Jamey Tosh is a rare breed — a young owner/operator of a pork production business. At 28 years old, he’s responsible for the 20,000 sows and the 8,500 acres of row crops that make up Tosh Farms. Based in Henry, Tenn., the family partnership includes his parents, Jimmy and Alonna, and his younger brother, Jonathan. 

While his dad first brought hogs onto the scene in 1972, the dramatic growth occurred in the early 1990s. Jamey returned to the business in 2002 after graduating from the University of Tennessee in Martin. The operation now employs 180 people and works with 37 contract growers.

Jamey also teaches a semester of swine science at MurrayStateUniversity in Kentucky. “It’s sort of a recruitment tool for the swine operation. If I get one student per year, it’s worth my time and effort,” he says.

It’s that innovative approach and more that sets this young pork executive apart.

What is different about your family’s business today from in the past?

From a production standpoint, we used to have a three-site system, but we’re moving away from that, mainly from a health, transportation and performance standpoint. We’re going to more wean-to-finish sites. We’re weaning pigs a bit older, shifting from 15-day-old pigs to 21 days. We’ve made some genetic changes on the female side. We have an internal multiplication site and a boar stud, so everything is internal.

The multiplication system brought forth another change; it’s a pen gestation unit.

What prompted the change to group housing?

The animal welfare issues. Dad made a trip to Europe and liked a system that he saw. I was against the idea; I just had it in my head that it can’t work. Then we visited a farm in Illinois, and I was pretty impressed with it. So in September 2006, we set it up here. We had some start-up issues, but now it’s one of our best performing barns.

What were some of those start-up issues?

It was mostly about getting people used to the system; we had people who typically worked with sow stalls. We didn’t have any support behind it, so we didn’t really know what to do. The animals had some feet and leg problems. Training sows to go through the electronic feeding station was a challenge; also getting them mixed into the right groups.

We started it in September, and in November I was ready to pull the system out. As a management team we said, okay we’re going to make this system work, so what do we have to do? We brought in some outside consultants, and by December it just took off. The system will work in the United States, there’s no question about that, so long as you have the right management behind it.

What changes have you seen unfold in the U.S. pork industry?

The challenges that we face today are different, mainly environmental pressures and animal welfare. Those are the two big issues that I see. Pork people are going to have to become politicians, because the average consumer doesn’t know what we do.

That’s probably the scariest part to me, because it won’t get better. I have friends who are the same age as me, living in a rural area, but they don’t understand what we do and why.

Your business has faced some environmental challenges. What occurred?

It started about three years ago. We wanted to move into western Kentucky. They’re very familiar with contract production because of chicken operations and tend to be more open to it. They especially like the manure value it provides. 

We already had six barns in a neighboring county that had been in place for a year without any problems. There’s a school less than a mile from four of these barns, and they’ve never complained. Actually, the school board has been helpful; they’ve been real good neighbors.

For this new project, we went to the county boards, explained what we wanted to do, the technology that we’d be using, took them to tour a couple barns. We showed them the financial impact, the jobs we’d create, how much the row croppers would benefit; that’s how we got the ball turned.

A couple of counties still didn’t go for it, but one dropped its ordinance and let us in. There’s still some opposition that continues to challenge us. Right now, more than half of our finishing production is in Kentucky.

In the end, was it an environmental issue or something more?

People call us a factory farm. But if you call me a factory farm, what about that row-crop farmer down the road with 4,000 acres? Is he a factory farm, too? There’s no such thing as a factory farm in my book. We’re just a family farm operation that’s succeeded. But try to explain that to people.

What did you learn from your attempt to grow your business?

You can never change some people’s minds, but you’ve got to be willing to talk to people about your business. They will have a better perception of your business if they meet you.

We held a community picnic this year. The soybean association and the Kentucky Pork Producers Association supported us. We invited government officials, ran radio and newspaper ads, and reached out to a 30- to 45-mile radius.

We thought we’d have 250 people, but about 400 showed up. We let people go in our barns to see for themselves. It’s a bit of a (health) risk, but it’s well worth it. We got a lot of positive feedback.

What advice would you offer from your expansion efforts?

See that everything is in line, that the permits are correct, have a sound nutrient-management plan and detailed records. Know the hurdles that you need to address ahead of time. Also, make sure you hire the right lawyer.

Work with neighbors, the public and politicians. Be sure to make your point about what you’re trying to do and why, and don’t be shy about what you do for a living.

What’s your greatest satisfaction in this business?

Working with the pigs; it’s been my passion. Also, that I know I’m feeding a growing population. They have to eat, even though they may not know where it’s coming from. It gives me great satisfaction that I’m producing food and how important that is.

What’s your greatest frustration?

The environmental groups, animal-rights activists, farmers working against farmers. The way I look at it is we’re all in agriculture; we’ve got to work together. It doesn’t set a good eye for the industry or for agriculture if we don’t. And we’ve got to get ag people out to communicate with the general population.

What is your business philosophy?

We want to be a leading producer, to be responsible in the way we handle things. We want to adapt technology and use resources to make our business better — we work on that every day.

We also support our staff and growers to better themselves through education. We offer scholarships to local universities that are tied to agricultural-based majors. The scholarships are first offered to employees’ families; if there are extras, we open them up. It’s a way to give back to the community. People will respect you a lot more if you do things like that.

I see myself as one of the few young people that stayed in this business. My father put me in this

What does the future hold for you?

unique position. It would be a disgrace to him if I let it fail. Ten or 15 years ago we wouldn’t have expected to be this size, but the right opportunities came along. I do see us growing. Where does it stop? I don’t know.

Looking ahead, one industry challenge is having enough swine veterinarians. Pork demand is strong globally, but we need to make a positive impact domestically. Pork demand has been flatlining for years, it’s time it increases. Exports have been good, but that's risky. We used to look at exports as icing on the cake, but now it’s the cake. On the health side, what scares me is not having a traceability system and animal identification in place for health security reasons.

What message would you most like to share with consumers?

How important agriculture is— it is where their food comes from. This country hasn’t seen food shortages since World War II, and consumers don’t know what that’s like or how their food gets to their plates. We’ve got to blame ourselves, too. We haven’t provided them the education.

What message would you most like to share with your fellow pork execs?

Get involved with state and local organizations; get involved with the community, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Pork Board. It doesn’t matter if you don't own a hog-- if you’re in the industry, you have to get involved and talk to people.