habitat—one that offers land, affordable equipment and a reasonable return on investment—to preserve farmers.
"If people look down the road and see farming is not a desirable profession, they'll get out. I'm willing to work seven days a week so you can eat without worrying where your food will come from. What's that worth to you?" he asks.
The Second Annual Eastern Triangle Farm Tour happens Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22-23, 1-5 p.m. Seventeen farms in Durham, Franklin, Johnston and Wake counties will showcase sustainable practices in growing flowers, trees, herbs, fruits and vegetables, as well as raising pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, heritage breeds of chickens and the world's smallest breed of cattle.
Download the full brochure, including maps and detailed descriptions of each site, at www.carolinafarmstewards.org. Tickets are also available online; they are $25 per car in advance for unlimited sites, or $10 per car per farm. Bring a cooler: Produce and meat will be available for purchase, fresh from the farm.