This story is dedicated to Brantley Daniel Best, a Sampson Community College student who passed away last week. He was 21 years old and enrolled in welding classes. View his obituary here.
Even if you’ve never set foot in Sampson County, you might have depended on it for a hot meal.
A look at North Carolina’s agricultural statistics paints a pretty clear picture: Sampson County is the number one farming county in the state. Only nearby Duplin County comes anywhere close; Duplin has a lot more chickens and slightly more hogs, but Sampson easily surpasses it in cattle and turkeys and ranks number one overall in farm cash receipts thanks to its significantly higher crop production. Smithfield Foods, which has a huge presence in the region, is the largest pork producer in the nation.
Whether you’re eating a barbecue sandwich in Raleigh or Manhattan, there’s a decent chance you owe a “thank you” to farmers in southeastern North Carolina. Many people who live here have depended on agriculture jobs to feed their families for generations. Sampson Community College has played an integral role in training residents for those jobs, from truck driving to ammonia refrigeration and much more.
On a Wednesday morning this past August, I sat across a table from Dr. Bill Starling, the new president of Sampson Community College (SCC). He told me that almost all of the largest programs at the college, even nursing, can be traced back to farming in some way. If the industry in the region shifts in the future, he said, the college will have to follow suit.
“The question about what we’re going to be is really a question of what eastern North Carolina is going to be,” Starling said. As he spoke, I glanced out the window behind him and saw a hog truck driving down Highway 24.
The local hog industry has a presence on SCC’s Foundation, and agriculture-focused entities have donated quite a bit to the college’s infrastructure. Just a short walk from the front office building, you’ll find a facility funded by Hog Slat featuring the same industry standard equipment found in hog farms that populate this part of our state.
The Golden LEAF Foundation recently awarded SCC a grant to construct a new truck driving facility, which SCC said was much needed since it has one of the state’s largest commercial driver’s license (CDL) programs. That’s not too surprising since truck drivers are essential in the agriculture process. You can’t drive around this part of the state for very long without coming across the familiar sight, and yes, the familiar odor of a big rig stuffed with hogs, chickens, or turkeys.
Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach accompanied me on our visit to SCC. We explored some of the equipment related to animal sciences, including a realistically weighted rubber calf meant to teach students about the birthing process. Posters on the wall depict types of meat infections employees must watch out for in a processing plant.
Agriculture is the life blood of Sampson County, number one ag county in NC. @SampsonCCtweets teaches animal science to future farmers, simulating animal births, handling, and more. @ncLEAFchief says this calf is pretty heavy! pic.twitter.com/q2QiV2ncwF
— Robert Kinlaw (@rob3rtk) August 30, 2018
Nearby sits the college’s ammonia refrigeration department. Here, students learn to properly operate the massive equipment that ensures meat stays frozen from the time it’s loaded onto a truck until you bring it home from the grocery store.
In addition to farming-centric programs, SCC offers programs commonly associated with community colleges: nursing, industrial maintenance, cosmetology, welding and more. And although these skills can be utilized almost anywhere, many have their own hooks in the local agriculture industry.
Graduates of the welding and industrial maintenance programs can find local employment working on the infrastructure that keeps farms going — whether that’s a tractor or a piece of pork processing equipment. An AHEC grant gave nursing students the opportunity to do health and wellness checks on local farm workers. Some graduates of the nursing program will find employment at nearby Sampson Regional Medical Center, one of the few independent hospitals left in the state.
Despite its focus on the local agriculture economy, the college is investing in the programs that most fulfill its slogan: “Begin here, go anywhere.”
That’s partly born from a need to stay competitive with neighboring institutions. Highway 24, which runs through Clinton, has been the subject of a renovation process that’s gone on far longer than anticipated. When the project finally concludes, the result will be easier access to Fayetteville for people who live in Clinton, which means easier access to larger institutions like Fayetteville Technical Community College.
These themes play into the larger conversation of North Carolina’s growing rural-urban divide.
“North Carolina is scratching its head,” Starling said. “If it’s going to be just the Triangle, RDU, the Triad… we’re not sure what’s going to happen to the rest of us.”
“The question about what we’re going to be is really a question of what eastern North Carolina is going to be.”—Bill Starling, SCC President
Perhaps a larger threat than physical proximity is the proliferation of online classes, which makes it easier for students across the state to choose larger institutions like Wake Tech over their local community college. Sampson Community College has responded to this inevitable march toward progress by aggressively expanding its own online classes.
SCC’s early college, which offers academic opportunities for local high school students, should also be relatively safe from competitors. But moving forward, Starling and his administrative team believe another aspect will be crucial in attracting and retaining students: offering a more vibrant campus life. That could mean getting more students involved in student government, for example.
The college is not alone in confronting new challenges. Recent nuisance lawsuits targeting companies like Murphy-Brown mean that changes are certainly coming for the hog industry, which may very well be necessary to bring the farms up to cleaner and more healthy standards for those who live nearby.
These lawsuits have largely focused on two groups of people: those in charge of the hog farming companies and those who are most affected by the odors, flies, and waste that said farms inevitably generate. But there’s another group with a stake in the future of agriculture: the thousands of employees who depend on it for their livelihood.
It’s the woman who keeps inventory of the hogs, or the man who pulls them down winding back roads behind a Kenworth. It’s the people who repair the machines in the processing plant down the street and those who carefully inspect meat for maladies — meat that I can enjoy later with peace of mind and a side of slaw.
These are the people that help put food on our own tables, and many of them relied on Sampson Community College to secure the jobs they have today.