James Lamb is a busy man.
As an environmental specialist with Prestage Farms Inc., Lamb spends his weekdays conducting compliance inspections on company farms across North Carolina and into South Carolina, as well as helping out over 200 contract growers with their own compliance.
When the regular workday ends at 5 p.m. it’s back home to do outdoor chores at his own family farm in Sampson County, where he and his family operate a pig nursery and grow corn. It’s that work ethic which has seen Lamb through a lifetime of farming and agricultural work, and it’s a major part of why in July he was named the 2020 Sunbelt Farmer of the Year.
Farming is in Lamb’s blood. His father gave up a career in the military in order to help Lamb’s grandfather on the farm, which meant that Lamb was never far from the sights and sounds of agricultural work.
“I just wanted to be like my dad, he was a third-generation farmer,” Lamb said. “I grew up following him and wanting to do everything he did, and that’s where I got the love of farming.”
Tragedy struck the Lamb family early on, when Lamb’s father was killed in a car accident when Lamb was just 16 years old. It was, Lamb said, the worst day of his life.
“Things happen for a reason though,” he said. “If my dad was still alive, I would’ve been torn between going to college and staying back on the farm to help him, because his health had been failing. The silver lining in all of that, if there was one, was that I got to pursue my own education at N.C. State after I managed the farm the last two years of high school.”
Taking on such an important task at such a young age had a profound effect on Lamb. He came away from the experience with skills that would propel him through the rest of his career in agriculture.
“The main thing was the work ethic. I enjoyed what I was doing so it never really felt like too much work, but there’s a lot of kids who got out of school and just had their homework to do,” he said. “I played basketball, and my senior year I had to forgo basketball to focus on getting my GPS as high as possible so I could go to college. I couldn’t dedicate the kind of time to basketball that I needed to.”
After his father died, Lamb was unsure if he would be able to afford to go to college on a single-parent household’s income. Even after his passing, Lamb’s father could still provide some help to his son as he looked toward college.
“I was fortunate enough to get a full four-year scholarship paid for by the veteran’s administration, because my father served in the military,” Lamb said. “After death, in hindsight, his military efforts helped me to get my education.”
“I have a daughter in college now, and I couldn’t imagine doing it with only one income,” he said. “I was blessed to get that scholarship for four years.”
That initial blessing has flourished into a remarkable career which has seen Lamb be involved at nearly every level of agriculture from the local to the national. Locally, Lamb is the Sampson County soil and water supervisor, the Sampson County cooperative extension advisor, and the Sampson County schools curriculum advisor.
Lamb also serves in the North Carolina Agriculture Commissioners Circle, is a member of the Cape Fear Farm Credit nominating committee, a member of the Eastern NC Technical Assistance Group, and a member of the NC Pork Council promotions committee. Lamb is a past member of the National Pork Board’s nominating, environment, and domestic marketing committees and is a member of the National Pork Producers Council environmental committee.
His continued commitment to improving agriculture and his own personal commitment to maintaining his family farm made him a prime candidate for Farmer of the Year. The accolade is far from Lamb’s first recognition, but it is still special to him.
“The nominating committee for this award is made up of some pretty prestigious people, and when you get an award like that from your peers it means a lot because you know they understand it,” he said. “This award is a little different from when I won pork producer of the year, because it encompasses all of agriculture. My farm, like most farms, is diverse, and this award covers all of those different commodity groups. It really makes this special.”
Of course, the work can often be its own reward. Just like when Lamb was young, he still finds enjoyment and fulfillment in the day-to-day work that he does both at home and in his daily job with Prestage Farms.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing something that you start, whether it’s a pig I just got and seeing what it was up to what I helped it grow into, and then the row crops as well. I’ll take a picture of a field when it’s planted and watch it as it grows,” he said. “Job wise, it’s getting to see all of the farmers. The average age of a farmer is 58, and a lot of them are older than me, so you learn a lot from those older farmers who have been farming since the 70’s and 80’s, and just general life lessons. You also learn from the younger farmers coming up who are really tech savvy, so you get the full spectrum. Farmers are generally just really good people. They’ll literally give you the shirt off their back if they know you and respect you.”
That kind of genuine attitude is what farming is all about for Lamb. He described agriculture as being all about hope and faith.
“You have that hope that every group of animals or every crop season is better than the last. But you always have that faith that, if it’s not, you’ll still be able to overcome it,” he said. “The optimism and hope that you get from your successes is what gets you through the times that you fail.”
Lamb turned to a sports analogy to explain his outlook.
“The times you win are what keeps you going back to practice even after you lose. You remember how good it felt when you won. That joy that you feel when everything goes right, that’s what gets you through when everything is going wrong,” Lamb said. “That faith that you’re going to get back to that point again. I think that’s what keeps farmers going year after year. That hope and that faith.”