By: Bryant M. Spivey, County Extension Director
It is tradition for the Johnston County Farm-City Week Committee to host a banquet each year to celebrate agriculture and agribusiness in Johnston County. Agriculture and the greater agribusiness industry are part of a tremendous partnership that accounts for roughly 10% of the Johnston County economy and 10% of county employment. Agriculture generates over $279 million each year at the farm level. This year’s banquet was held on November 23, 2015 at the Johnston County Agricultural Center Auditorium. Dr. Marshall Stewart, Assistant to the Dean, NC State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was the banquet speaker.
All Smithfield-area financial institutions and several local agribusinesses sponsored the event, including: AgCarolina Farm Credit, B&S Enterprises, BB&T, Central Marketing, East Coast Equipment, Farm Bureau Insurance – Smithfield Office, First Citizens Bank & Trust, Four Oaks Bank & Trust, Johnston County Farm Bureau Federation, Johnston County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, KS Bank, Southern Bank, Swift Creek Nursery, Wells Fargo Bank, and WTSB Radio.
Strickland’s Crossroads 4-H Club
Also included in Farm-City Week celebrations is the Hungry to Help food drive benefiting Backpack Buddies. Sponsored by Johnston County 4-H and Johnston County FFA Chapters, the winning 4-H club and FFA chapter that collected the most food by weight received a $100 prize. The winning groups were Strickland’s Crossroads 4-H Club and McGee’s Crossroads Middle School FFA. Food was also collected the night of the banquet, with all donated items going to the Backpack Buddies programs at West Smithfield Elementary and Selma Middle School. The total amount of food collected this year for the Hungry to Help food drive was 908 pounds.
Every year the Johnston County Farm-City Week committee recognizes families or individuals from the county that have made significant contributions to the local agricultural economy through either agribusiness or farming. This year the committee recognized Jeffery C. Lee of the Meadow community and Carolina Packers, Inc.
Jeffery Lee grew up in a close-knit, rural farming community where neighbors worked hard, helped each other out, and gathered at the country store to swap tales of woe and success. Somewhere in his simple beginnings, a seed was planted that has defined Jeffery’s life; farming is all he has ever wanted to do. Today, Jeffery Lee is farming on the same land that was originally purchased by his ancestors before the Revolutionary War. Unlike many folks, however, Jeffery did not inherit this farm. Like many others, the Lee family lost their farm during the Great Depression. They were able, however, to continue to live on, sharecrop, and rent the land, so a majority of Mr. E.T. Lee’s eight sons stayed on or near this farm in the Meadow community throughout their entire lives. As a child, Jeffery Lee spent most waking minutes with his father, his Uncle Ambrose, or Mr. Samuel Johnson on a tractor or in a field, soaking up all he could learn. Upon graduation from South Johnston High School in 1973, Jeffery went to work on the Lee family farm, where he started his career with three acres of his own tobacco. He worked closely with his Uncle Ambrose, who taught him a great deal. Jeffery eventually took over the reins of the farm when his uncle was ready to retire. Through considerable diligence and hard work over the years, Jeffery’s farming operation expanded. One of the most significant accomplishments in his journey came in 2005 when Jeffery was able to fulfill a lifetime dream of buying back the family farm. Today, Jeffery tends approximately 225 acres of tobacco, 650 acres of sweet potatoes, and 600 acres of cotton in Johnston, Sampson, and Harnett Counties.
Jeffery Lee feels led to serve and help his farming community, neighbors, family, and friends. He serves on several groups, including: Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina Board of Directors, NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission Board, Congressman David Rouzer’s Agriculture Advisory Council, Advisory Board of the Johnston County Extension Service, Wells Fargo Agricultural Advisory Board, Johnston County Board of Equalization and Review, North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Board of Directors, United States Sweet Potato Council Board of Directors, and the North Carolina Agricultural Commissioner’s Circle. Jeffery serves and supports many through public boards and appointments, but it is the unnamed and uncelebrated acts of giving from the heart that truly sets him apart. The phrase “heart of gold” is personified in Jeffery Lee, as he will go above and beyond what is expected to help family and friends in need. Though these silent contributions to others will never see the light of day, their impact has been life-changing.
In the late 1930s local investors were interested in the development of a livestock market in Smithfield to support area farmers from several counties by having a dependable place to sell cattle and hogs. In 1940, John A. Jones, Sr. was recruited to lead the effort to begin Carolina Packing Company. As a former employee of Cudahy Packing Company in Claxton, Georgia, Mr. Jones had gained expertise in meat processing, including a recipe for red hot dogs. The opening of Carolina Packing Company gave area farmers the ability to sell hogs and cattle locally face-to-face with a handshake. The company was not only an asset to area farmers, but the overall economy as well; it was the first plant of its kind in all of North Carolina. After just one year in operation, the name of the company was changed by Jones to Carolina Packers, Inc. During the early days of operation, the company sold fresh cuts of pork and beef to local grocery stores. After a few years Carolina Packers began developing production of sausages, hot dogs, and bologna, which became very popular in the 1950s. John A. Jones, Sr. operated the business under conservative principles, and was able to expand over the years. Mr. Jones’ son, John A. “Buck” Jones, Jr., began working at the plant in 1956 after graduation from college and enlisting in the Air Force. In 1977, Buck Jones became president of Carolina Packers, Inc. During his tenure as head of the company, Carolina Packers expanded and the business continued to mature.
In 1997, Carolina Packers discontinued slaughtering animals at the plant in order to renovate the plant to further focus on processing and their well-known red Bright Leaf Hot Dogs. Following Buck’s death in 2005, his wife, Jean Lassiter Jones, took over as president of the company and continues to this day. Sales have expanded to new areas and Bright Leaf hot dogs are now the official hot dog of the East Carolina Pirates, Carolina Mudcats, and Durham Bulls. One of the conservative business practices the Jones family took to heart was developing strong relationships with others, including employees. Around 1945, Mr. Jones, Sr. brought Vince Bode to work as the General Manager, a role that he held until 1977. Vince had a great understanding of how to successfully buy and sell meat and meat products while making a profit. Hilton Byrd of Four Oaks succeeded Mr. Bode as General Manager of Carolina Packers in 1977 and worked until 2000. From 2005 to present, Kent Denning has served as the General Manager. Carolina Packers has a very loyal customer base that is committed to the products they manufacture. In February 2011, The National Provisioner Magazine named the Carolina Bright Leaf hot dog one of the top-20 most popular hot dogs in the United States.
The Johnston County Farm-City Week Committee is proud to honor Jeffery C. Lee and Carolina Packers, Inc. for their outstanding contributions to the farmers and consumers of Johnston County. They exemplify what Farm-City Week is all about, the partnership that puts food on the tables of American families.