Stone balances family life, farm work and community involvement

When Michael “Bo” Stone talks about his approach to farming, he calls upon a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduate says it’s an attitude he picked up from his dad – and one that was likely instrumental in his being named the 2010 N.C. winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Stone farms about 2,000 acres of row crops in Rowland, in southern Robeson County. He’s proud to be a sixth-generation farmer, producing wheat, corn, soybeans and strawberries, finishing about 10,000 pigs per year and managing a 70-head beef herd.

“We try to do the very best job we can with everything that what we do. That idea follows through from the crops to the livestock,” he says. “We try to be the best environmental stewards that we can, growing the best crops.”

Stone grew up on the family farm and has been involved in farming since he was 8. His first job was picking up tobacco leaves from a custom-made harvester seat. But when he went away to college, he did so with an eye toward a career in corporate America.

At N.C. State, Stone earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural business management in 1993, then a master of agriculture degree in 1995.

He joined the Gold Kist cooperative in Georgia but nearly immediately felt the tug of the farming life he’d left behind. His father, Tommy Stone, agreed to make room for him on the farm, and Stone was back home by February 1996. He bought his first farm the following year, then a second one in 1998, the year he got married.

In the years since Bo joined his father in managing their P&S Farms, the operation has doubled in size, and it’s become increasingly diversified. In addition to the crops and livestock, the Stones sell produce at a roadside stand and through a you-pick strawberry operation.

The Stones took on the strawberries as a way to allow his wife, Missy, to stay at home while they raise their three children — 10-year-old Sarah Grace, 8-year-old Olivia Ann and 4-year-old Thompson Lyn.

In years past, Stone has also planted a 5-acre corn maze, hosting 15,000 schoolchildren in hopes of giving them a chance to learn more about where food comes from.

Tobacco was long the farm’s mainstay, but Stone no longer produces it. That’s because, as his children grew, he found it difficult to attend to both the demands of the labor-intensive crop and the responsibilities of raising a family.

“Sarah Grace came home from school after summer break — I think she was in kindergarten or first grade — and she looked at me and she asked, ‘Daddy, why didn’t we get to go to the beach like all the other kids in my class?’” he recalls. “That was a big factor.”

Today, Stone strives to balance his family and farming responsibilities with community involvement. He serves as chairman of the deacon board at the First Baptist Church, on Southeastern Regional Hospital’s executive committee and on the boards of the private Christian school his children attend, the county Farm Bureau and Cape Fear Farm Credit.

He hopes his service will make agriculture and his community stronger.

“One of the reasons I am as active as I am in some of these organizations is one of the first things Dad told me when I came back — that decisions would be made that affected our farming livelihood: ‘Nobody knows what’s going on here any better than you do. You need to make sure your voice is heard,’” Stone recalls his father saying.

“And that was a very important lesson,” he adds. “Sure, it’s taken away from our farm and family to be as active as we are, but at the same time somebody needs to make sure that the story that’s being told is actually what’s happening out on the farms. This is where we live. This is where I will always live. We need to make sure we are doing what we can to ensure that our community is what it needs to be.”

Stone says he’s glad that his alma mater pursues science-based answers aimed at making farming both economically and environmentally sustainable. In his activities, he strives to ensure that such research – and not emotion – inform the development of public policies affecting agriculture.

From N.C. State University researchers and Cooperative Extension agents and specialists, Stone has sought guidance on such things as transitioning to narrow-row corn and installing subsurface drip irrigation.

He’s also employed global positioning system technology to cut down on the cost of fertilizer, applying it only where it’s needed. In addition, he diligently scouts his crops for pests, targeting problems as needed.

As for the future, Stone sees opportunities to continue to grow his farm as older producers retire. His goal: “to keep farming and to leave the farming operation in such a way that if any or all of my children decide to make this a way of life that they’ll have that opportunity,” he says.

“I like to say that my parents gave me the opportunity to the farm, and Missy and the kids give me a reason to keep farming. And for that,” he says, “I’ve been blessed.”

—Dee Shore

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