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Special Report: The New Farmer
Even as the number of working farmers declines, some new growers enter the market. Many don’t fit the profile of traditional farmers and bring fresh ideas to the field.
The trend in livestock operations has been a decades-long race toward higher production on bigger farms.
But Genell Pridgen and her family are trying to hold onto their land by returning to husbandry methods more like what her ancestors used when they settled here in the 1700s.
Her dad tried it the modern way. After the tobacco buyout in the 1990s ended the price support program for his main crop, he signed a contract with a big vertically integrated chicken producer, agreeing to take out a $100,000 loan to build state-of-the-art houses that could accommodate up to 90,000 broilers.
Things went fine for a few years. Then the company canceled the contract, leaving Pridgen’s dad with that debt. He contracted briefly to raise chickens for another company, but didn’t like the way it operated.
Pridgen had always loved working with livestock, but took her parents’ advice and went to college, where she studied molecular biology. She got a job in biomedical research in Research Triangle Park and spent her lunch hours daydreaming about being back on the family farm.
She moved back in the mid-2000s with her husband and three children, and set about trying to help her parents recover from their losses and make the farm profitable again.
They decided to try something new by going back to something old: raising relatively small numbers of animals outdoors, in fresh air and sunshine, and rotating them frequently to guard against disease and parasites by keeping their pastures and paddocks from being overused.
“We were making it,” Pridgen said during a tour of her family’s land, which covers about 300 acres in Greene County on three non-contiguous tracts of land. With one paid employee and family members providing all the labor, Rainbow Meadows Farm was paying its bills — barely — and making headway on the chicken-house debt.
It took a lot of hustle. In addition to working on the farm, Pridgen constantly searched for new outlets through which to sell her beef, pork and poultry raised without hormones and antibiotics.
Eighteen months ago, with her family’s encouragement, Pridgen decided to build her own market for the meat from Rainbow Meadows and neighboring farms that used similar methods. She opened Whiskey Pig Craft Butchery and Deli in nearby Kinston, hoping to take advantage of recent redevelopment downtown, a growing interest in the farm-to-table movement and the momentum of chef Vivian Howard’s successful Chef & the Farmer restaurant.
Pridgen’s downtown storefront-turned-butcher shop and restaurant was serving a half-dozen diners toward the end of a recent weekday lunch hour, with customers stopping in for ribeye or corned beef sandwiches, or pecan-smoked pork barbecue. Some perused the hefty cuts of fresh meat displayed like jewels in the glass butcher case at the back of the restaurant.
Interest in the grass-fed beef and the restaurant’s offerings tends to come more from out-of-towners, Pridgen said.
“They’re typically more appreciative of the quality,” Pridgen said, “and they don’t mind paying the price.”
It’s costly to raise livestock the way Rainbow Meadows does it. It’s labor intensive and, taking just a few animals for slaughter at a time, there are no economies of scale. Locals may well understand what it takes, Pridgen said, “But then they go into the Piggly Wiggly and the pork chops are maybe $2.99 a pound on sale, when mine are $10.99.”
Running the restaurant and butcher shop has been expensive, too, Pridgen said, with labor costs, electricity and payments on the equipment. The businesses take time away from the thing she loves most: being out around the animals.
Pridgen is petite, about 5 feet tall, but enters animal enclosures with the confidence of a preschool teacher joining her charges on a playground. When she walks into an acre pen housing a mother pig with a litter, the sow trots over threateningly. Pridgen scolds her gently and, in a minute, the 300-pound mom goes back to her babies.
“This is rewarding, but it’s hard,” Pridgen said. “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done.”
It’s too early to tell if Whiskey Pig will succeed, Pridgen said, and that loan on the chicken houses, now used to shelter other animals when they need to come inside, is still out there.
“But we’ll pay it off,” she said, “one steak at a time.”