Van Hemric, North Carolina

Van Hemric of Hamptonville, North Carolina started farming on a modest scale in 1988 with six acres of tobacco. The next year, he put up his first chicken house.

He now grows 200-250 acres of flue-cured tobacco, and raises broiler layers in eight chicken houses. He grows soybeans on 385 acres and grass pasture on 1,200 acres. He harvests hay from 400 acres, and also grows triticale for hay.

Hemric’s corn maze established his farm as an agritourism destination, attracting 20,000 visitors yearly. His beef enterprise consists of 601 mostly Angus cows and 48 bulls.

As a result of his success as a diversified farmer, Hemric has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

A farmer for 29 years, his farm includes 2,500 acres, with 400 acres owned and the rest rented. Hemric produces good per acre yields, 2,400 pounds of tobacco, 35 bushels of soybeans, 5-7 tons of grass hay and 7-8 tons of triticale hay.

Hemric harvests triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid, as seed formation starts. He puts it up as dry hay, not as round bale silage. He harvests only 300 bales of round bale silage each year.

Flue-cured tobacco is his money crop. He raises transplants in two greenhouses. Hemric plants seed during February, then transplants tobacco during late April through early May. “Our goal is to harvest by Aug. 1 and finish harvesting by the middle of October,” he says.

Hemric’s tobacco acreage is about the same as it was before the quota buyout. He grows tobacco under contract with JTI, a Japanese company. His tobacco is shipped overseas to be made into cigarettes.

“A new leaf loader helps our tobacco curing,” says Hemric. “We received energy grants to install controllers and insulation in our tobacco barns.” One grant helped him replace incandescent bulbs with energy-saving light-emitting diode (LED) lights in his chicken houses. Hemric also received a North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund grant that helped build facilities at his corn maze.

His corn maze covers five acres for fall visitors. “You don’t want it to take more than 45 minutes to go through the maze,” he says. The area features a petting zoo, hay maze, pumpkin cannon, corn pit, jump house and other activities for children. The site also has a restaurant that offers food to customers.

Hemric and his wife Jennifer operate the maze with partners Jason and Lori Walker. They sell advertising rights for companies or organizations to put their logos on the maze, and this income helps offset the costs of the surveying the maze.

“Our hope is that children come to the maze to have fun, and leave knowing more about agriculture,” says Hemric.

At the maze site on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Hemric hires a helicopter to drop plastic eggs for children to pick up. He also hosts a community July 4th celebration, and has hosted fundraisers for schools and for a child needing a kidney transplant.

Hemric also worked closely with N.C. Farm Bureau to secure liability insurance coverage for agritourism operations in the state.

Drought tends to hit in his area during July, so Hemric plants later maturing group five soybeans to help escape drought damage. Hemric markets his soybeans through forward contracts that he typically signs in June or July each year. He delivers the soybeans during November and December.

He works with his father, Gilbert Hemric, in producing hay. As a young child, Van remembers his first job on the farm was picking up dead chickens in his father’s broiler houses.

Gilbert also has a keen eye for picking out good bulls. “We keep 36 bulls in the pastures for the 601 cows, and the rest of the bulls are young replacement bulls that we buy as yearlings,” says Van. “We put them with the cows when they are two and a half years old and well adjusted to grazing.”

The cattle are spread out on pastures in four counties, so that makes it impractical to use a controlled breeding season or artificial insemination.

Van groups his calves by weight, and backgrounds them 45 days before selling them through the Hodge Livestock Network. The cattle are sold directly off the farm after they are videotaped and bidding is conducted via telephone conference call.

His cattle management is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified, and this enabled him to sell beef to the Whole Foods grocery firm during 2016 and 2017.

He raises broiler layers and collects their eggs for Mountaire Farms. These eggs are hatched out and raised as broilers on other farms. One of his chicken houses burned down last year, but he has since built back that house. He says each house holds about 10,000 birds, including about 800 roosters.

The layers arrive at 22 weeks of age, and they stay on his farm, laying eggs, until they reach about 64 weeks.

Chicken litter is a valuable resource. He uses the layer litter to fertilize pastures and hay fields, applying 1-1/2 to 2 tons of litter per acre. Hemric and his employees also clean out litter from chicken houses owned by others. “We do this in exchange for their litter,” says Hemric. “It would cost $100,000 to buy an equivalent amount of fertilizer. We wouldn’t be in the cattle business if it wasn’t for chicken litter.”

He uses a number of conservation practices such as composters and dry stacks for litter storage. He has fenced out creeks and has installed wells and cattle watering facilities. He also uses field borders and grassed waterways, and rotates tobacco with soybeans to conserve soil.

Hemric serves on the Yadkin County Farm Bureau, Soil & Water Conservation District and voluntary ag district boards. He is on a bank advisory board, is active at Union Baptist Church and serves on the Poultry Advisory Committee of N.C. Farm Bureau.

In addition to working at the corn maze, his wife Jennifer works off the farm as executive director of New Hope Pregnancy Care, a non-profit organization that helps women cope with unplanned pregnancies.

Their daughter Ashton is a recent college graduate. Their son Colton works full time on the farm. Colton also has some tobacco and cattle of his own. Van and Jennifer are custodial parents for two young children, a brother and sister, Kaleb and Kylie, who became a part of their family as a result of Jennifer’s work at New Hope Pregnancy Care.

Audrey Brown, director of field services with North Carolina Farm Bureau, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Hemric was nominated for the honor by Callie Carson, N.C. Farm Bureau field representative. Carson appreciates what Hemric does for Farm Bureau and admires how his food safety practices allow him to sell beef to Whole Foods.

As the North Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Hemric will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI and a Henry Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 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; and Jerry Wyant of Vale, 2016.

North Carolina has had four overall winners, Eddie Johnson of Elkin in 2004, Bill Cameron of Raeford in 2007, Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord in 2011, and Danny Kornegay of Princeton in 2015.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Hemric’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges for this year include farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.