MOUNT PLEASANT – When Tommy and Vicky Porter volunteered to conserve the rest of their namesake farm, their top priorities were preserving the land for their family and future farming.
In August 2020, the Porters worked with Three Rivers Land Trust to have a conservation easement placed on 320 acres of Porter Farms, fully conserving the farm. Tommy is on the trust's board of directors.
This conservation easement is part one of a two-phase plan. The Porters had originally applied to have 820 acres of land conserved. After working with the land trust, Vicky and Tommy agreed to conserve the land in two phases. The first phase conserved 320 acres and the next phase – set to take place in 2021 – will conserve 500 more acres.
“Our goal has always been to protect the entire farm. Because we have a passion for protecting farmland and for our children and our grandkids,” Tommy said.
Conservation is not a new topic for the Porters. Portions of their over 1,000-acres are already permanently conserved. Their first easement was purchased aver 10 years ago. Other than farmland conservation, they have also were named Farm Family of the Year for soil and water conservation in 1999.
Knowing that farmland conservation puts permanent land use restrictions on the land, Vicky and Tommy didn’t want to begin conservation unless their children wanted to continue to work on the farm.
A family decision
Vicky and Tommy have a combined total of six children and in-laws: Derek Porter, Jared Porter, Chris Conser, Amy Porter, Coleen Porter and Erin Conser.
All six of them work on the farm. That is the reason Vicky said, she felt comfortable conserving the farm.
“They all went to college, graduated, went into their chosen professions and then started having an interest in coming back. And that was when I became more on board with doing this,” she said.
Tommy said he knew farming was a career people have to choose.
“It’s a 7-day-a-week, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year job,” he said. “Even in farm families, you don’t see all the kids desire to come back and be a part of the farm.”
He and Vicky didn’t want to guilt their children into coming back to the farm.
“I have seen a lot of family farms be sold because adult kids have been quilted into coming home,” Vicky said. “If you don’t have the passion for it, this is not for you – this is a difficult lifestyle.”
After all of their children returned to the farm, Vicky and Tommy made sure it was a family decision to go through with conservation, knowing what their children were giving up.
The easement does not transfer ownership of the farm – the Porters still own the property – but the easement puts use restrictions on the land. The conservation easement placed on the Porters’ property will conserve the land in perpetuity. Even if the land is sold, the easement will go with it. The easement restricts the land to farming activities. This prevents the land from being later sold for development.
Knowing their children could sell the land for profit later, Vicky and Tommy wanted to make sure their children were willing to stay on the farm before applying for the easement.
“Our kids could benefit from selling this for homes, and they could be set for life. But knowing they had a desire to farm and knowing how difficult it is to maintain and acquire farmland, the two of us – as well as our kids – realized that it is important to be able to have sources for food and open space,” she said.
While Three Rivers Land Trust purchased the easement at $584,100, that figure is not a reflection of the property’s farmland and development value. To purchase the conservation easement, the land trust received a state grant for 25 percent of the cost and will apply for funding from the USDA for the additional 50 percent. The Porters donated the remaining 25 percent of funds.
With the land permanently conserved without the possibility of future development, the Porters wanted to make sure that the farm could provide enough to support multiple families.
“Knowing that our kids are involved in this farming operation, we have a diverse operation which is unique,” Vicky said, “but it is also one of the reasons we were able to make this decision,”
While Tommy started adding to the farms capabilities back in the 90s, he is still thinking of ways to add more for his family.
“We had to make sure there were enough diversification on the farm to divide it into three more segments to bring our kids into it full time,” he said. “It took a lot of scratching our heads to make that work. That was the only way I was willing to commit them to this.”
More than just a farm
Tommy grew up on a dairy farm in Mecklenburg County. When he started farming on the side while working as a welder and a pipe fitter in the early 80s, it felt natural. He bought the first part of what would be the multi-farm property in 1983, with 200 acres. The family later moved onto the property in 1991, just when Tommy added poultry houses. Previously he had only raised cattle. The sow farm was added in 1992.
In 2012, the Porters add the wedding venue to provide a business for the girls. The business has succeeded, Tommy said, and in 2017 they added a new venue location.
“They do an excellent job with that business and that is why it has been successful,” he said.
The wedding business did experience delays due to COVID-19. But the farm did not experience a large financial hit due to its diversification, Tommy said.
The wedding venue now has two locations on the farm named The Farm at Brusharbor and The Farmstead. To be eligible for conservation, the farm had to participate in agritourism. The wedding venue locations – which qualifies as aritourism – are part of the 500-acre conservation easement scheduled to next year.
The agritourism on Porter Farms is down and dirty fun. The farm hosts the Spartan Race, Muddy Princess and Bone Frog.
