On the flat lands of Beulaville, Jeremiah Jones raises all-natural hogs by hand. Some call him a newbie or a risk-taker, but he’s just doing it the old-fashioned way.
A John Deere Gator comes bouncing down a sandy path and out steps Jeremiah Jones in bib overalls and a green hoodie, his black beard thick as a hedge, looking awfully young for a farmer who’s chosen to raise hogs the hard way — the way his grandfather did it.
He offers a tour of his 97-acre Beulaville farm, which, like all of Duplin County, is so flat that you can’t roll a marble down a driveway and so sandy-soiled that your shoes sink past the soles.
But first, a polite request: Put on a pair of plastic booties. At Grassroots Pork Co., the hogs get no antibiotics, no medicine, no growth hormones. Nothing but feed Jones grows himself. So he doesn’t want you tracking anything nasty into his pastures.
Here, in a county that grows more hogs than most states, and where the factory farms stretch from horizon to horizon, you might as well churn butter as raise livestock by hand.
From the driver’s seat of his Gator, Jones shows off about 30 piglets, striped and spotted, rolling in the dirt and tackling each other, their snouts smeared with mud and straw.
The scene calls to mind the Duplin of 100 years ago, when you ate what crops you grew, slaughtered what animals you raised, and lived or died by the whims of weather.
There’s no concrete flooring here. No pens for fattening. These hogs get grass pastures and recycled-metal shelters with heat lamps. These sows wallow in mud puddles and scratch themselves on wooden posts. The whole place looks a little bit like Charlotte’s Web, and you wonder when someone will tell Wilbur he’s going to make a delicious sausage someday.
But the most remarkable sight at Grassroots comes around the next bend, when Jones points out the hogs rooting through a pine forest. A herd of pink pigs roams in the woods, shaded by tall trees, unaware that they’ll ever become someone’s sandwich.
Remember that out here, in Duplin County, nearly every inch of ground is given over to agriculture. Turkey feathers blow past you on the road. Drive down Interstate 40 to the beach, and the hog-waste stench hits you from the highway. Inside Duplin’s borders, water only covers .17 percent of the land. So, much of the rest is a tabletop terrain used to raise animals.
But it doesn’t even smell bad around Jones’s hogs.
Practically nobody in Duplin County farms this way anymore, so why is a 30-year-old with a wife, two daughters, and five different associate’s degrees working the land like it’s 1950?
Because the meat tastes better, and the work feels honest. The large, factory farms turn out more pigs in 18 weeks than Jones does in a year, and the farmers who run those places never get their hands dirty for all the desk work they do.
Jones grew up farming for his uncle, part of a generation of small-time farmers Jones watched get shoved aside. He’d rather spend the day on his John Deere, feeling the sun on his back, or the rain on his head, or the ice on his fingertips.
He’d rather turn out a ham steak so succulent you’ll swear off T-bones, and make the kind of pork they sell at upscale Whole Foods Markets with his name on the package, guaranteed cruelty-free and hormone-free. It’s strange that he and the 30-odd farmers who grow hogs the natural way are considered the new guard, the risk-takers. They’re just doing it the old way.
“You have to love it to do it this way,” Jones says, stopping the Gator to scratch the back of Cotton, his yellow lab. “It’s seven days a week, and you can’t go very far for vacation. You can’t hire people to care for them properly. I’ve been down here Christmas night with a sow having pigs.”
It wasn’t always hogs here. At one time, Duplin County’s sandy soil was prime ground for tobacco, a dominant crop before foreign competition and health consciousness dimmed its prospects in North Carolina. Traditionally, the crops that lined the highways here didn’t go to feed animals so much as get smoked.
But this is hog country now, home of Wendell Murphy, whom The News & Observer of Raleigh once described as “the undisputed king of hogs.”
North Carolina produces roughly 10 million hogs a year, second only to Iowa for the number sent to market. Statewide, Duplin County turns out more than 2 million all by itself. Only Sampson County, right next door, comes close. Between the two of them, they raise nearly half the state’s hogs.
