Bringing home the bacon: four generations of farmers thrive in Bladen County

By: By Chrysta Carroll -

CLARKTON — In what might be considered the outskirts of civilization, near the intersection of Rosindale Road and Lisbon Road, where it might be missed if one isn’t looking carefully, is Charlie Monroe Road. A paved but unlined lane that dead-ends — at least for the average vehicle — after 1.5 miles, the road is where you’ll find Christine and Hilton Monroe Sr. and the array of farm animals that live near them.

A third-generation farmer, Monroe along with his wife raises hogs for Smithfield Foods. At any given time, their 66-acre farm is home to 2,000 swine — what he calls a “small operation.”

To access the farm, the couple jumped in their late-model truck with oversized tires — the necessity for which soon became apparent — and headed down a well-kept dirt road that wound through a forest. After roughly a quarter mile, the road opened to pastures fenced with electric wiring.

In the pasture to the right is a flock of nearly 15 turkeys. Beyond the pasture lies a lagoon, which Monroe said is currently 20 inches deep, half of the allowable limit. On the lagoon’s shore, a lone Canada goose is sunning. Monroe said ducks frequent the site.

Beyond the lagoon and running east to west stand two long houses lined with plastic curtains, each one home for roughly five months to 1,000 hogs. In the pastures behind the hog houses are 90 head of cattle, each one grazing or languishing under trees. The pasture to the left of the road is the site — at least for the day — of an irrigation reel the farmers use to empty the lagoon’s contents onto 16 acres of fields, something Monroe has been working on Monday and Tuesday.

On turning around facing the dirt road’s exit, one would see a “Dump water here” sign, designating where the trucks that take the hogs from the farm can dispose of the water they must use to keep the hogs cool. Surrounding the pastures and fields on all sides are thick stands of trees.

Upon stepping out of a vehicle, the first thing one might notice is the absence of something — an aroma. There was no odor. Of any kind. None.

“People think hog houses really smell, and I’m not trying to paint a pretty picture or say they don’t, because they do, but not nearly as much as people think,” Monroe said.

Even standing on the shore of the lagoon while Monroe took a water sample — which he’s required to do every 120 days to check the nitrogen level — there was no observable odor. Monroe explained that the plastic curtains lining the hog houses serve multiple functions, one of which is to contain any odor pollution.

“I’ve been farming all my life, and I’ve never had a complaint from my closest neighbors,” he said, adding that people have even built houses on the other side of the trees that line the whole operation.

Misunderstandings about odor aren’t the only ones surrounding hog farms.

“People complain that hog farms are just located next to black landowners, but who do you think sold the hog farmer the land in the first place?” he asked. “Black people owned the land, and now they complain about their decision to sell it to a hog farmer?”

He added that people are frequently surprised to see a successful black hog farmer like himself.

The water samples and the plastic curtains are just two items in a long list of regulations to which the Monroes must adhere. The houses must remain around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (give or take, depending on the hogs’ size), and the temperature must be recorded on charts. The lagoon can never top a certain height or contain too much nitrogen. Spraying can only be done when the temperature and the humidity are just right, and never within four days of a hurricane. A certain amount of acreage must be sprayed for every hog. No steroids to make the hogs grow faster. And on and on.

“You have to love what you do to be a hog farmer,” Monroe kept saying. “If you love it, you’ll do a good job.

“I think regulations are a good thing — I think we should have them, and other hog farmers I know feel the same way, and we do our best to abide by the regulations,” he added. “If you’re going to be a hog farmer, you have to take care of the environment.”

His dedication to doing a good job has served him well. In 1998, he won Carroll’s Food’s Finishing Grower of the Year for his work preparing hogs for market. The couple’s farm has been featured in numerous newsletters and magazines, and Monroe has made multiple trips to Raleigh to stand before legislators on behalf of his peers.

Hilton, Sr. comes from a line of farmers. The son of Willie and Bessie Monroe, Hilton, Sr. grew up tending row crops like peanuts, soybean, and tobacco, as had his father and grandfather before him. For four generations now, the Monroes have been tending the land in Clarkton, but Hilton, Sr. and Christine were the first ones to tackle hog farming.

In 1970, while maintaining a full-time job at Veeder Root and farming agriculture, Hilton, Sr. began envisioning getting into the swine industry. At the time, Murphy Brown was the only producer in the area, and it didn’t have any hog production plants on the south side of the Cape Fear River, so the organization turned down Monroe’s application, citing transport as cost-prohibitive. Undeterred, Monroe raised hogs on the ground privately and transported the animals himself across the river to Murphy Brown’s processing plant in Clinton, or he sold them at hog markets in Clarkton or Elizabethtown.

In the early 1990s when Smithfield began talking about constructing a processing plant in Tar Heel, Monroe saw his opportunity. By that time, Carroll’s Foods had joined Smithfield and Murphy Brown in the pork production ball game and offered to help Monroe with construction costs, so Monroe joined the company and switched from raising hogs on the ground to hog houses.

“They lose a lot of feed on the ground,” Monroe explained, “so when you have them in houses with concrete floors, they cost a lot less to raise.”

The couple are now considered toppers, or “people who fatten the pigs up,” according to Christine.

When the weaned pigs arrive on the Monroes’ farm, the farmers separate them out by weight. Small ones are given medication — three days on and three days off for about a month — in order to cut down on the death ratio. Monroe says he usually only loses about eight pigs per 2,000-head delivery. In the houses, the pigs are grouped by size, with smaller, weaker ones in the middle where it’s warmest. Wind flow is monitored continually.

Every week, the houses are sprayed down for cleaning, and the water goes into a holding pond, where bacteria and bugs thrive and serve to organically neutralize the odor.

Despite the rules and regulations, for Monroe, who also works 40-44 hours per week at Smithfield Packing Plant, hog farming is about two things — having a job to do and providing for others.

“I can’t sit still or stay in this house but for a short time,” he said. “I just love being outside and doing things on the farm.”

“It’s in the bones,” Christine added.

The couple also finds intrinsic joy in the job.

“I’m just a drop in the bucket helping to feed the world,” Hilton said. “It makes me feel good to know somebody, somewhere has food because of what I do.”

The couple plans to turn the hog farm over next year to the fourth generation of Monroe men to farm the land. In the spring of 2018, Hilton Jr. plans to take the reins with “encouragement and guidance” from his experienced parents.

“I’m ready,” the younger man proclaimed.

Hilton Sr. has big plans that he hopes his son will bring to fruition. Before caps were put on the number of allowable animals in the county in 1996, Hilton Sr. obtained permits for eight additional hog houses.

“If I do that, I’m definitely going to have to get some help,” Hilton Jr. explained. For now, he plans on taking the operation over as is.

“If you love it, you’ll do a good job,” his father repeated.

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll