Life Lessons From A Generational Farmer

To sit a while with Garrett Strickland of Strickland Farming Partnership is to sit with a man so deeply entrenched in North Carolina that he can regurgitate 150 years of its history from a life that lived much of it. “To know about the whole county, you have to be involved in politics and the agriculture community–which of course I was,” Mr. Strickland said in his signature guttural Southern drawl.
Garrett Strickland is a former Sampson County Commissioner and a Board Chairman of his family’s farming operation now. According to their website, Strickland Farming Partnership is a “progressive 7th generation diversified crop and livestock family farm operation. Garrett and his son Reggie still farm much of the land their ancestors farmed as far back as 1861…in Wayne, Sampson, and Duplin counties farming corn, soybeans, wheat, tobacco, pickle cucumbers, and sweet potatoes and finishing over 22,000 swine each year for Prestage Farms and grow out over 120,000 turkeys for Butterball.”

Farming has changed a lot over the years because of the white rabbit of consumerism that farmers are always chasing. “The population of the United States hit 100 million during my early lifetime. It’s 360 million now. The population of the world has gone from 5 billion to 7.5 billion. Land is being taken up for highways, housing developments, and shopping centers. We are feeding more and more people on less land. The only way we can continue to do that is to increase the productivity of the basic crops we are growing. So much of the basic food of the world is based on two crops: corn and soybeans,” Garrett Strickland said.

Having more people to feed on less land is not the only problem farmers face today. The other threat is a global market with unequal standards. “It used to be that we consumed all we made here. You could look around where you live and know all the crops there. Now other parts of the world determine what we grow more than we do. South America, Australia, and now Africa are large agricultural countries. Farms here average 1,000 acres while farms there average 10,000 and do not have to comply with regulations and government oversight as much as we do,” Garrett Strickland explained. “Compliance makes us have a disadvantage in the world market because we can’t do it as cheaply as them. Where we can get ahead in the global market is with specialty crops like sweet potatoes and tobacco that only grow in limited locations. Another way is through partnerships with companies that need our products. The world’s largest producer of hogs, for example, is right here in Sampson and Duplin counties.”

Reggie and Garrett

Reggie Strickland is following his father’s example in terms of staying involved in all aspects of farming life. His passion is to keep the farm moving forward, but he does that first by valuing his family. He will be the first to tell you that his father is his “best friend”, his wife is his “secret weapon”, and his children are “his whole world”. Still farming keeps him on the road more times than not. Reggie stays busy traveling the country on the boards of various committees advocating for the quality of US products as well as learning what is new and upcoming in grain crops and other agricultural products. He not only knows cutting edge facts when they matter, but he finds time to promote education in all its forms from agriculture students in college to media tours of the farm or answering phone calls from other farmers needing advice.

One of the biggest things that the public can do to support agriculture today, according to both Reggie and Garrett Strickland, is to understand that farmers are good stewards of the land and the environment. “We have a lot more interest invested in the land than other organizations outside of it,” they said.

The vision to diversify and expand the business really came from Reggie. He knew from an early age that he wanted to go into the family business, and he was excited to work hard and put in the time to make it grow. It was under his vision that the farm diversified into animal production as well as crops. “You want to diversify but not past what you know you can control,” Garrett said. “When things are good, it is easy to over expand and outgrow your management abilities. Learn to use all the tools available to you such as insurance, leasing vs. purchasing, technology, etc. Make decisions after you have made a list of the pros and cons of doing so.”

Farming is full of life lessons, and Garrett shared some of his. “Every generation is going to have hard times, but we get through it by mentoring and learning from each other. It is the bad times that show you what is important as well as who and what you can lean on…Everything that happens in life, good and bad, is a direct relation to your decisions and relationships with others. If you have a disagreement with someone, you are responsible for going to them and correcting it. In life, it is important to learn how to take care of things and then shed them (don’t hold on to grievances).”

The Stricklands find it very important to stay informed about scientific and market research such as the altering of plants to be able to grow in different climates and produce higher yields. “I am always learning. It is important to me to be a lifelong learner. If we ever quit learning, we quit living,” Garrett says. “Farming today is about studying the market and projecting growth for both the crops and the needs of the consumers. It isn’t just putting a seed in the ground and waiting. Most of the time, it is a well calculated risk and an educated guess mixed with a lot of faith.” The Strickland Farming Partnership also leverages technology to help them make the most of their farm. GPS precision planting and equipment that creates field records available via satellite are just part of the tools they use.

Farming is increasingly made difficult by politics and competition, but it is still the vital heart of our society. Ask any farmer today and they will tell you they do not own the land; they are simply caretakers of it. More than any other profession, farmers are keenly aware of the cycle of life. For farms to exist through generations in one family, however, there has to be a love of the land and a desire to continue in that way of life. It is the one concern that can bring both Strickland father and son to tears. “I hope that someone in our family will see fit to carry forward caring for the land after me or at least put it in a land trust to keep it agricultural,” they said.