By David Jones
Pork producer Thomas Uzzell and his two sons share their story of nurturing the same North Carolina land for four generations.
It was just that morning when Thomas Uzzell, in the early hours, was standing on the 800 or so acres he owns without a sound seemingly heard forever, sitting quietly with his thoughts.
Virtually every morning on his farm in the Wayne County area around Goldsboro he sneaks just a minute or two to see the sky light up from darkness before the start of another hectic day. Nothing but the fields of corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops and his thoughts.
Some may argue, if a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it? If a crop rises on the Uzzell farm, Thomas is there to say good morning.
It’s a special, proud moment that fewer and fewer of us on this earth get to enjoy.
“I’m having fun, man,” Thomas said. “I like it because I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I’ve bought land, I’ve paid for. I buy more land that is paid for. I feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
About 475 of his acres are planted in crops, and the rest is in woods. He’s starting to clear more land now that his boys are back from school. He doesn’t plan on slowing down.
His two boys went to college and NC State, like Thomas, then came back to the farm they love. Tee, 23, and Dare, 22, have their own tasks right around sunrise. They are the fourth generation of Uzzells to work this earth for all the nurturing it can reward.
The boys’ father worked the land. Their father’s father worked the land. Their father’s father’s father worked the land.
“Most people work to live,” Dare said. “Me and my brother and my dad live to work. When you are a farmer, you’ve got to do that. Whatever time you get home is when you get home.”
Adds Tee: “It’s not about the money. It’s about what you gain from it. You put in a lot more hours than a banker or something similar. But, at the end of the day, you have something to show for it. It makes you feel like you are working for a good reason.”
The will and hard work brought the food from the ground to not only feed the world, but help raise animals. Through the years, Thomas was awarded contracts with Maxwell Foods and Butterball by also raising turkeys in 10 turkey houses and hogs in 16 hog houses. And there’s also cattle and the seed-cleaning business.
On this day, Thomas took a short break to try to describe what it feels like as he looked out as far as the eyes can see with another morning starting to work its magic on the family soil – already seeing the hard work pay off as crops climbed into the sky all around him.
This is the love as deep as a farming family can ever feel, being rewarded for hard work while helping to feed the world and feeling like he is contributing through nurturing the family land. It’s a different feeling than someone who just punches a time clock.
“When you are a farmer, year by year, everything is different,” Dare said. “It may not rain as much that year and you don’t do well, you are kind of down about it. Or it rained a bunch and it is rewarding. It’s never the same. I guess doing the same thing every day would get old.”
“I’m all over the place. There’s no telling where you will find me. I started working at 4:30 this morning,” he said.
The Uzzell land smiles back at them. It’s pure. It’s hard work. It’s perfect in its own way.
“We all work it together,” Thomas said of the three of them. He was divorced when they were tiny boys, but they’re now grown men. “They wanted to get back. They really didn’t want to go to college.”
All three have college degrees from NC State. Like the boys, Thomas’ father sent him to college and told him not to come home without a degree. All three eagerly returned.
“I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Tee said. “I went to college, but I didn’t want to go; I wanted to farm. A lot of people say, ‘why don’t you go to college to figure out what you want to do?’ Like I tell a lot of people, I was very fortunate… I don’t wake up dreading what I want to do.”
He is involved with NCPC, which was a natural move given his dedication to the hog industry, and is heavily involved with the county farm bureau, a supervisor in soil and water, and on the farm bureau board.
“As far as my livestock environmental issues, as far as disposing of my waste, that’s one issue,” he said. “I own the land I put it on but, well, you’ve got follow the rules. I follow the rules, but it can be difficult. I’ve been pretty lucky. I try to manage myself, look after it. Another issue I have is commodity prices are down right now.”
Best professional advice he ever got?
“‘You’ve got to farm to make a profit’ is the best advice I ever heard,” he said. “You have to check commodity prices and see what you want to plant and how you want to do it, and the best decision I ever made was going into the hog and turkey business because I raise my own turkeys and hogs, and bad weather doesn’t bother me and commodity prices don’t bother me.”
There’s no time clock. No real bosses. Just family, love of a land, and the rewards some will never really understand or be lucky enough to feel.
Will there be a fifth generation to work the 800 acres?
“You hope it would keep going,” Tee said. “I want to farm, and I want to add to what has been passed down. Each generation has grown it and expanded it. I want to do the same. I hope I have a son or a daughter who is interested in taking it over.”
A lighter side with Thomas Uzzell
Thomas Uzzell took his first vacation outside of state of North Carolina last year when he went to the Virgin Islands.
His two sons, Dare and Tee, joked that it was kind of a strange feeling when their 63-year-old father wasn’t there the first morning at breakfast.
“It’s hard for him to let go, but you’ve got to give it up a little bit,” Dare said. “That’s the reason I get up early and try to put a bunch of enthusiasm into the farm. I want him to know that if he needs to take a vacation and he wants to do some stuff that he hasn’t been able to do because he’s been on this farm all his life, that we can handle it.”
“It was kind of weird [when Thomas was gone]. I wake up and go to breakfast with him every morning. It was different, but he needed to get away. You can spend your whole life working and never enjoy anything.”
Typical of the life of a farmer, the crops are the priority, not fancy trips. But Uzzell liked it so much, he may actually have a new hobby. He realizes life is limited and he wants to travel more and slow down just a few days a year to see other things.
Other fun facts:
There is no question who Thomas idolized as a child and an adult.
“I learned from my daddy. I enjoyed it, and [farming is] what I always wanted to do,” he said. “When I went off to college at N.C. State, I learned I didn’t want to live in the city – concrete, asphalt and all those people. I wanted to come back home to the farm, but my dad wouldn’t let me until I got a degree.”
If he could pick anyone living or dead he would love to have a lunch with?
His parents, Walter and Mary.
“Because I miss them,” Thomas said.
Both passed away about a decade ago. But that’s the life of a career farmer. He was so close to both. The farm and the family go hand in hand.
“My dad was my hero,” Thomas said. “He taught me everything I know about farming.”