Farmer Brown in the business of bacon
Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 1, 2010
Philip Brown doesn’t have to bring home the bacon.
There’s some on his breakfast plate every morning, and there’s plenty more on the hoof in the pig barns on the family’s farm on Warriors Trail.
Philip, 54, has been in the business, along with his father, D.D. Brown, of raising pigs for market since 1968, when he was 12.
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There have been times when the Browns had as many as 1,500 head; now Philip is down to about 80, and he’s slowly phasing out of the business.
Pig farming for the Browns began when Philip’s great-uncle George suggested the family give it a try, “and the next thing we knew, he brought a truckload of pigs over here and just dumped them out.”
Though D.D. had said he didn’t want anything to do with raising pigs, he found that he had to deal with them, “so he started building things to take care of ’em,” Philip said.
He and his dad and sister built the grain bin the year he graduated from Porters Chapel Academy, and he told D.D., “As soon as I find something I like doing more, I’m leaving.” With the Brown grandparents three miles east and his mother’s family, the Ellisons, the same distance to the west, he had it made as a child. Like most young men, though, he wanted to make it on his own. He poked his nose in a few jobs, “but I didn’t like people telling me what to do.”
He’s been busy ever since, working for his dad and for himself. The big barns have concrete floors and low walls, all mixed and poured by hand, and as the herd grew, the facilities had to be expanded, “so anytime any of the kids in Bovina wanted a job, they knew where to come,” Philip said, “if they knew how to mix concrete.” Laborers included his own children, cousins and neighbors, “and now their kids are working for me.”
The concrete floors, sloped for cleaning, are separated into areas for different sizes of animals, all the way from babies to huge — maybe up to 300 pounds — for a pig will grow proportionately to how much he is fed, not like a dog that reaches a maximum size. A roof covers the entire area which includes a gestation barn and the farrowing (or maternity) barn, so “there’s quite a science to it.”
When visitors come to the farm, they often want to feed the cute, little pigs, so Philip tells them, “Just push that button.” Everything is now automated, the grain being transferred from an 18-wheeler by use of an auger that runs through pipes to three feed tanks.
So, with enough feed, when does a pig become a hog? “A good rule of thumb,” Philip said, “is when you can’t pick him up anymore.”
Pigs really are smart, just like Arnold on the TV show “Green Acres,” and Philip said they’ll watch you open a gate, and then they’ll figure out how to do it. People ask how long it takes to train them to turn on the automatic sprayers: the answer is “about five seconds.”
They’ve earned their reputation for wallowing in mud and being dirty, Philip said, “because they don’t sweat, so they have to regulate their body temperature. There are water holes for wallowing, and there are the automatic sprayers. They’d get in the swimming pool if you’d let them.”
For a long time, Philip was the only pig farmer in Warren County. It’s not a hobby with him — it’s a commercial business. When he started full time in 1974, he joined the Mississippi Pork Producers, which had about 300 members. Last January at the state meeting, there were only six. Statistics show there were 33,000 farms in Mississippi in 1950 with pigs on them — 18,000 of the animals were in Warren County.
So what happened to pig farming in the state?
“It all started in the mid-1990s, when George Bush decided to burn our feed as fuel,” Philip believes. “I knew right then and there that there was no way we could compete against Big Oil.” There are only a handful of independent producers left in the Deep South as production is shifting to northern locales where some industries have as many as 100,000 sows.
It’s not just using corn to make ethanol that has hurt the business — it’s also government regulations, and Philip said he never would have thought that decisions made in Washington would practically put him out of business. In danger is not just the independent producer, but also large slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants. Bryan at West Point is just one example. They relied on one supplier, and when a permit was refused, they went out of business. Smaller companies in adjoining states did the same until there are few left. Philip markets his pigs at Jack Wilson’s in Crystal Springs and Attala Frozen Foods in Kosciusko.
Another problem is the Department of Environmental Quality, a government agency that doesn’t seem to have to answer to anyone but can slap a $25,000-a-day fine on a farmer if they’re not satisfied with the operation.
It costs a lot to feed a pig — about 900 pounds of feed for a 300-pound hog. That’s about 45 cents a pound which is about what farmers are getting for their animals. He grinds his feed, uses no antibiotics, steroids or animal by-products making his pigs “as close to a natural product as you can get,” he said. A while back, he had the idea of “something like organic pig-raising, by feeding them just on grass. It was just something I wanted to try.”
The pigs looked so good out there in the green pasture, he said. They were all females. He turned a boar hog out there with them, “and the results are right now in that third pen. We’re going to have a whole bunch of babies,” but a man who ordered a dozen decided to take only two because he said he couldn’t process them.
At one time, Philip could buy corn from three different suppliers in Vicksburg and sometimes had to spend several hours waiting in line. He can’t buy it here today, and “the farther north you go, the cheaper corn is. Ethanol isn’t the only problem — there are also weeds to contend with, and you wouldn’t believe the difference in the cost of keeping soybeans clean in Mississippi versus Iowa. They don’t have the weeds we’ve got,” and taking away chemicals right and left has about ended our ability to have clean fields. In the 1960s, he said, it was determined that a combination of corn and beans had just the right amount of amino acid for feeding pigs, “like it was made in heaven.”
It isn’t just pig farming that is in trouble. Philip pointed out that once there were several dairies in Warren County — now the closest one is south of Brookhaven. In high school, he baled hay to sell to other farmers, for there were 24 cattle herds on Warriors Trail — now there are only two. Everyone used to have chickens, a milk cow and a garden, but now they’re more dependent on large stores.
Several years ago, Philip sold his interest in the pig operation to his dad, but then agreed to manage the business when D.D. became ill. He spends about four hours each day tending to the pigs, then helps his wife, Deborah, with household chores and sees after his father. With the market declining, he decided on the first of the year to get out of the pig business.
“I can’t fully retire,” he said. “That’s too stressful. God made us to do something” — but it might not be raising pigs.
Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.