I first met Rhyne Cureton at the “We Are Organic” CCOF Foundation dinner. He was the guest speaker as a CCOF Foundation 2018 grant recipient. He grew up in Charlotte, NC and attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
I recently interviewed him. I first asked him to share what prompted him to choose agriculture as his career, and he said, “I always had an interest in working with animals. So, I transferred to A&T as an animal science major. I came to realize that agriculture is basically the fundamentals of human survival of civilization. It’s the background of all economics—the bread and butter of civilization. Agriculture isn’t just about farming; it’s about economics, energy research, education. It encompasses everything we do—whether it’s the clothes on your back, your housing and especially what you eat.”
Rhyne continued, “In 2016 I was 1 of 20 undergraduates who had the opportunity to be part of the USDA World Outlook diversity program. It’s designed to help minorities understand and engage with USDA programs. I had the opportunity to listen to Ag leaders from all around the world. It was interesting to see what’s happing from foreign delegates and commodity groups.
That’s when I came to a divergent point. I realized I didn’t resonate with the way the way we raise livestock here in the US. Modern farming systems like CAFO’S are what is taught at Land Grant Universities. They teach things that the industry wants their future employees to know, those industry production methods and standards.”
Rhyne went on to explain that he comes from an environmental background. “Even when I was younger, I loved and appreciated nature and animals. I love to see animals in a natural environment where they are in communion with nature rather than segregated by concrete and steel. So that was my mid-academic crisis. I felt there was another part of the story.”
Rhyne took a gap year to learn more about organic agriculture. During that time, he worked for several pasture-based livestock farms in Texas and North Carolina. It was with the pigs of those farms that he found his passion.
As we continued talking, Rhyne articulated that he learned about holistic animal production during his gap year.
“We raised cattle, dairy goats, rabbits, bees, broilers, layers and, of course, pigs. I was primarily focused on the pigs. At first, I hated them but having hands-on interactions every day I became fascinated with and learned to love them. I took time to be with them and understand their needs, and it changed my whole perspective. There are a lot of misconceptions about these beautiful majestic animals. It gave me the farmer’s eye—which is not just knowledge but also observational skills to help apply your knowledge to make wise decisions.
Knowing the pig at the individual and the herd level helps. It’s often our fault if they are misbehaving—understand all of their needs and the signs of what they are trying to communicate was the beginning my advocacy for pigs.”
Rhyne was recently selected as one of 10 individuals to serve on the USDA’s National Pork Board #RealPigFarming social media campaign to promote transparency within the pig farming community and the pork industry.
When discussing the outreach effort, Rhyne said, “With a $500 stipend, we were promoting real pig farming on social media. Designed for transparency, it has helped to change the understanding and dynamics of pig farming. I was doing niche pasture raised pork production and was the only minority in the group. It was fascinating to speak with all the people involved in pig production. Doing my own niche farming, I wanted to know how to advocate for the other farmers. How do I speak their truth and tell their story?
I realized that modern pig farmers have a strong emphasis on profitability. I think the regenerative and progressive food movement is so focused on environmental stewardship and social equity that we sometimes fail to capture the business part of the equation. Now that I am educating farmers, I always try to give the perspective of how progressive farming is also a business.”
Rhyne took his holistic perspective to East Africa and volunteered with EATBETA, an organization focused on tackling rural unemployment and food shortage problems in sub-Saharan Africa while empowering rural farmers, especially women, with practical skills.
Rhyne discussed his time there. “When I first went to this rural village in 2017 there were a lot of things not right. I was teaching farmers how to manage swine nutrition, utilize swine for soil fertility, develop farm biosecurity protocols, and assess the health of their swine herd. But it just wasn’t clicking. So, when I went back in 2018, I realized I needed to change my game to make my message resonate more with those farmers.”
That’s when Rhyne came up with the phrase “Farming is Business.” “It really blew peoples’ minds,” he said. “I changed my approach from ‘treat the animal this way because it’s the right thing to do’ to ‘it reduces the risk of disease, and that increases your productivity.’ Increased productivity means additional money and profits. Saying you can save money by being a better livestock steward is the key!”
Now that Rhyne has graduated, he continues to speak and educate farmers at conferences and events hosted by organizations such as the Southern Foodways Alliance, Organic Growers School, and Black Urban Growers. He speaks on topics related to niche pig farming, increasing youth and diversity in agriculture and environmentalism, and consumer engagement.
Rhyne said, “The next phase in my life is being able to promote and connect more minority farmers and food advocates with each other. We have a spread-out network, and I would like to change that. There are a lot of farmers doing amazing things, and I am using my platform and my leverage to tell the story of what makes them special.”
What would he tell a young person getting into agriculture? “Don’t limit yourself; understand that Ag is all-encompassing. If you have the mindset of focusing on one thing, you won’t be nearly as successful as if you work to understand all the different things out there. Agriculture is a web of understanding, and one dot on the web isn’t enough. I highly encourage young people in Ag to expand beyond their central focus to things like engineering and technology.”
Rhyne also urges young farmers to connect with different people and build networks. “If you maintain those relationships, it really serves as continual education. I’ve learned more from talking to people than from formal education.”
Rhyne Cureton is a worthy CCOF Foundation grant recipient—someone I think we will hear more from in the years to come. You can find him on Instagram: @pork.rhyne .
Consider donating to the CCOF Foundation to help foster more future organic leaders!
© 2019, Melody Meyer. All rights reserved.