As a boy growing up in Sampson County, North Carolina, James L. “Cookie” Lamb was curious about everything pertaining to farm life. Long before he was old enough to do so, he yearned to drive a tractor or a truck, take care of animals, and understand how farm tools and equipment worked. It was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to the land—land to which his grandfather and father dedicated their lives. The Lamb family’s cash crop on their seventy-five acres had traditionally been tobacco, but they also grew cucumbers, okra, corn, and soybeans and raised hogs and a small herd of cattle.
Lamb remembered, “My dad was originally intent on a US Army career and was on the path to becoming an ROTC trainer when my grandfather’s health declined, and he could no longer do heavy work. My dad abandoned his own dream and came home to help out. Looking back, I guess his decision was pivotal in my life because it enabled me to grow up on the family farm and discover my true calling.”
That calling would be put to the test when his father died in an automobile accident when Lamb was only sixteen. Suddenly the heavy responsibility for the farm—much of which he’d assumed by the age of twelve—fell on his young shoulders. Lamb dug in his heels, worked all the hours God sent, and graduated high school. With the plan of continuing to work at the farm on weekends, he enrolled in North Carolina State University’s School of Ag Engineering, obtaining his B.S. in Agriculture and Environmental Technology in 1996.
In 1994, while still in college, Lamb had interned with a North Carolina company called Prestage Farms and learned about the various stages of pork production. He realized quickly how drawn he was to the nursery operation. Offered a number of positions upon graduation, his choice was to go with a local enterprise that would allow him to stay in Sampson County.
He said, “Prestage Farms was the ideal fit because it is a family-owned and operated business that has 260 contract pig farms and as many turkey farms. They are big enough to be a major industry player and yet small enough to call you by your name.”
So Lamb built a pig nursery farm on the same 75–acre tract in Clinton where he grew up. He and his family manage the nursery operation and grow corn, soybeans, millet, and Bermuda grass and raise a few cattle. Over the years Lamb has constructed two swine barns to house his animals and purchased three new tractors and attachments.
He receives weaned pigs at 21 days of age from Prestage’s trucking staff and keeps them for seven weeks or until they’re about 50 pounds, and then forwards them to finishing farms until they reach their market weight. At the nursery barn, pigs are provided with ample ventilation and supplemental heat of approximately 82 degrees.
Lamb explained, “Here we have an eight-week cycle or turn that includes a week to clean the facility before the next turn begins. There are approximately 3,040 pigs here at any given time. Given our six-and-a-half cycles or turns per year, this amounts to around 20,000 pigs annually.”
The yields on Lamb’s contract farm are as follows: 4.29 acres of irrigated Bermuda hay yields 6900 lbs.; 5 acres of millet are grazed by the farm’s cattle; 2 acres are planted with sunflowers as a wildlife habitat; and 22 acres of corn and soybeans yield160 bushels/acre and 40 bushels/acre respectively. There’s also an acre and a half of cultivated garden space. The farm has 7 brood cows and 1 bull. Seven calves per year are raised to approximately 400 lbs. and then sold to market in Smithfield, NC where they are sent on to a feed lot in the Midwest and grown to a finishing weight of 700 to 800 lbs.
In the early 1990s, Bill Prestage, owner of Prestage Farms, perceived how the regulation trends in the industry were moving, so he decided to employ someone in the capacity of environmental specialist. With his practical experience and educational background, Lamb was the perfect fit, and he assumed this full-time responsibility in 2003.
He said, “I handle environmental compliance for all of the company’s hog operations across NC and one in SC, conducting annual inspections of those sixty-one farms. I also deal with more than 200 contract growers, assisting them with their compliance, irrigation calibration, and sludge surveys—roughly 385 lagoons.
I’ve worked to develop a “sludge boat” that helps farmers navigate these lagoons faster, and I assist producers in creating waste plans and help them fill out their annual reports. All this activity has given me a deeper understanding of how to improve my own operation.”
