From The Land Up

Tommy Porter built his triple livestock operation from a tiny herd and an irrepressible desire to farm.

By Tanner Latham | Photos By Jeff Amberg

Tommy Porter

Tommy Porter

Tommy Porter chokes up when he talks about the land. As he tops a hill, he leans on a young oak tree. Eyes misting. Cheeks flushing. Spring green hay fields and cattle pastures roll out behind him.

Porter owns these 600 acres and another 308 down the road. He raises beef cattle, poultry and hogs, but he subscribes to the belief that he’s a borrower, a steward.

“The bank and I may hold this property, but we’re here for a short time,” he says.

“To be able to tend to part of God’s creation, that means something to me.”

Just 30 miles to the southwest sits the glass-and-steel, corporate skyline of Charlotte. It’s North Carolina’s largest, most metropolitan city. Here on the outskirts of the town of Concord, however, Porter has carved out his peace.

From Scratch

After returning from WWII, Porter’s father had been a dairy farmer, but was forced to give that up because of too little land and too many regulations. The elder Porter instead made ends meet as a welder and a pipe fitter, a path his son took as well, working in nearby nuclear and fossil fuel power plants. He even built houses.

But from a young age, his desire was farming, and he only began to satisfy that by working his father’s land.

By the late 1970s, he and his wife, Vicki, a vital part of the farm from the beginning, were ready to chase the dream and started their cattle herd with five cows. In the mid 1980s, they bought 200 acres of corn and soybeans, and converted them to pasture.

In 30-plus years, they have grown the herd to 350 Hereford-Angus cows and calves. Along the way, Porter invested in the chicken business, expanding that operation to 68,000 broiler pullets and 30,000 broiler egg layers for Tyson Foods. The third leg of the livestock operation includes 2,200 large, white sows that breed between 102 and 105 pigs per week for Murphy-Brown.

Porter’s family has been a large part of his farm’s success. “We’ve always been a very tight, close family,” he says. Growing up, his sons, Derek and Jared, and his daughter, Erin, performed daily chores and remained interested in the farm. Even though they’ve all got other full-time careers these days, Derek, a firefighter, still works the farm on his days off (see “Smooth Ride, Terrific Visibility” for his take on his dad’s Massey Ferguson® tractor). And Jared’s wife, Colleen, now manages the layer houses.

More than 300,000 chickens are part of Porter's livestock operation.

More than 300,000 chickens are part of Porter’s livestock operation.

“Tommy started with a dream,” says Chip Blalock, executive director of Sunbelt Ag Expo. “He didn’t inherit anything. He did it all the old fashioned way from scratch.” Judges considered the scope of Porter’s success a major factor when naming him the 2011 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Because Porter’s livestock operation has gotten so large, one of his biggest concerns is biosecurity. “We’ve got to make sure no disease makes it onto the farm that will affect [the animals],” he says. The hog operation is the most sensitive, so Porter is very restrictive on managing who comes in and out of the hog house. The employees shed their street clothes, take showers and put on farm clothes before working the swine. If anyone has been to another hog farm, they can’t come back to the Porter farm for 72 hours.

Another reality in this business is mortality. But instead of contracting a company to dispose of the carcasses—another potential for spreading disease—Porter takes care of all of them on-site by adding them to his massive composting facility.

That facility is a major part of the farm’s operation. Its base is the litter gathered from his six chicken houses. After it’s sufficiently cooked down and analyzed for nutrient values, he then applies it to the land as fertilizer. He also utilizes the hog waste by washing it into a lagoon and using that water to irrigate his pastures.

The economics are sound, because that saves them from buying so much commercial fertilizer. But Porter is also proud of the environmentally friendly practice. “We view that as the ultimate recycling,” he says.

Always About the Land

And with Porter’s self-imposed role as land steward, it’s no surprise that the environment is so important to him.

Porter relishes his role as a steward of 'God's creation.'

Porter relishes his role as a steward of ‘God’s creation.’

He is conscientious of his adjacent neighbors, a daycare and a church. He says by following best management practices, (for instance, a daily regimen of cleaning his facilities), he can keep the odors of his triple-livestock operation in check. He also releases parasitic wasps that kill fly eggs, significantly reducing the number of those annoying insects.

He placed 109 acres of his land under a conservation easement, which means that land can only be developed for agriculture. His long-term plan is to broaden the easement, adding acres as he can, until all of it is covered. This is chiefly to preserve the land for his family, but he’s also keeping his neighbors in mind. “We want them to be happy with this open land rather than housing developments,” he says.

Locally, Porter has lobbied successfully for zoning laws that prevent developers from carving up land for large tracts of houses. He has spoken out on both the state and national level against estate taxes he believes are unfair to farmers.

As an advocate for farmers’ rights, Porter champions numerous causes and is generous with the hours he volunteers. He offers a strong voice to the laundry list of influential organizations in which he participates in his community and region: He is a member of the Board of Directors for Carolina Farm Credit, county president for Cabarrus County Farm Bureau, chairman of the Extension Advisory Committee and a member of the North Carolina Poultry Federation.

“Tommy is one who doesn’t mind speaking up for agriculture,” says Blalock. “He has lots and lots of credibility. When he speaks, people listen. He gets the big picture.”

And it is Porter’s broad, forward-thinking vision that underscores every farming decision he makes. “While I’m taking care of it, I want to improve the land,” he says. “I want to leave it better than I found it.”

Click here to learn more about the Swisher Sweets/ Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year program.