Maybe Wilson, N.C., farm entrepreneur R.C. Hunt hasn’t done it all, but he’s got a pretty good start.
After all, not many farm operations have their office at a regional airport, practically on the runway. Of course, not many farmers have a pilot’s license, a ship captain’s license and a commercial driver’s license; and maybe even fewer still have been in the pig business, cattle business and fish farming business. But then again, there aren’t many folks like Hunt, period.
“In 1989, we started Andrews Hunt Farms with a few acres and a few pigs on contract,” Hunt says. “Today, we have over a thousand acres and produce over 100,000 pigs per year.”
After graduating from Louisburg (N.C.) College and then North Carolina State University in the 1970s, majoring in animal science, Hunt worked as a Wilson County agriculture Extension agent for livestock, followed by stints as a farm manager for two large companies and as an executive with Cargill. He worked with Cargill as a production manager and then later as administrative manager for Arkansas, Missouri and North Carolina.
• R.C. Hunt began with a few pigs, built one of largest pig operations in North Carolina.
• He believes United States will move from “world’s policeman” to “world’s food supplier” soon.
• He says state pig-farm moratorium hurts farmers, and current and future economy.
“We’ve worked on contract and without contract,” the Louisburg native says. “We’ve worked with companies such as Cargill, Premium Standard, Lundy’s Packing and Murphy-Brown.”
Andrews Hunt Farms also operates a USDA “red-meat” processing plant in Bailey, N.C., Bailey Foods. The company recently acquired Bailey Slaughterhouse and remains one of the few USDA processing plants that provides independent customer service.
“We process as little as one hog for a customer,” Hunt says. “If it passes inspection, we’ll even stamp it with the USDA stamp, and there just aren’t many places around that offer that service.”
At the beginning of this century, state government came down hard on hog farmers during the week of waste-lagoon breaches caused by hurricanes of historic proportions. Many growers protested that government wastewater ruptures caused far more environmental damage, but their protests were ignored and laws were put on the books to prevent new operations from going into business. Hunt, who wanted to grow his operation, looked for ways to diversify and came up with an interesting solution: a fish farm.
“We diversified because of the moratorium and went into farm-raised tilapia,” Hunt says. “We built a hatchery in Castalia, a production facility in Louisburg and another one in Wilson. There were producers on contract with Southern States Cooperative — 17 producers — who were having production challenges based on the engineering design. We ended up taking over the operations, and today, each of those farms is operating independently and growing fish without contracts.”
Hunt’s business became known as Southern Farm Tilapia. Around 2000, before the fish became “stylish,” it was anything but a slam-dunk idea.
“When we looked at tilapia,” he says, “we thought it could be a top fish. It is a very mild, white meat fillet with a high adaptability. It can be served in a fancy New York restaurant and it can also be affordable enough to feed a family of four. The fish can utilize plant or animal protein, and it is healthy.”
Southern Farm Tilapia has since moved out of production and into marketing, becoming part owner of Fresh Keepers, a Snow Hill-based fish marketing cooperative. And, despite also dabbling in cattle, pigs have been a mainstay for Hunt. He feels the moratorium has been bad for the state in a number of ways, but says there is more hope now than just a few years ago that things can improve.
“The situation complicated things for family farms, and for them being able to produce and make a living,” Hunt says. “However, the new Legislature [elected in 2010] passed the Siting Act, which now means we can at least remodel the farms allowed, and rebuild and renovate some existing sites. Our elected officials need to figure out how to redevelop this business. Other states, such as Indiana, have taken advantage of moratoriums to develop the industry, and North Carolina is missing out on opportunities [to help local economies].”
The use of the term “factory farms” causes Hunt to bristle a bit, especially considering that many “factory farms” are operated solely as “mom-and-pop” farms.
“It’s a name that is only used by anti-farm activists as a framing mechanism against a successful industry. It has a negative connotation in an unfounded way,” he says. “These farms reduce risk and offer better disease control and biosecurity, protecting the food chain. No doubt, an animal housed in a building is cleaner, healthier and more efficient.
“I say that without making any negative statement about organic or free-range production,” he continues. “The marketplace will determine whether organic is worth a premium. I haven’t seen a documented value for the cost added.”
Hunt, who has served on the board of directors for the National Pork Producers Council, moved into its top post, president, in 2012. He’s already made arrangements to focus on his job as president, leasing his pork production facility in Bailey, his cattle operation and other businesses so he can focus on a key time for farming in the United States.
“We’re going to continue to develop and market U.S. pork in countries around the world, and we’ve been very active in free-trade agreements. They are good for agriculture,” he says. “This indirectly helps exports, which creates jobs and sales for growers, who supply the large exporters. This insures that the pig business stays around. We research, educate, market and lobby … The government tends to overreach. Our organization is there to understand that overreach, to provide education and to determine if they [the actions] are acceptable or unacceptable to the industry.
“The role of the United States is going to change over the next few years. It will happen in my lifetime,” he adds. “We’re going to be moving from the world’s policeman or peacekeeper to role of feeding the world. When you look at a place such as China [with approximately five times the U.S. population], they look massive until you realize they don’t have anywhere near the cultivatable land we do. If you look at the fact that a human needs, on average, 2,000 calories a day to survive, and the world is only producing about 1,100 calories per person, then we are already rationed. The need is there.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.