“I was 11 years old, and it was tobacco barning season, and we got up early that morning taking out tobacco. I saw my father go in to check one of the barns. He stayed there and he stayed there — I realized something was wrong and I found him laying on the floor.
“I drug him out of the barn so he could get some air. He was dead from a cerebral hemorrhage. Those were hard times, real hard times. I feel truly blessed to have come from where I was then to where I am now," says Freemont, N.C., grower Jerry West.
Where he is now is a successful farmer, farming about 3,500 acres of prime farmland near Freemont, N.C. And he is farming with his two sons, Craig and Brad, which makes it even better, West says.
Jerry grew up no stranger to hard work. His mother had to sell off all the farm equipment and give up all their rented land, though she did manage to keep the land they owned. Despite the hard hand he was dealt, West never lost the dream of being a farmer.
He worked for 10 years at United Corporation, making surgical instruments in Freemont and farmed part time.
When the company told him they were going to transfer him out west, he made the decision to begin living his life long dream of farming. Ironically, the plant to which he was to be transferred never opened, he says.
West recalls sitting down in the kitchen of his small farm house and telling his wife, Audrey and Craig, then just 12 years old, that he was quitting his job and going into farming full time.
Wiping a tear from his eye, West says, “Craig looked up at me and said go for it daddy, I’ll help you. We’ve been here ever since — through the good times and the bad.”
In the early years of his farming career, West remodeled houses, built storage bins, and put in floor covering. “It’s not a sin to be poor, it’s just inconvenient,” he laughs.
Neither Craig, nor his younger brother, Brad, ever wavered for a second in helping their father with the farming operation. “I remember working after school on the farm. That first year we had 4-5 acres of tobacco and maybe 200 acres of grain crops. We went to a lot of farm sales and bought and repaired a lot of farm equipment that other people didn’t want,” the younger West recalls.
Both Craig and Brad took partial time out from farming to attend North Carolina State University. Craig graduated with a degree in agronomy, while his younger brother graduated from the North Carolina State Ag Institute.
West says he began his full time farming career at exactly the worst time in modern farming history. “Interest rates were over 20 percent, and we had to have financial support to farm every year. Farming was something I just had to do — failure was not an option,” he says.
Like so many farmers in the Southeast, West and his sons began growing cotton in the early 1990s and were able to gradually increase acreage. They also bought a little tobacco quota when they could.
“When I walked into my banker’s office and told him we were getting into the cotton business and what kind of money I needed to get started, he looked at me like I was crazy. Within three years, we had paid for all our cotton equipment. We were growing cotton and custom picking cotton in five counties, and we made it work, West adds.
West and four other farmers founded Nahunta Swamp Pickers and custom picked cotton for a number of years during the hey-day of cotton in central North Carolina. “Sometimes we would leave the house before daylight, and if the wind would cooperate, pick until dark,” West says.
Low prices and a plethora of production problems, including glyphosate resistant pigweed, led West and his sons to get out of the cotton business the past few years. Though, he says, they still have the cotton equipment they struggled so hard to acquire.
In 1999, they began working with Phillip Morris Tobacco Company, via Universal Tobacco Company, to do a tobacco production study. They have been working with the tobacco company ever since — a great working relationship that has been good for their farming operation, West stresses.
Growing tobacco in a declining market is not reassuring and the recent additional dollar a pack tax is yet another nail in the coffin of U.S. tobacco production. Quality will be the deciding factor on which American growers stay in business and which don’t, West contends.
“High quality tobacco has to ripen in the field — you cannot ripen it in a tobacco barn. It has to stay in the field and ripen, and it takes time and patience to grow real high quality domestic tobacco. You cannot over-fertilize or under-fertilize it, and it takes a lot of experience and hard knocks to know how to get the fertility just right,” West stresses.
He served as president of the North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association in 1993. Now, Craig serves as vice-president of the organization. “There is no way any college in the world can teach you in four years what you will learn in one meeting with those folks about how to grow tobacco,” Jerry West says, emphasizing the need for farmers to be active in their grower associations.
Last year they grew their first crop of peanuts, planting 430 acres of Virginia-type. Despite low contract prices, they will grow another 350 acres of peanuts this year.
“Peanuts fit well into our rotation and prices were good for peanuts. We had some close friends who started growing peanuts a few years back and they encouraged us to try peanuts,” Craig says. They also raise two houses of turkeys, using the litter to fertilize their crops. Craig’s wife, Nell, manages the brooder farm. In addition to the brooder house, they also grow large tom turkeys.
A couple of years back West and Sons Farms bought a feed mill. That purchase got them further into a grain hauling business and has allowed them some marketing options for their crop.
West says the biggest problem he, his sons and his brother’s family face farming in the future is finding farmland. “We don’t take rented land away from other farmers — we just don’t do that,” he stresses. “With all the residential expansion we’ve seen in our country over the past few years, it’s not easy to find good land to farm,” he adds.
Finding more farming land may become important in the future because both Craig and Brad have children who are already showing interest in farming. Craig’s son, Lee, is already in the produce business, growing sweet corn in the summer for local grocery stores.
“There are probably a few things I could have done different, but I’m living a dream with no regrets,” West concludes.
e-mail: [email protected]