Most Small Farmers of the Year have spent decades in their fields. Not this year’s honoree.
2018 Small Farmer of the Year Ronald W. Simmons Jr. only started Master Blend Family Farms in 2012. But although Simmons may have less experience than many past winners, he already matches their passion for agriculture.
The Duplin County grower was honored by Cooperative Extension at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University during the Small Farmers’ Appreciation Luncheon on campus March 28.
Simmons accepted the award with his wife, Laurita. In his remarks, he thanked his family and his team of workers for their support and dedication.
“Everyone who’s affiliated with us has seen the trials and tribulations,” he said. “I always remind them that it isn’t easy, but I have very ambitious individuals around me. They say, ‘So what? Let’s keep it moving.’”
Master Blend practices a type of niche pork production – raising pigs outdoors with all-natural feeds – which allows small farmers to get premium prices. The farm near Kenansville includes an on-site general store that sells pork and a variety of other locally grown products.
“America is becoming more aware and concerned about what it’s consuming and what it’s feeding its kids,” Simmons says. “We saw an opportunity.”
Simmons started raising hogs after consulting with James Hartsfield, an area farm management agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Duplin and Sampson counties. The farmer credits Extension with helping his operation thrive.
“When it comes to the tools you need in order to be successful, Cooperative Extension is there to help you out,” Simmons told a crowd of 320 other farmers and Extension supporters at Wednesday’s luncheon.
Hartsfield said Simmons’ award is well deserved. “Ronald Simmons has worked thoughtfully and creatively,” Hartsfield said. “He’s always searching for new ideas and innovations.”
“He sets a good example for other small farmers, and he’s willing to share the secrets of his success with other farmers so they can be more successful. Ronald, his family and his whole team at the farm are a great inspiration.”
Simmons has made giving back to his community part of his business model. He supports local children in a variety of ways, such as hosting farm visits by groups from FFA and 4-H.
Speakers at Wednesday’s luncheon included U.S. Rep. Alma S. Adams, N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler and N.C. A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Interim Dean Dr. Shirley Hymon-Parker.
Small Farms Week recognizes the small-scale producers in North Carolina who generate $250,000 or less annually in agricultural gross sales. Simmons was presented with gifts of a plaque, a monogrammed jacket and $1,500 during a Small Farmers’ Appreciation Day program, which was the culmination of the 32nd annual observance of Small Farms Week. Workshops, farm tours, demonstrations and panel discussions were also part of the series of events.