So to say the locals in Beulaville farm pigs is like saying they sell a bit of furniture around High Point and catch a few bluefish off Nags Head. Jones can point to half a dozen hog houses standing just off his property. He points again to a row of tractors, including his uncle’s and his grandfather’s, both of which still plow up the sandy soil.
As Duplin County hog farmers go, Jones qualifies as a newbie — a young man born in the Disneyland suburbs of Orange County, California. His parents came from Duplin County, but they never earned their supper raising hogs.
Plenty of Jones’s neighboring farmers remember when everybody raised hogs on dirt. Unlike Jones, they can recall the days before factory farms.
By the time Jones was 11 and his family came back from California, those old ways were vanishing. Mega-farms moved in, production exploded, prices dropped, and only a handful of the aging hog farmers stuck with it. In the past 15 years, more than half the small, family hog farms have disappeared.
One who toughed it out, Howard Jones — Jeremiah Jones’s neighbor, but of no relation — ticks off a long list of advantages for the largest producers — discounts for buying in bulk, governmental aid for cleaning up lagoons.
Standing with his foot on the Gator, Howard Jones looks every bit like the anachronistic farmer, up before dawn, hands rough from work that lasts until the sun dips behind the trees.
“I’ve been doing this since 1963, and I’ve seen rough times,” he says. “But us little fellers out here are having a struggle.”
Jeremiah Jones always liked farming, even as an 11-year-old boy standing waist-deep in his uncle’s corn, wheat, and sorghum, or helping his grandmother raise Perdue chickens.
Neither of his parents farmed — his father worked in construction, his mother in health care — but when they divorced, he decided to stick with the family’s earthier trade.
In just two and a half years, Jones earned five associate’s degrees from North Carolina State University, all of them agriculture-related. Then he started farming right out of school, working back in Duplin County.
He didn’t have to farm. But for him, there’s just nothing like zipping from pen to pen, getting his own sandy dirt on his hands, doing business with the Bulk and More Amish-Mennonite Store down the road, where everyone knows him by name.
The hog operation idea came from his wife, Jessica, who, in about 2004, suggested raising heirloom breeds on the side. The idea seemed risky and strange. At first, when he raised hogs for Diamond Ranch Foods, the meat only went to “high-falutin’ restaurants,” Jones says. “We couldn’t even afford to eat what we grew.”
A better partnership formed with Whole Foods Market. Suddenly, Jones found a market for pork you can trace down to an acre of land. Buyers who shop there want to know for certain that their meat hasn’t been treated like a widget in a factory and that it hasn’t been plumped with growth hormones. The locavores in Raleigh and Chapel Hill find Jones’s old-time ways appealing.
Today, Jones is president of the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association, a co-op with about 30 other farmers around the state. The Animal Welfare Institute certifies Jones’s hogs and gives customers proof of what they’re buying. You can taste Grassroots Pork at The Pit in Raleigh or The Pig in Chapel Hill, which may seem like a continent away from Duplin County’s sandy soil, instead of just a few hours down the interstate.
Jones can’t keep more than 250 hogs at a time, a small enough number that some of his neighbors don’t even know he’s raising them.
But he’s here every day before dawn, bumping around his land on the Gator, dodging the piglets that wiggle out of the fence — a barrier whose only purpose is to keep out the bobcats and bears.
He looks like he fits on this farm, as satisfied as his sow buried half-deep in mud.
Josh Shaffer writes for The News & Observer in Raleigh. Josh’s most recent story for Our State was “Wimpy’s Grill” (June 2011).
East or West: Where do you stand?
These stories appeared as part of the feature exploring eastern and western North Carolina:
The Town: Murphy
The Town: Manteo
The Grape: Yadkin Valley
The Grape: Duplin Winery
The Catch: Brook Trout
The Catch: Shrimp
The Legend: Eustace Conway
The Legend: Fort Fisher Hermit
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 West
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 East
The Farm: Apple Brandy Beef
The Farm: Grassroots Pork Co.
The BBQ: N.C. Barbecue Company