While hosting these races does provide revenue, Vicky said the exposure the farm receives at the events is the better.
Due to COVID-19, all three of the events were cancelled or postponed-indefinitely. But usually when the farm hosts the Spartan race in April – a race they have hosted for the past five years – there are about 10,000 people on the farm in that two-day period.
Their son Jared is heavily involved in the PR and organization of having the race on the property. Vicky said that while she doesn’t run the Spartan race, she loves having the participants on the farm.
“I have felt like it is such a positive experience. My daughter lives on the property side where the beginning and end of the race is hosted. We would sit on her front porch and it just made me feel so proud when people would come over the obstacles and high-five us and tell us how much they enjoyed being out on the countryside,” she said. “For me, sitting up there and listening to that was like being paid.”
Muddy Princess and Bone Frog, both one day events, attract about 3,000-5,000 participants each.
Vicky has participated in Muddy Princess on the property and looks forward to hosting it every year.
“It is really nice to have just women. It’s just fun. It is a way for women to enjoy their outside experience, get muddy and you aren’t competing,” she said. “Women try to lift each other up instead of trying to chase each other.”
Hosting the races also helps with people’s perceptions of farms, Vicky and Tommy said.
“A lot of people still have in their mind Old McDonald,” Vicky said. “I have had so many people look at me when I speak at groups and they ask, ‘You’re a farmer?’”
Because of biosecurity, race runners are restricted to certain areas of the farms. The course runs through the middle of cow fields but far enough away from the poultry houses and sow farm to keep the animals safe. And that is their main objective, Tommy said.
The first environmentalists
Biosecurity and environmentalism is essential when running a farm, Tommy said. He has received the 2011 and 2006 North Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.
“The farm is the first environmentalist,” he said.
The farm houses three enterprises: a sow farm, poultry operation and a commercial cow and calf operation. All of the farm’s livestock affect other local farms and food chains.
The multiplication sow farm has 2,200 sow kept in a temperature controlled building. The artificially bred pigs are sent out at 26-27 days old once they weigh 15 pounds. The males go to a nursery in Anson County that raises hogs for Smithfield foods. The farm ships out about 900 pigs a week.
The female pigs are sent out for breeding to commercial farms.
“That is why our biosecurity is so high. Because if something would happen here, it would affect a lot of farms because they wouldn’t have breeding stock,” Tommy said.
The four poultry houses on the farm have the highest biosecurity. The farm produces hatching eggs for Tyson that are sent to a farm in Monroe County that will later put the chickens to market.
The cattle farm has about 350-400 cows. The bulls are bred, vaccinate, de-wormed and then are sold in a video auction to go to a feed yard. Part of the cattle go to a yard in Iredell County.
While the Porters have conserved the farm, environmental land protection are just as important to ensure that the property can still be used by later generations, Tommy said. That also means protecting their livestock.
“When it comes to livestock farmers, we are the best protectors of them because they are producing a food product for us. So we are making sure that their animal health and their safety, comfort is of the utmost importance as well as this land,” he said. “Anybody can be a bad player for a given amount of time. But my way of looking at it is, if you don’t take care of the animals, they won’t produce and you won’t have your business for long.”
Land protection and animal protection go hand-in-hand he said. Their cows are fed silage grown on the farm.
“You have to take care of what you are raising, just like a crop,” Tommy said. “If you don’t cultivate it, fertilize it and take care of, it won’t grow.”
A farm for the future
With eight grandkids ranging from 9 to under a year old, Tommy is still looking for ways to diversify the farm to make sure his grandkids have a place there, if they want it. They are beginning to talk about adding greenhouses.
“A lot of that thinking comes for our grandkids,” he said. “We are thinking about what they would want to do here and wonder if there is enough income on the farm to support everyone.”
Their grandkids are heavily involved in the farm, riding around on the gator, watching employees cut corn for silage and wondering who all the people are when a wedding is held.
With the farm conserved, Tommy and Vicky said it is definitely still important to preserve the integrity of the land for their grandkids.
“Since we have chosen to preserve this property, we have to take care of this otherwise our great-great grandkids won’t be able to have this out here,” Vicky said.
While their grandkids are too young to make any definitive decisions on lifelong careers, Tommy said he still wants to set up a place for them, should they need it.
“There are a lot easier ways to make money. We are always at mercy of the weather and the markets. We don’t set the price for anything we sell. Farmers are always price takers,” he said.
But if their grandkids want to farm or a 9 to 5 office job, Vicky and Tommy will support them.
“We don’t know what they are going to do, but I want them to be happy,” Tommy said. “But they do have things set up to move on the farm.”
Whether the farm is passed down generations or if it is sold to another farmer in the future, Tommy and Vicky feel a responsibility to take care of the land.