The art of fine swining

After years managing factory hog farms, Michael Jones bets his future on raising pigs that appeal to people’s good taste.
By David Bailey
Michael Jones fondly remembers his aunts and uncles playing with him on his grandparents’ tenant farm in Whitakers, near Rocky Mount. “They’d take tobacco sticks and drive them into the ground and tie strings around them, and then they’d put Quaker State oil cans inside them and say, ‘Michael, those are your pigs. Take care of them.’ I was 4 years old, and that was my first farm set.”

For years after that, Jones dreamed about one day owning a pig farm. Most small-scale farmers inherit their land and equipment or ease into it, starting small and using money from their day jobs to subsidize losses. Not Jones, now 46. After two decades of raising 70,000 pigs on factory hog farms and, as a swine-husbandry expert, helping 70 other North Carolina farmers set up pasture-based operations, he took his own advice. Thirty-six years after first tending his oil cans, Jones put $50,000 down on 73 scrubby acres in Epsom, between Henderson and Louisburg. He was convinced that he could succeed raising pigs the old-fashioned way — outdoors. At the big factory farms, pigs live in cages, practically immobile. Jones’ herd of about 150 can run around in the woods, gobble down acorns and persimmons, even have sex. Happy pigs, he insists, produce superior meat, which he can sell at a significant premium — $7 to $7.75 a pound for roasts and chops, compared with pork raised on an industrial scale, which routinely goes on special for less than $2 a pound in grocery stores.

Whistling through early-morning chores at Mae Farm, the linebacker-size Jones is as happy as his hogs. “My father’s the first person in our family to graduate from high school, and I was the first to graduate from college. So I am only one generation removed from traditional Deep South poverty. On my father’s side and mother’s side, as far back as we have any knowledge, all the men were farmers. When it’s a day like today and I’m out there working, I just say, ‘It ain’t no better than this.’”

He peddles most of the pork he sells — nearly $125,000 last year — at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. Regular customers rave about the quality of his cuts. “In culinary terms, I think there’s absolutely a difference,” says Toni Calcagno, a self-described foodie who drives across town from North Raleigh to buy his pork at least once a week. “The color, texture and flavor of the meat are better. The drippings and the sauces made from it are more flavorful.” She is part of the burgeoning locavore movement that touts the benefits of buying local meat and produce from independent farmers. An indication of how pervasive this trend has become was a recent Newsweek cover story. “Divided We Eat” quoted one of Calcagno’s favorite authors, sustainable-food advocate Michael Pollan, saying, “We have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” Some day, doomsayers say, farmland depleted by big ag’s chemicals and overuse, coupled with rising petroleum prices, will create a monumental crisis. Small farms and traditional farming techniques will come to our rescue.

Jones agrees with Pollan about the poor feeding the wealthy. Though not exactly poor, he’s anything but rich, despite his equity in the farm, a 4x4 John Deere tractor, two trucks, an SUV, five trailers, a disc and subsoiler, a bush hog and a front-end loader, not to mention fences, hog shelters, feeders and freezers, all of which he estimates would cost him $370,000 to replace. “People look at what farmers have, especially their tractors and combines, and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re rich.’” To prove his point, he sits down at the dining-room table in his double-wide trailer with a calculator and crunches some numbers. It costs him an average of $162 in feed alone to raise one pig to market size. Each breeder sow (he has 25) costs him $500 a year to maintain. His feed bill runs about $60,000 a year. Servicing the mortgage adds another $10,000. For the sixth year in a row, Mae Farm didn’t turn a profit in 2010. “I just need a small improvement to get over the hump,” he says.

As he punches keys, the phone rings. It’s Mule City Specialty Feeds Inc. in Benson calling about his latest shipment of feed. (His is a specialty blend, with oregano and molasses.) When he takes the call in another room, his wife, Suzanne, says, “We’re struggling financially, and it’s difficult. Most people we talk to are not paying a mortgage. Their fencing was already up. Their tractor is paid for.” Later she adds, “I’ve had moments when I think we’re going to be foreclosed on, but we’re still here.” Coming back into the room, he says the truck is on the way. “My feed guy asked me if I’m comfortable owing them so much money.” He says he is. “I just don’t quit. I’m not one of those people who, when adversity strikes, goes into the fetal position. I’m a fighter.”

 

Jones is not kidding. Fighting is how he, at the time a struggling Eastern North Carolina chicken farmer, managed to land Suzanne, a U.S. Airways flight attendant. He first noticed her at a Society for Creative Anachronism medieval fair in Pennsylvania, where, clad in a tight leather bodice and furs, she was masquerading as a member of a barbarian clan. “She was like the star of the show, and I was looking at her and I said, ‘Oh, my God, who is that?’”

