The Johnston County Farm-City Week Committee has honored two Johnstonians for contributions to farming and agribusiness. They are farmer Julian Barham of Archer Lodge and Sue Johnson-Langdon, former executive director of the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission.
Barham came to farming differently from most – he was not born into a family farm but followed his instinct to do what fulfilled him. In the afternoons, young Barham would help his uncle, Otis, grow tobacco and raise hogs. Barham especially enjoyed working with the animals and was often the one to tend to the hogs on the weekends.
In 1971, Barham graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in industrial engineering. While working for Square D in Knightdale, he and his wife, Elaine, bought a farm and grew tobacco, corn and soybeans on the side. Over time, Barham would acquire more farms and decided to build a finishing floor to purchase feeder pigs.
Shortly before his 30th birthday, Barham left his manufacturing job to farm full time. Because of his proximity to N.C. State’s veterinary school, he often had student and professor visitors, who introduced him to managers at Murphy Farms. Through this relationship, Barham took over the lease of a 400-sow farm.
Realizing the lower risk involved with contract hog farming, Barham eventually signed all of his farms to contracts. He is now a contract producer for Prestage Farms, operating a 4,000-sow farm that produces about 27,000 weaned pigs every quarter.
Barham’s farm was the first in the state to install a lagoon cover to capture methane gas, which power greenhouses where his daughter, Julie, grows cucumbers for Whole Foods, Fresh Point and Wal-Mart.
Several leaders in the pork industry took notice of the Barhams’ operation, and researchers from Smithfield Foods, N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University conducted projects over the years to learn more about generating power via hog lagoons.
Because of the Barhams’ innovative work on their farm, they have received several awards over the years.
Johnson-Langdon has traveled the globe promoting sweet potatoes. The granddaughter of the Rev. J. Ruffin Johnson, founder of Johnson Memorial Church, she has lived her entire life in the home he built in 1908.
In 1970, Johnson-Langdon graduated from Hardbarger Business College and also married her husband, Jerome. After a stint working in the office at Chicopee Manufacturing, she returned to the farm to work alongside her husband. Together they grew tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans and, occasionally, cotton, cucumbers and other vegetables.
Over the years, Johnson-Langdon’s role on the farm included marketing and sales, which led to her serving two terms on the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission Board of Directors. In 1995, the commission asked her to take over as interim director and soon named her executive director. She became the first grower, packer, shipper and female to hold the post since the commission’s inception in 1961.
As executive director, Johnson-Langdon ensured that research within the industry was organized and focused, which resulted in the development of the Covington sweet potato variety in 1996. A clean, virus-indexed seed, Covington launched a new industry for certified seed producers and improved horticultural practices because of annual research projects.
In 1998, the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission hired a public-relations agency to develop and implement promotional programs. By 2006, North Carolina sweet potatoes were being promoted in the United Kingdom, and by 2014, the commission’s message had reached more than 5.1 million people. Currently, North Carolina sweet potatoes are exported to 17 countries.
Under Johnson-Langdon’s leadership, the commission in 2001 launched the Value Added Sweet Potato Products Initiative, which brought about new sweet potato products, including fries, chips and steam bags, to name a few.
Over her 20 years as executive director, Johnson-Langdon cultivated growth and saw sweet potato acreage in the state increase from 38,000 acres in 1995 to 85,000 in 2015. North Carolina now produces 49 percent of the nation’s sweet potato crop.
At its annual banquet on Nov. 21, the Farm-City Week Committee also honored the South Johnston High School FFA and the Strickland’s Crossroads 4-H Club for collecting the most food for Hungry to Help, a food drive that benefits Backpack Buddies.