Lamb Family Farms is a team effort that has happily evolved over time. James met his future wife, Felicia, while the two were attending Union High School and started dating at the tender ages of sixteen and seventeen. With aspirations to go to law school, Felicia enrolled in Campbell University but ended up becoming a teacher, first for eighth graders, then fourth graders. James and Felicia were married on Valentine’s Day in 1998 (a day after, James remembered, he received his first pig delivery!). She went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in reading and now works as a Reading Specialist with second graders at Union Elementary in Clinton. She was honored as Teacher of the Year in 1998 and as the Walmart Teacher of the Year, Clinton, NC, in 2003.
Daughters Maegan and Kinsley came along in 2001 and 2006 respectively. Maegan has finished her freshman year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, majoring in pharmacy studies. Proud Dad exclaimed, “She’s maintained a 4.0 GPA all through her first year, even with the added stress of the corona virus pandemic and the need to do her last classes online.” Kinsley graduated eighth grade this spring and will begin high school next fall. She has inherited her mother’s interest in pursuing a law career. James’s mother, Thelma, at the age of 89, lives in the old homestead across the road from the Lamb’s house and still helps her son daily with chores on the farm.
In his role as the environment specialist for Prestage Farms, Lamb enforces a strict biosecurity program at the nursery including air filtration to prevent airborne diseases, mandatory shower procedures for farm personnel, and disposable boots and coveralls for farm visitors. Pest control programs ensure the reduction of insects, rodents, and wild animals. If animals require treatment, they are subject to FDA withdrawal periods and treated by a veterinarian. The farm maintains certifications with Pork Quality Assurance, affirming its commitment to implementing best practices. Not to mention those morning and night-time walking inspections by James and his mom, Thelma.
Lamb added, “One of the big misconceptions is that people think we pump our animals up with hormones to make them grow fast. The reality is, legally, nobody can use growth-promoting hormones in the United States when raising hogs.”
On the local level, Lamb is the Sampson County Soil and Water Supervisor, the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Advisor, and the Sampson County Schools Curriculum Advisor. On the state level, Lamb is currently serving in the Agriculture Commissioners Circle, is a member of the Cape Fear Farm Credit Nominating Committee, a member of the Eastern NC Technical Assistance Group, and a member of the NC Pork Council Promotions Committee. On the national level, Lamb is a past member of the National Pork Board’s Nominating, Environment, and Domestic Marketing committees and is a current member of the National Pork Producers Council Environmental Committee.
He has also appeared in the industry video series entitled “Well Raised, Well Traveled,” a national and international educational program, and he has made pork industry-related visits to Mexico and Brazil. It’s interesting to note that the United States exports nearly $6 billion worth of pork each year to countries like Mexico, Canada, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. And North Carolina accounts for about 10 percent of America’s pork exports or $600 million worth. The state has more than 2100 farms, employing 46,000 full-time workers, raising about nine million hogs a year with $8 billion in annual sales with $3 billion in annual income.
Lamb was named “Outstanding Pork Producer” in 2016 by the North Carolina Pork Council. He commented, “I’m proud to be part of such an important industry. Farmers are only 2 percent of the population that feeds 100 percent of the country. That’s a long tradition and a huge responsibility.”
Giving back is an important component of Lamb’s day-to-day activities. He sponsors youth and intern programs, attends career fairs, and gives educational guidance and talks to students about opportunities in agriculture. He also assists the North Carolina Pork Council and the National Pork Producer’s Council with marketing efforts within the swine industry and has appeared in livestock industry-sponsored television commercials. Not too long ago he was chosen to be the voice of agriculture in a conversation with President Trump at the White House.
Lamb observed, “These activities may not contribute directly to my farm, but they serve as a constant reminder of why I do what I do. They purposefully underscore my passion for agriculture. Our state’s pork industry is really one big family. On a daily basis we blend new technology with 430 years of growing experience.”