In the guise of a warrior who would become the knightly Sir Gunther, Jones came to the event at a low point in his life — in fact, one of the lowest. He had managed factory hog farms off and on for 14 years before concluding in 1996 that the process was so inhumane that he couldn’t continue. Describing a day in the life of a confinement hog, he says, “They stand up, lay down, take two steps forward and one step back, and that’s all they can do. … I said, ‘God, this is hideous.’” About that same time, “my second wife left. And I thought, ‘I am definitely not doing things right. I’m in debt. I’ve had two wives leave me. I’m not advancing in my career. Everything is going wrong here. What on earth am I going to do?’”

What he did was reinvent himself. “I turned my back on confinement hogs,” he says. While working a stress-free, $12-an-hour job — spraying and mowing on a tractor at the Zeneca Ag Products plant near Whitakers — he enrolled in business classes at Edgecombe Community College, aiming to round out the bachelor’s in agriculture and military science he had earned from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. “I needed to figure out how to make money.” Hoping to do just that and maybe get started on buying a farm, he tried raising broilers on the side, 40,000 at a time. Two weeks before the tournament, he had 7,000 chickens die on him. “I was depressed, and I blamed myself for it and told myself, ‘You don’t deserve to go and have fun.’” But friends and family persuaded him to go to Pennsylvania, and he ended up taking first place in a charity competition hosted by Suzanne’s barbarian clan. Decked out quite literally as a knight in shining armor, he engaged in hand-to-hand mock combat, wielding a two-handed sword or the dreaded long-handled halberd. From the sidelines, Suzanne watched Gunther vanquish one adversary after another, even coming up against a real-life Special Forces soldier. Jones bested even him. “From that point on, I was like this savage, just killing everything like a mad dog.”

After cleaning up, he sought out Suzanne among the 13,000 revelers, though he seriously doubted his chances, telling her, “I’m a farmer from North Carolina. There’s nothing exciting or glamorous about me at all.” She replied, “You’re just exactly what I’m looking for.” She adds, “He showed me a poster of all the different kinds of pigs and said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be an outdoor, free-range pig farmer.’ I’d never met anyone like that.”

They wed a year later. “Suzanne used some of her life’s savings to get us going,” he says. “To tell the truth, she used all of her life’s savings.” He is still amazed that farmer-owned AgCarolina Financial lent him money to buy the $170,000 farm. It helped that Jones was involved in a N.C. A&T State University program to help former tobacco farmers transition to pasture-raised hogs. Envisioned in 2002 by former A&T animal-science researcher Chuck Talbott, the project was funded by Golden LEAF, the nonprofit that distributes funds from the court order resolving years of tobacco litigation. Researching operations in Iowa, raising the breeding stock provided by nonprofit Heifer International and tutoring farmers on setting up their operations, Jones became a vocal advocate of the lost art of pasture-raising hogs. “He really did a good job. Excellent,” says Talbott, now an extension agent in West Virginia who also raises free-range hogs. Jones admits that he became a bit obsessed by the idea of reviving the tradition, as old as the earliest European settlement of North Carolina itself.

Jones and Suzanne came upon the future Mae Farms in 2004. “I stood up in the back of the pickup truck, looking around at the brush and everything, and said, ‘This is the place. It’s perfect,’” he recalls. Suzanne looked at the tumbledown buildings, the rusty hulks of abandoned cars and decades of discarded trash. “You are insane,” she concluded.

 

Six years and numberless trips to the dump later, Mae Farm is one of 24 stops on the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Eastern Triangle Farm Tour. In this age of agritourism, many places on the tour offer deluxe amenities. Nearby Brinkley Farms, for instance, owned by the same family nearly 70 years, boasts a playground and a produce stand. The Jones place, in sharp contrast, is strictly a working farm. “I think I was expecting the farm from Charlotte’s Web, complete with 100-year-old farmhouse and red barn,” loyal customer Calcagno says during the tour. “However, the areas we saw were clean and organized.”

