Staying ahead of the curve on conservation has been a key factor fueling the growth of Thomas Family Farms in Person County, North Carolina. “Our father has always been a pioneer, encouraging us to look at new technologies that become available,” Jimmy Thomas says. “We started no-tilling corn in 1981. Many of our neighbors were trying no-till but not having much success. We saw so many potential benefits that we stuck with it and were determined to make it work. It was not an instant success, but in time, as we were able to get the right type of equipment, we became very successful.”
Thanks to that success, three generations now farm together in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Thomas Family Farms is operated by Jimmy and his brother, Timmy; their parents, Pete and Levon; Jimmy’s wife, Janine, and their son, David; and Timmy’s son, Hunter. Their farm is located near Roxboro, about 50 miles north of the state’s capital city, Raleigh.
Soils here are considered marginal for row crop production, and summers can be hot and dry. “We always joke that this area is only 10 days away from a drought,” Jimmy says. “Our soils are thin, and we don’t get dependable rainfall. That’s why we put so much emphasis on soil health, which allows water to move within the soil profile. And we use intensive nutrient management, making sure nutrients are in place when crops need them.”
For the Thomas family, conservation means constant improvement. “For our farm operation to be a great example of a family farm business and a good neighbor in our community, we have to really work to include both standard practices as well as innovative practices that conserve natural resources,” Jimmy says. “We are responsible for setting a good example so people can learn about conservation from us and trust us.”
As family members have joined the operation, the farm has grown to feature approximately 3,000 acres of row crops along with 250 acres of tobacco. Thomas Family Farms is also one of the few independent hog producers left in North Carolina, with a 450-sow, farrow-to-finish operation.
“In America today, many people look at large-scale farming as a negative thing,” Jimmy says. “But we have chosen to work together as a family in order to gain economies of scale and become more efficient. Each member of the family brings different talents that make a strong team, and we have employees who have been with us a long time who are a valuable part of the team. Our business model calls for us to be economically competitive while also being environmentally sensitive.”
There are plenty of reasons to keep environmental stewardship at the forefront. The farm operates within watersheds that feed three of the state’s most important rivers—the Flat, the Roanoke and the Neuse. “The way we are managing our soils is benefitting a large percentage of the population in North Carolina,” Jimmy points out. “We put a lot of extra care each season into planning where the water goes when it leaves our fields, and at what velocity.”
The farm uses a number of different structures to direct water flow and filter runoff. Terraces, grass waterways, field borders and filter strips control water and trap nutrients before they can escape from fields. “We are constantly maintaining our waterways to conserve soil and prevent our nutrients from entering streams and rivers,” he adds.
The farm matches crop rotations to field productivity. “On our more productive soils, we use a corn/small grain/double-crop soybean rotation, which gives us three crops in two years,” Jimmy says. No-till seeding is used for all crops in the system.
“This rotation allows us to keep a growing crop on the land for about 20 out of 24 months,” he adds. “On our heavy clay soils or gravely soils, we use a corn/soybean rotation with a cover crop. Our focus is on soil health and keeping soil organisms active.”
The Thomas family keeps an eye on the earthworm population as a monitor for soil health. “With no-till, we are able to build our soil structure, and when we see earthworms working in the soil, we know we are keeping the soil healthy,” Jimmy says. “It is exciting when you can flip over a spade full of dirt and see earthworms coming out of there. You can also see where roots penetrate the soil, allowing natural holes where air and water can move.”
The farm also invests in technology that allows nutrients to be applied where they are needed. “We rely on grid soil sampling to help us communicate with our soils and tell us what we need to do as managers,” Jimmy says. Grid sampling is set up on all fields, and consultants help the family develop prescriptions to deliver nutrients using variable-rate application.
“We find we really aren’t spending any more money, but we are using our resources more efficiently,” he continues. “We are putting the nutrients exactly where they need to be. Through the use of yield monitors, we are building a database that will allow us to match nutrient needs and plant populations to the many different soil types we have on our farms.”
Thomas Family Farms also manages nutrients from what the family calls “liquid gold”—the effluent from its hog operation. “Twenty years ago, we treated this as a byproduct,” Jimmy says. “Now we realize it is a great asset. Swine manure contains not only the standard fertilizer nutrients but micronutrients and organic matter as well. It is one of the greatest tools you can use to improve soil health.”
A common theme at Thomas Family Farms is to get the most from every resource. They operate a number of farms that have small fields or areas that can’t be cropped. Timmy Thomas points out that about 40% of the land is not suitable for row cropping, so he manages the timber stands on many of these areas. “These are often environmentally sensitive lands, and timber is a good fit,” he says. “We work with consultants to come up with prescribed burns or spray programs to get the most from the timber. It fits well with our goal of getting 100% utilization of our resources.”
While Thomas Family Farms uses its resources intensively, it also keeps an eye on aesthetics. “We are located in a bedroom community of the Raleigh-Durham area,” Jimmy says. “We rent a number of farms from people who live on their land. One of their goals is to have a beautiful homestead. We try to pay a little more attention to detail so we can present an atmosphere that people enjoy.”
Maintaining neat waterways and field borders is a management function, but it also pays dividends to people who own the farms. “They often use our field borders and waterways as their walking paths, a place to exercise,” he says. “That goes a long way in building relationships.”
Tell the story
The Thomas family also reaches out to the community to tell its positive story. Timmy has been trained as a speaker for Operation Main Street to deliver information about pork production, and Jimmy has been involved in a number of soybean association events aimed at improving public awareness.
“I think the ag community hasn’t always invested enough time in telling its story,” Jimmy says. “We need to take every opportunity to present our point of view and show that we care. We can show them that conservation allows us to provide a brighter future for our family and for our community.”