Although infrequent, when the chance for leisure arises, the Lamb family likes to get away to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. James noted, “My wife likes the shopping in the area, and my family enjoys eating at the local restaurants. Felicia’s parents also have a place in Topsail Beach on North Carolina’s southern shore, where we sometimes go to relax. Back at home, I like to do some small game (dove, duck, and rabbit) hunting during the season and take my mama fishing at a nearby saltwater lake at least twice a year.”
He added, “My other hobby is clay or skeet shooting. Not too far from the house some friends own the Coharie Shooting Club, a wilderness-type setting for a thirteen-station clay throw course. There we ride around on golf carts and shoot clay birds. Getting some practice with the 12-gauge helps me keep my aim sharp.”
When asked about the most challenging aspect of farming, he doesn’t skip a beat when replying, “Profitability. You can offset a bad weather year if your row crops or livestock prices are high. You can come back from a drought or a flood. But you are always at the mercy of the market.”
As to the rewards of a farming life, Lamb said, “In this type of rural community we know our neighbors’ names. A kind of bond forms naturally that people in cities often lack. Just living on a farm for me is therapeutic. I also enjoy the tightknit group of producers and farmers in this area because we help and learn from each another.”
Another important takeaway from living and working on a farm is, according to Lamb, “the value and amount of hard work it takes to be a successful farmer.” He recalled, “When I was a youngster on the farm, ‘break time’ didn’t come mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Break time was when you got to the end of the tobacco row, no matter how far away that was. And no one stopped at five o’clock either. If there was a storm brewing off the coast during harvest, we could run all night. Mother Nature always dictated the schedule. And she still does.”
James L. Lamb was nominated North Carolina Farmer of the Year by Jessica H. Tripp, District Field Representative for North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. She commented, “Lamb is the type of farmer who does everything in his power to help preserve the agricultural industry as a whole. He’s managed to maintain his farm operation while working full time for Prestage as an environmental specialist, a job that requires a huge commitment of time and energy.”
Tripp added, “James Lamb is a nationwide advocate for agriculture, a leader and gifted spokesperson for North Carolina’s hog industry, and an educator who enjoys informing the public about where food comes from and introducing them to new trends and innovations in today’s agriculture. Farming for him is not just a job; it’s a way of life, a heritage, and a calling.”
As the North Carolina winner of the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo award, James Lamb will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida. A Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to each state winner and nominator. Syngenta will donate $500 to the state winner’s charity of choice. Lamb is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner by Swisher. Massey Ferguson North America will provide each state winner with a gift package and the overall winner with the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year or 250 hours (whichever comes first). A Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to the overall winner. Syngenta will provide a $500 donation to the charity of choice for the overall winner who will also receive a Hays LTI Smoker/Grill. In addition, the overall winner will receive a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute Edition rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 31st consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,204,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from North Carolina include John Vollmer of Bunn, 1990; Kenneth Jones of Pink Hill, 1991; John Howard, Jr. of Deep Run, 1992; Carlyle Ferguson of Waynesville, 1993; Dick Tunnell of Swan Quarter, 1994; Allan Lee Baucom of Monroe, 1995; Scott Whitford of Grantsboro, 1996; Williams Covington, Sr. of Mebane, 1997; Phil McLain of Statesville, 1998; Earl Hendrix of Raeford, 1999; Reid Gray of Statesville, 2000; Rusty Cox of Monroe, 2001; Craven Register of Clinton, 2002; Frank Howey, Jr. of Monroe, 2003; Eddie Johnson of Elkin, 2004; Danny McConnell of Hendersonville, 2005; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2006; Bill Cameron of Raeford, 2007; V. Mac Baldwin of Yanceyville, 2008; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, 2009; Bo Stone of Rowland, 2010; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2011; Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, 2012; Wilbur Earp of Winnabow, 2013; Frank Howey, Jr., of Monroe, 2014; Danny Kornegay of Princeton, 2015; Jerry Wyant of Vale, 2016; and Van Hemrick of Hamptonville, 2017; Howard Brown of Andrews, 2018, and Johnny Wishon of Sparta, 2019.