Hog farmer Brandon Whitt considers his path to becoming a farmer an unusual one, but one that he appreciates each day.
Unlike many young farmers who follow their fathers’ footsteps, Whitt became a full-time farmer through marriage. He and his father-in-law, John Batey, grow crops and run a farrow-to-finish hog farm.
Whitt and his wife, Katherine, feel fortunate to be raising their two daughters on the sixth-generation family operation, which garnered national fame in 2006 when one of their piglets was photographed for a new edition of the children’s book Charlotte’s Web.
Q: What motivated you to become a farmer?
A: Ever since I can remember, I loved to play in the dirt. And I really think a lot of that stemmed from my father and uncles, who worked in construction. From that, I learned a love for big machinery and the smell of dirt being moved. I’ve been so blessed to be surrounded by individuals – my family, church and community members – who all taught me respect and appreciation for the earth. None of these, though, have probably been more beneficial in shaping my career than my father-in-law, John Batey. He has been instrumental in shaping my thoughts and actions, and I’m indebted to him more than he will ever know. He has not only given me a career; he has shaped my entire life.
Q: What does your operation entail?
A: I grew up on a small family farm, raising beef cattle and growing hay. When I got married, I went from a small, part-time farmer to being part of my father-in-law’s large-scale operation. Most people my age get into farming through their fathers or other family members. I don’t think I really know anybody who married into it, like I did. We are a diversified family farm that entails a farrow-to-finish hog operation, corn, wheat, soybeans and a hay business that markets to the region’s horse industry.
Q: What would you consider your biggest challenge as a young farmer?
A: For me as a young farmer, overcoming the stigma that surrounds farmers in general is the biggest challenge I face. Today’s farmers are very different than what most people remember their grandfathers or great-grandfathers being like. We are highly educated and on the cutting edge of new technology. A lot of people are familiar with the term GPS, but many don’t realize that farmers use these on the farm. For example, we use GPS and precision agriculture to ensure that we use enough chemicals on our crops to ensure they grow properly, but not too much so that we both protect our bottom line and the environment.
Q: Did you expect to receive such feedback from the Wilbur experience?
A: The Charlotte’s Web experience was a wonderful opportunity to not only teach children, but to educate the entire community about our farm and what goes on at a hog farm. I love having people come out to the farm. Typically, they come initially to see Wilbur, but it also gives us a chance to talk about the farm.
Q: What kind of questions are you asked by farm visitors?
A: A lot of people don’t understand why we raise hogs inside buildings rather than in pastures. Pigs can’t sweat, which means they can’t cool themselves off. Most children’s books illustrate pigs as always laying the mud. There’s actually a purpose for that! When pigs are kept outdoors, they need the mud to keep them cool and prevent sunburn. And in the winter, the mud creates a blanket almost to keep them warm. That’s one of the reasons we raise them indoors. Indoor facilities offer cleaner, more controlled environments that are as disease-free as possible.
Q: Being so close to a growing suburban city of more than 100,000, has urban sprawl affected your farming operation?
A: If it’s not a road that borders our property, it’s a subdivision. Urban sprawl is a double-edged sword. We get to have modern conveniences close to us, but when your farm has been in the family for generations, it’s tough to see it all change around you. Urban sprawl does increase land values, but unless you have plans to capitalize on that, it becomes more of a burden to bear. And it really limits you from expansion.
Q: What do you want readers to understand about farmers?
A: Agriculture is one of the few products left that’s still produced in the U.S. And it’s my generation’s responsibility to maintain that. It’s completely up to us as young farmers, and we can choose to succeed or fail. I’m a glass-full kind of guy. In everything that’s an issue, I believe it’s also an opportunity for consumers and farmers to learn from each other. I like to think that when you and I sit down at our kitchen tables each night, we can both be assured of a safe, healthy food grown here in the United States.
Q: What would you encourage any consumers to do if they want to learn more about their food sources?
A: Get to know your local farmer. We are surrounded by people who are at least two generations removed from the family farm. Get to know them. Sit down and talk. If you have a question about why your local farmers do certain things, stop by and ask. More often than not, you’ll leave with a better understanding of farming and agriculture. And that’s a good thing.