“I am what I am,” Jones says. “I see rich farmers trying to look like they’re poor people, and poor people trying to look like they’re rich.” Besides, he says, Mae Farm can’t afford white fences or a gingerbread-trim farmhouse. On its tour, the main attractions are the newborn piglets — and the couple’s four children. “I’m the ‘E’ in Mae Farms,” 8-year-old Enya says as she conducts a hayride show-and-tell. (Max, 12, is the “M,” and Audra, 10, is the “A.” Their parents took on Tyler, 13, as a foster child after the farm had been named.) “This momma pig is a first-time momma,” Enya explains as the agritourists crowd around a sow nursing eight pink-eared piglets wagging their spiral tails. They squeal excitedly when the first cameras flash, then ignore them. Soon, the only sound is suckling. Piglets here, unlike those at commercial hog farms, stay with the sow 10 weeks. “The momma’s name is Barbie, and the daddy is George Bush,” Enya continues. Jones, his wife and their kids are the only labor, which explains why he has spent so much on equipment. “I’ve designed the farm so there’s no heavy lifting.” If he’s away, the chores can be done by his wife and children.

Chickens are under the feet of every biped and quadruped on the farm. Because the pigs roam free, Jones needs no hog lagoons or other waste-removal system than what comes naturally via dung beetles, chickens and bacteria. That saves him the expense of treating and disposing of the 1,200 pounds of waste an average market hog produces each year. It also gains him points with the locavores, not to mention the Tar River Land Conservancy, which has two easements on the farm.

With his quick smile and charm, Jones is a born salesman, who touts his boutique pork to visitors as environmentally friendly, humanely raised and free of antibiotics. On a bulletin board is a 2006 front-page story from The New York Times, featuring the farm in a piece about Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. introducing “animal compassionate” meat. “I was thinking all these things were so great and wonderful,” he says. “I had the prestige, the attention and the acclaim, but I was not putting money into the bank or paying my bills.” In 2006, Jones figures, it was costing him $1 a pound to raise hogs. Alameda, Calif.-based Niman Ranch Inc. was buying his pork for 76 cents a pound, and Whole Foods was paying 80 cents. And that was before the price of diesel fuel and corn skyrocketed. “When I started, I was paying $1.95 a bushel for corn. That has tripled to $6.”

Big ag has so many advantages over farmers like Jones, says Roland McReynolds, executive director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a Pittsboro-based nonprofit. “The ability of medium-sized farms to remain in business has been dramatically reduced by our transition to chemical- and subsidy-dependent agriculture. And pork is the poster child for that.” Kelly Zering, an extension specialist at N.C. State University’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, says it costs an industrial-scale hog farm about 80 cents a pound — or about $160 — to raise 200 pounds of marketable pork. Nowadays, with the increased cost of fuel and feed, it costs Jones about $1.11 a pound — or more than $222, which does not include the cost of transporting or storing the meat, renting a booth at the farmers market and other expenses such as his mortgage, equipment or utilities. Zering says Jones’ costs are “reasonable and to be expected for a small boutique operation.”

“If you allow a large company to squeeze out small businesses, that’s no longer capitalism,” Jones says. “That’s more approaching what I would call feudalism, where you have powerful lords who have favor with the rulers. These powerful lords force other people to their will.” According to Sir Gunther, the banks and big ag companies are the overlords, the barons. The farmers, bound by contract to the pork packers, are the petty lords. The workers who feed the hogs and handle their waste are the serfs. And Michael Jones? “I’m an outlaw. Outlaw means living outside the protection of the law. There’s nothing that protects me from loss and disaster.” Not that the industrial hog farms are doing a whole lot better right now. “Most large confinement operations are not making a profit now,” Zering says. “The industry is still adapting to the radical increase in corn and soybean-meal prices.” Zering estimates that losses around the end of last year were about $20 per hog.

In late 2007, after losing money on the wholesale market, Jones decided to concentrate on selling retail, focusing on the farmers market in Raleigh. The range of his fare is impressive: eight varieties of cuts; 12 kinds of smoked pork, from bacon to andouille sausage; and seven ready-to-eat, prepared products, including salami and liverwurst. Processing, of course, adds significantly to his costs — $1.09 a pound to turn meat from the carcass into, say, a shoulder steak or rack of ribs. Add $1 more for smoking the meat and $1.99 to salt and cure the bacon. To maximize their margin, he and his wife tried running the booth themselves in August 2008. “I was there every day, and it’s hard,” she says. “I felt like My Fair Lady — ’Flowers for sale, flowers for sale. Sausage: $5.’” It was also wearing on him, trying to run the farm, keep up with finances and marketing and selling his products. “I could do a much better job if I could focus on one or the other. That’s why I don’t grow my own grain.” Jones soon hired several clerks, putting them on commission.

As the locavore movement heated up, traffic at the farmers market boomed, especially on weekends. Sales increased. “It reached a high-water mark in August of 2009.” He had begun selling products from other farmers — milk, beef, even ostrich. “I was generating a lot of income, but my expenses were growing at a faster rate than my income.” For instance, he decided to buy a display freezer to lure customers to his booth. Establishing a farm from scratch, Jones was finding out, “is far more complex than I wanted to accept as far as your capital, your distribution and your marketing. I’m thinking that if I can just keep surviving and doing the right thing that I will prevail eventually.”

 

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler agrees. “I think he’s in it at the right time,” says Troxler, who sat down with Jones at Business North Carolina’s request to discuss the plight of small-scale, independent farmers. “I don’t see any reason that he’s not going to be successful, but it’s about building clientele.” Troxler speaks from experience. “Like you, I didn’t have any inherited land or equipment or any of that, so I started this farming operation from scratch,” he says, gesturing from his oak-shaded front porch to the 100-acre farm he bought in the northeastern Guilford County community of Browns Summit. Troxler, whose father was a rural mail carrier and whose grandfather farmed until he died at age 88 while cleaning out a hog house, grew up near here and raised tobacco to pay his way through N.C. State University. The year he graduated, he rented 25 acres to grow tobacco and has been farming since. “We raised wheat, soybeans and got into produce in a pretty big way. ... I can remember the times when I was growing wheat and soybeans when, if I blew a tire on the last load, I’d lose money.”

The state has roughly 53,000 farms, Troxler says, and “43,000 have incomes of less than $50,000. So we’re a small-farm state.” In fact, the average Tar Heel farm is 164 acres. But they’re part of a big industry, which Troxler says contributes $70 billion a year to the state economy, accounting for 17% of its jobs and 18% of its total income. In December, 8.8 million hogs were being raised in North Carolina, down from 9.6 million a year ago. Only Iowa raises more. Tar Heel swine produced $1.9 billion in 2009, a fifth of the state’s total farm cash receipts. Hog farming, Troxler says, “takes capital, No. 1, and it takes a good business plan. And then it takes a lot of grit and determination to get to the point where you’re profitable.” Jones nods his head in agreement. About 200 farmers are licensed by the state, as Jones is, to sell pork directly to the public, according to state statistics. Learning to sell their products retail is essential for small-scale farmers, Troxler says. “You’ve got to go aggressively after customers and build a good customer base. It was my experience in the produce business — and we actually had our own produce stand and also marketed directly to grocery stores and other produce stands — that there was much more profit selling a tomato retail than selling it wholesale.”

It’s a lesson Jones is learning one step at a time. Faced with diminishing sales in February 2010, he decided to drop everyone’s products but his own and focus on repeat customers. “I quit focusing on all the things they were not interested in — the feel-good story on how nice the pigs live — and I focused like a laser beam on what my customers wanted, a good-quality product.” He instituted a constant inventory system to prevent running out of best-selling items. He began promoting things that were moving slowly — offering a bottle of barbecue sauce with every rib order after grilling season cooled. He found a secondary market for heads, tails, ears and jowls, making room for more saleable products in his freezers. He spruced up his booth. He went from having seven part-time clerks to two full-time people in the booth, who cook samples seven days a week. “We try to engage everyone who walks by. I don’t think anyone at that farmers market is as desperate for income as I am. The hungrier you are, the harder you work.”

His strategy seems to be paying off: “I had a $9,200 increase in income [over 2009],” he says. But frustration shows as he relates how, even though he cut the number of employees, payroll taxes went up more than a thousand dollars. “I thought I’d get a saving with five fewer employees, but it actually cost me more in payroll taxes from increased Social Security contributions. When you’re a small business, you keep asking yourself, ‘Am I focused on the right thing?’” He goes on. “I’ve never made any money doing this, but I’ve invested in my equipment and the ability to produce pigs.” When the economy rebounds and more people discover his pork, Jones believes, he has the land, animals and equipment in place to see his dream come true — if he can hang on that long.

“It’s not an easy challenge that he has set for himself,” McReynolds of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association says. But despite the economy, his timing is right, says Talbott, the swine expert and free-range farmer. “There’s a convergence now, and he needs to fight the fight, like all of us,” he says, his voice rising. “I’m sorry. I haven’t made a dollar out of this yet, either.” And Jones has another advantage, both men agree. He’s “mission-driven,” McReynolds says. “That seems to me what’s really driving him. It’s a road-to-Damascus kind of thing. If anyone ought to be able to make a go of this, it ought to be Michael Jones.” Whether he’s Farmer Jones or Sir Gunther, when he sees a challenge, the crusader in him takes over. As his wife says, “His whole life, Michael’s had to roll with the punches. He always says, ‘I’m not going to give up. I never give up.’”