DEEP RUN ROOTS

JOHN HOWARD HAS HIS HAND IN MANY AG EN­TER­PRISES, BUT HOGS ARE THE POW­ER­HOUSE.

Successful Farming - - PORK INSIDER - By Betsy Freese, Ex­ec­u­tive Edi­tor

Roots run deep in eastern North Carolina. John Howard, 77, owner of J.C. Howard Farms, Inc., has built his fam­ily’s farm­ing en­ter­prises from hum­ble be­gin­nings in to­bacco grow­ing to be­com­ing a pow­er­house in pork pro­duc­tion (with 27,000 sows), row-crop farm­ing, tim­ber pro­duc­tion, and John Deere deal­er­ships.

Lately, the Deep Run na­tive may be most well known as Vi­vian Howard’s dad. Vi­vian is the Pe­abody Award-win­ning cocre­ator of the PBS TV show A Chef’s Life, and au­thor of the New York Times best­selling food me­moir Deep Run Roots.

To­day, Howard is lean­ing back in his mod­est farm of­fice for a dis­cus­sion with Suc­cess­ful Farm­ing mag­a­zine of times past and present in agri­cul­ture.

– John Howard

SF: What is the his­tory of your farm?

JH:

My grand­fa­ther was a to­bacco farmer and my dad was a to­bacco farmer. I grew to­bacco up un­til 2006. That was the seed money for ev­ery­thing we’ve done. We had a good stan­dard of liv­ing from the to­bacco, but it had a lot of en­e­mies, so we par­tic­i­pated in the fed­eral buy­out and got out of the to­bacco busi­ness. In the mean­time, we were ex­pand­ing ev­ery­thing else we were do­ing. We stopped the to­bacco and put our ef­forts to hogs, farm­ing more land, and in­vest­ing in John Deere fa­cil­i­ties. We moved on from to­bacco, which I think was a good thing. To­day, we grow corn, soy­beans, wheat, and cot­ton. We have about 5,000 acres in row crops and an­other 5,000 in forest­land.

SF: Tell me about the pine en­ter­prise.

JH:

It is a 25-year cy­cle. You plant back just as quick as you can. You use good ge­net­ics, just like in the hog in­dus­try. We har­vest year­round. We farm all around the Hof­mann State For­est, which is good fer­tile land.

SF: You must see a fu­ture in the hog in­dus­try.

JH:

I don’t think over my life­time I could have done any­thing that would have been any bet­ter to me than the hogs have been. Like ev­ery­body else, we would like to be more in­te­grated, but it’s just not in the cards. Here in North Carolina, we have a mora­to­rium on growth, and this in­dus­try is ma­ture. It’s prob­a­bly sized up about right.

SF: Would you con­sider more ac­qui­si­tion?

JH:

If it would add ef­fi­ciency to what we are do­ing. Half of our growth or bet­ter has been from ac­qui­si­tion. It takes a lot of money to build a new fa­cil­ity. We are build­ing a new sow farm now, but it’s just re­plac­ing some fa­cil­i­ties that were more than 30 years old. Our grand­chil­dren are build­ing this fa­cil­ity.

SF: What is your suc­ces­sion plan?

JH:

We have four daugh­ters, and one is an at­tor­ney who helps us here. They all have stock in the com­pany. We are work­ing on bring­ing the grand­chil­dren into the busi­ness. I’m go­ing to give ev­ery­one who wants to come here a chance. If they want to work, they will have an op­por­tu­nity.

“I don’t think over my life­time I could have done any­thing that would have been any bet­ter to me than the hogs have been.”

SF: You own sev­eral John Deere deal­er­ships in the state. How did you get into that?

JH:

Back in the mid-1980s when the Mid­west grain farm­ers were hav­ing such a chal­lenge, I bought a John Deere deal­er­ship in the No. 1 agri­cul­tural county in Amer­ica, Samp­son

County, North Carolina. It turned a profit pretty quick. Cot­ton took off in the late 1980s, with the need for cot­ton pick­ers and big trac­tors. We have 14 stores to­day.

SF: What type of equip­ment sells the most in North Carolina?

JH:

Mid­size trac­tors and com­bines, but our stores are linked pretty heav­ily to the big­gest equip­ment.

SF: What do you think about trade poli­cies right now?

JH:

Ev­ery fifth trailer of hogs has to go abroad. This mar­ket has lost a tremen­dous amount, and it’s go­ing to leave a lot of scars. We can deal with a bad trade agree­ment bet­ter than we can with no trade agree­ment.

SF: Farm­ers were sup­port­ive of Pres­i­dent Trump com­ing into of­fice. Were you? JH:

Yes, I don’t deny it. I felt like we were go­ing the wrong way busi­ness­wise, debt-wise, and pol­icy-wise. I’m 77 years old. I’ve got to deal with mov­ing this busi­ness to the next gen­er­a­tion. The wealth of farm­ers is real es­tate. If you are not care­ful, a farm only lasts two gen­er­a­tions. You do it and your kids do it, but the next gen­er­a­tion has to sell it. I started to think about that in 1978 and have been do­ing some­thing about it since then.

SF: You’ve seen pres­i­dents come and go. JH:

When Jimmy Carter was run-

– John Howard

ning for of­fice, I took my wife and daugh­ter to Plains, Ge­or­gia, to see him. Ev­ery­body was so ex­cited. We sat on their front porch in rock­ing chairs with his fam­ily. We thought Jimmy Carter was go­ing to be a god­send for agri­cul­ture. In­stead, we got the em­bargo.

SF: Are you plan­ning any changes to your farm based on what’s hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton?

JH:

No. I’m not a profit-and-loss farmer; I’m a bal­ance-sheet farmer. It’s all about build­ing eq­uity. My life­style is sim­ple. I’ve spent all my life try­ing to build eq­uity.

SF: Out of all your farm en­ter­prises, which one’s clos­est to your heart? JH:

I like row-crop farm­ing, plant­ing the seed. We started the day be­fore yes­ter­day [April 4] . I’m al­ready look­ing for the corn to come up.

SF: Did your dad have hogs? JH:

SF: So you built the hog op­er­a­tion. JH:

Just a few, prob­a­bly 50 sows.

Yes. We did most of our growth from 1992 to 1996. We got ahead of the mora­to­rium. Then the ac­qui­si­tions have come since then.

This is the mean­est busi­ness in the world to man­age, let’s face it. You make money or you lose money so fast you don’t know where in the world it went.

SF: When was the most try­ing time for the farm?

JH:

1999 was bad with $10 hogs. We were sit­ting in here hav­ing a meet­ing and it flashed on the DTN ma­chine that Car­roll’s Foods had been sold. Then 60 days later, Mur­phy Farms was sold.

I came out of that time with one mis­sion: to build a war chest.

“This is the mean­est busi­ness in the world to man­age, let’s face it.You make money or you lose money so fast you don’t know where in the world it went.”

SF: What is the big­gest chal­lenge to­day? JH:

Ev­ery­one in this busi­ness has a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle with la­bor, get­ting enough truck driv­ers, peo­ple to work on the hog farms, and such. It used to be we had ex­tra work­ers, but now we are al­ways short. Agri­cul­ture needs peo­ple.

SF: Be­sides pa­per­work, what do you do in a typ­i­cal day?

JH:

I like to drive out and check the crops, and I visit one hog farm ev­ery day. I look in some­where.

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