Temperatures over 100° F during the afternoon and evenings, days when the temperature never dipped below the mid-80s, and almost no rain that's how the summer of 2007 will be remembered in the Carolinas. Years like this make T.G. Gibson III, glad he diversified his farming operation, first adding swine and then broilers to his row-crop farming business. While nothing in farming is a sure thing, compared to crop farming, the returns from contract hog and chicken production are the safer bet.

The addition of the swine and broiler operations helps carry the business when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate on the roughly 3,000 acres of leased and owned land now being farmed. Prior to this year, 2002 was one of the worst crop years for farmers in the area. The summer of 2007, however, has been even drier. Many parts of the Carolinas received little or no rain in July and August, and the 2007 crop may be the worst Gibson has experienced. While the farm's 250 acres of corn produced reasonable yields, the cotton crop has not fared as well. Some cotton fields may be a total loss in 2007. The farm's soybeans may rally with early fall rains; however, Gibson was not optimistic about this in early September.

Tapping ethanol boom not simple 

The ethanol boom and the resulting higher corn prices have not been positive for the livestock industry but should be good news for a row-crop farmer like Gibson. But, he explains, it isn't that simple. He couldn't just plant 3,000 acres of corn this year. Even though his corn was pre-sold at $4 per bushel, he was limited in how many acres of corn he could plant. Since cotton has been the primary crop for years in his area, the infrastructure is not in place for large amounts of acreage to switch to corn. All of the local storage for corn is being used, and he had to put up a corn bin of his own just to grow 250 acres of corn this year. Ultimately, if acreage is switched to corn in areas where the infrastructure is in place, prices for other crops, like soybeans, should increase. There are barriers, however, to such a shift taking place. Over time, predictably, higher corn prices will result in capital moving into investments like drying equipment, elevators and bins for corn, but this doesn't happen overnight.

Ultimately, the biofuels boom should increase returns for row-crop farmers across the USA. Gibson has dealt with the ups and downs of crop prices and the weather through two decades of farming. The more regular returns from his hog and broiler houses help him ride out the highs and lows of crop farming. Speaking of return on investment, Gibson said that ROI on his hogs has outpaced that of his broilers.

Contracts with Mountaire Farms, Smithfield subsidiary

Gibson's foray into animal agriculture began in 1995 when he built six hog finishing houses. After a series of buyouts among processors, Gibson now raises hogs for a subsidiary of Smithfield. There has been a moratorium on building new lagoons for hog farms in North Carolina, so when Gibson wanted to expand earlier this decade, he looked into raising broilers.

In 2003, Gibson built six, 40-foot by 500-foot broiler houses on contract with Mountaire Farms. The broiler houses sit on land that he remembers working on when he was "loaned out" by his father at age 12 to help neighbors with farming chores. Gibson raises around 120,000 birds per flock. The broilers are kept on his farm for about 63 days and marketed at around nine pounds per bird.

Broiler houses, which have one solid sidewall and one curtain sidewall each, are tunnel ventilated with cool cells. Even with the cool cells, tunnel-ventilation and foggers, Gibson lost some birds to heat this summer. On really hot days, Gibson and his men used hoses to wet the birds which helped reduce the heat loss.

Gibson uses the litter from his broiler houses and from neighboring growers' houses to fertilize crop land. Since he has the equipment to clean out houses, haul and spread the litter, and he plants thousands of acres of crops, Gibson has been able to utilize a lot of litter. This past spring, he and his men cleaned out 16 broiler houses in addition to his six. The chicken litter was used on 600 acres of crop land. Gibson is a licensed manure broker and applicator in South Carolina, and he estimates that he saved between $30,000 and $40,000 on fertilizer this planting season using chicken litter. He is quick to point out that his equipment allows him to get in area houses in a timely manner and take advantage of other growers' surplus nutrients. Gibson's farm was a runner-up in the 2006 North Carolina Poultry Federation's environmental awards competition.

Depending on the time of year, Gibson employs five to seven people on his farm. The hogs and the broilers help keep employees busy so that the necessary labor is available for planting and harvesting.

Born to farm

Gibson's father was a country doctor who had a general practice in Gibson, N.C., a small town in rural southeastern North Carolina right on the South Carolina line. The town is named after one of Gibson's ancestors, and his family has lived there for generations. His father and grandfather both farmed some, but Gibson says he knew he wanted to be a full-time farmer from the moment he first sat on a tractor. His father cautioned him about farming full-time and insisted that he go to college to prepare for a "day job."

Gibson attended North Carolina State, but never wavered in his desire to farm full-time. He left Raleigh with an associate degree in agriculture, and returned home to farm.

Unfortunately, Gibson's father died at a relatively young age, when the younger Gibson was in his late twenties. His father's lawyer and accountant recommended that he sell his father's land and get out of farming. Gibson decided that if that year's crop didn't work out, he would sell. He made it through that year, and his father's lawyer is now his lawyer. Gibson has never looked back.