Farmers and Fathers

The Warren family of Sampson County is the real face of "Big Ag"

NEWTON GROVE — When Blake and Matilda Warren purchased a plot of land outside of Clinton in the mid-1800s, they hoped it would help provide for their children. Four generations later, the Warren family is still prospering off the property their ancestors settled on, and then some.Brandon Warren is just one of five descendants who currently works the land.”I just always knew what I wanted to do,” said Brandon. “As soon as I was old enough to go with my dad, I wanted to come see what he was doing and figure out how to do stuff. I just always had a desire to be a farmer.”Today, the Warrens farm 7,000 acres of row crops: corn, soy beans, wheat, cotton, sweet potatoes and tobacco, while also raising beef cows and hogs. With that much diversity and land, they have divided up their duties: Brandon’s uncle and cousin look after the sweet potatoes and tobacco, Brandon’s father and brother manage the grains and cotton, and Brandon rears the livestock.Besides being a full-time farmer, Brandon has three young children: Cullen (9), Brady (8) and Caroline (2).As newlyweds, Brandon and his wife, Mandy, lived in the original home place on the land — a picturesque white farmhouse with a wide open front porch that overlooks the silos. Today, Brandon’s brother, wife and 4-month-old son reside there.It’s a place that Blake and Matilda Warren built and raised Brandon’s grandfather, Emerson. A photo of the three still hangs in the farm’s main office.”They’re buried out there,” Brandon’s 9-year-old son Cullen said, pointing behind him. “So they never really left the farm then,” I say. “Not really,” Cullen replies with a silliness in his voice.The boys are full of life and jokes. “How did the farmer find his wife?” Cullen asks me, “He tractor down!”Brandon credits his family’s hard work and investment for the fact they have grown from the original deed to the large operation they are today.”My family has worked their whole lives to get to where we are,” said Brandon. “Hard work, trying to live conservatively, putting profits back into growing the business — it’s a product of determination and blessings from the Lord.”His father, Gerald, also had the foresight of diversifying their crops. In farming, any year could be a bad harvest for a particular plant, but diversity helps cushion the blow if one crop is underperforming.Farming is tough work, but it has certainly advanced since the days Emerson Warren spent in the fields. Machines like the combine harvester and paid laborers help turn over a plot of land quickly.On Friday morning Warren Swine Farms picked a field of wheat; by the late afternoon, workers will have planted soy beans in the wheat’s place.But Brandon knows too well that modern times have also brought in a new wave of issues for families in the agriculture business. At their current size, the Warrens are entering the territory of “Big Ag” — a term often used in a negative connotation by environmental and animal rights activists.In late April, the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 467: Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies to cap the compensatory damages that plaintiffs can sue farms for to no more than the fair market price of the farm. The Republican-led legislature overturned a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to make the bill law in early May. Opponents say the change silences mostly low-income minority neighbors of big farms; particularly hog farms, but farmers like Brandon support the measure.”This is a family operation — my dad started growing the farming business when he got out of school,” Brandon said while watching a tractor move through one of his tobacco fields. “We work here every day, we raise our families here. The last people who would ever want to pollute the land or the water would be us, because we live here. It’s our livelihood.”To be able to have a future here for my children to come back to, if they want to, we need to protect our land,” he continued. “Frivolous lawsuits make you wonder what’s going to happen in the future.”For now, the fifth generation Warren boys are a little more interested in sports and country music. Cullen says he’d like to be the next Luke Bryan.”If he’s not going to be a singer, he’s a soccer player. If he’s not a soccer player, he’s a origamist,” Brady jokes about his older brother’s many talents. “If he’s not an origamist, he’s going to be a cornhole player.””I’m not sure that’s a paid professional,” their father laughs.They do; however, say that jumping between hay barrels could be an Olympic sport.Caroline, who joined her brothers on the fields after her nap, is one of few Warren-born girls. “When I found out we were having a girl, I said, ‘Really? You better check again, Warrens don’t have girls,'” joked Brandon.As of Friday, Cullen and Brady are out of school for the summer. Their dad hopes, in between soccer games, that they’ll begin to spend more time learning the trade he cherishes.”I spent a lot of time growing up on the tobacco field when I was their age and a little older. In the summers that is what we did,” Brandon recalled. “When I was 16, my dad helped me get a used vehicle — I worked and helped pay for it.”When asked if he thinks his children will continue the tradition and go into the family business, Brandon replied, “I’m hoping so, that’s what I’d like to instill in my kids — the value of hard work, earning what you get, not expecting someone to give it to you.”