Concord man named farmer of the year

Tucked away on 600 acres south of Mount Pleasant in Cabarrus County, some innovative large-scale farming is taking place.

Thomas Porter Jr., who grew up on a dairy farm in Mecklenburg County, always wanted to be a full-time farmer. But he didn't buy his first 200 acres in Cabarrus until the mid-1980s. His 300-head beef cattle herd was started from five cows he bought in the 1970s.

Today, Porter is a contract grower of hogs and chickens, and his breeding animals are vital to the success of two national food suppliers. He grows broiler pullets, or baby chicks, and produces eggs from broiler layers for Tyson Foods. His hogs go to Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

Last month, Porter was named the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga., beating eight other state finalists from throughout the Southeast.

Porter's state-of-the-art 2,220-sow multiplication unit helps add to the nation's breeding stock. The egg-laying operation can produce up to 38,000 fertilized eggs per day. Porter has 15 employees and gets help running the farm from his wife, Vicky, and their three grown children, Derek, Jared and Erin. Jared's wife, Colleen, manages the poultry layer operation.

The Farmer of the Year was selected by three judges who visited his farm and the farms of the other state winners in August. Senior judge Jim Bone, a retired manager of field development with DuPont Crop Protection in Georgia, said all the state winners had strong records of farming innovation and were great examples of ingenuity.

"We saw many new farming practices on their farms that will become commonplace in the years to come," said Bone. "It was refreshing to see such outstanding examples of family togetherness in producing quality food and fiber to meet not only U.S. demand, but world demand as well."

This was Porter's second time competing for the award. He also was named the state winner for North Carolina in 2006 and is the third overall winner to come from North Carolina since the award began in 1990. A field representative from the N.C. Farm Bureau nominated Porter's operation.

The award recognizes excellence in agricultural production and management, along with leadership in community and farm organizations. It also honors family contributions in producing safe and abundant supplies of food, fiber and shelter products for U.S. consumers.

J. Thomas Ryan, president of Swisher International Inc. in Florida, said Porter and his family represent the best of American agriculture.

"He is an excellent environmental steward and an individual who gives back to the farming community through his leadership in many farm organizations," said Ryan. "His wife, Vicky, is also a strong contributor and an outstanding leader in her own right."

Judges also were impressed with the appearance of Porter's farm and how well he gets along with his nearest neighbors: a children's daycare center and a church.

"It was a very humbling experience, just a tremendous honor," said Porter. "What probably set us apart was what we did here. I didn't walk into a family operation. It was kind of built from the ground up."

Porter has served nine years on the board of directors for Carolina Farm Credit, a lending institution for rural America. He is president of the Cabarrus County Farm Bureau and an associate member of the Cabarrus County Soil & Water Conservation District, and he served on the Cabarrus County Planning and Zoning Commission.

His wife is an elected member of the Cabarrus Soil and Water Conservation District. She was appointed by the governor to serve on the Soil and Water Conservation Commission in Raleigh.

It is a family goal to keep farming alive for generations to come.

"When we bought our first land (in Cabarrus County), our children were very young and my wife liked the school system, so we just kind of started here and now have way too much established to start over somewhere else," said Porter. "Even though (my kids) don't work full time on the farm, all three of them are interested in the farming operation. All three of them are going to make their homes here and raise families here."