With enough swine to require their own government-monitored wastewater treatment plant and a herd of cattle besides, Smith-Healy Farms conserves soil and water for business reasons and from feelings of stewardship, not to win awards.
But the Ogeechee River Soil and Water Conservation District recently saluted Smith-Healy with the Bulloch County Conservationist of the Year award.
"We as farmers, we on this farm and as a community of farmers nationwide, are very cognizant of conservation agriculture, of doing things in a way so that we can conserve the soil, because we can see how in just a generation or two we almost lost our cropland," said Bill Smith. "Many times we don't hear a lot of credit for it, and we don't really look for credit for it. We look to keep it for ourselves and for future generations."
Family held Smith-Healy Farms Inc. is operated by brothers in law W.H. "Bill" Smith III and Dr. Steve Healy, with their wives Annette Smith and Lugenia Smith Healy also serving as corporate officers. A sign in front of the office reads "Pride in Family Farming Since 1942," the year that Bill and Lugenia's parents started their farm.
After the death of his father in 1974, Smith encouraged Healy to join the operation, and the former W.H. Smith Jr. & Son Inc. became Smith-Healy on Jan. 1, 1977. Evolving from a mix of row crops and livestock to an emphasis on hog farming, they have remained proudly independent through decades when much of that business was taken over by large corporations.
But Smith-Healy Farms is no small player by Bulloch County standards. Indeed, it is the county's only commercial farrowing operation -- where pigs are bred and born -- and reaches all the way to Iowa to complete the "farrow to finish" process. Maintaining 2,500 brood sows here, Smith-Healy raises their piglets to the age of 18-35 days. Then they are trucked to Iowa, where contracted farmers raise the pigs to market weight while they remain Smith-Healy's property.
The Iowa connection puts them within range of the Midwest's much higher concentration of packing houses. Transferring little pigs also avoids the tenfold increase in truckloads that would be required to haul market weight hogs. They wean on average 900 pigs a week in Georgia, and typically have about 20,000 under feed in Iowa.
"We weren't this big 20 years ago, but 20 years ago we would have been considered a big farm," Healy says. "Today we're considered one of the minor farms. The industry has changed that much in 20 years."
Smith-Healy has about 12 full-time and three part-time employees, not counting the owners. In addition to hogs, they keep 450 cows producing calves, and also maintain pecan orchards and pine timber.
Smith holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree from the University of Georgia. He has been active in civic and farm organizations and for 14 years served as a Bulloch County commissioner. Healy received his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Iowa in 1972, and puts his knowledge to use in the farms' animal health, breeding and feeding programs.
With negative perceptions of hog farms, the public, Healy said, often overlooks a basic economic reality.
"If we don't take good care of our animals, you lose the productivity of the animals, so we can't do things that are going to really harm the animals, because they're not going to be as productive," he said. "It's the same way with the land or anything else. To keep it productive, it has to be treated right."
Handling of wastewater from the hog houses is under continual government scrutiny. A network of seven small lagoons provides aerobic treatment of the water. Water from the lagoons is then used to irrigate pastureland, where nutrients left from the animal waste fertilize grasses, which in turn provide hay for Smith-Healy's cattle.
The farm operators keep records on the application of wastewater and take soil samples to monitor nutrients. They are required to file reports annually with the Department of Agriculture, and every six months with the state Environmental Protection Division, which is in turn responsible to the federal EPA.
A test well, downhill from the lagoons but above the nearest stream, is used to draw samples of groundwater, which Smith-Healy sends to a lab every six months be tested for nitrates and other pollutants. In the well's 10 years in existence there have been no abnormal results, Smith said.
Smith-Healy maintains other ponds for irrigation water and drainage control and has a four pivot irrigation systems, two of which are portable, with a total of seven water supply points. Although low-pressure irrigation cannot handle wastewater effectively, the pivots are a moderate-pressure type, addressing as far as possible concerns about runoff and erosion from high-pressure systems, Smith said.
Smith-Healy has also put measures in pace to protect soil from erosion in high-traffic areas. For example, in an area where cattle are corralled for tagging and other procedures, gravel has been laid down to reduce churning of the soil by hooves.
Ogeechee River Soil and Water Conservation District county supervisors presented awards to Conservationist of the Year winners from all six member counties during the district's 60th annual banquet.
County supervisors work with the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to apply their programs and policies locally.
Bulloch County conservation supervisors Fred G. Blitch Jr. and Charles Finch and NRCS personnel Jason Gatch and Glyn Thrift said that Smith-Healy Farms was an excellent choice for the award. The presenters noted that the farm's waste management plan meets all state and federal criteria, that the operators keep very detailed records, file timely reports, and have never been cited for any waste disposal violations.
Like many farmers, Smith is highly critical of some government programs, such as the federal subsidy on ethanol production from corn. He blames this subsidy for doubling the price of corn needed for hog and other animal feeds while producing little more than an inefficient gasoline additive.
However, one agency Smith credits with accomplishing its ends is the NRCS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides design, technical and financial assistance for farm conservation projects. The NRCS assisted Smith-Healy with the wastewater lagoons and test well, fencing to keep cattle out of streams and other sensitive areas, irrigation improvements and protection for high-traffic areas.
"A tremendous amount of their efforts have gone into making this farm the success that it has been," Smith said.