Farmer Leader Profile: Kenny Haines, Adapting to a Changing Landscape

This is the second installment in our Farmer Leadership series, which profiles a farmer leader each month, so you get a glimpse of what has served as inspiration for each of them to take the lead on agricultural issues.

Sometimes taking the lead means conducting on-farm research, educating others about lessons learned, and sharing knowledge within a community. Sometimes it means speaking out, taking risks to move towards a different way of farming, or starting a new enterprise. A common thread we see in farmer leaders is inspiration, connecting back to landmark experiences. We also see it is a farmer’s ability to adapt to change that has the potential to shape a great leader.

Kenny Haines wasn’t always a NC-based farmer. He started his farming career managing farms as large as 6,500 acres in Delaware and Virginia. Let’s put it this way, one of the farming operations that Kenny managed had 72 tractors. These farming operations were dependent on the use of heavy equipment and heavy use of chemical applications. Herbicides were broadcasted over 2,400 acres of tomatoes or 1,400 acres of asparagus, for instance. Up to 1,000 migrant workers were employed during peak seasons.

Kenny’s life direction changed during the Jimmy Carter Administration in 1981, when demand for U.S. crops dropped due to record-high interest rates. The large farming operation Kenny managed had to close its doors, but another opportunity opened up when a fertilizer company Kenny purchased from in Virginia decided to acquire 23,000 acres of farmland in North Carolina. Kenny was enlisted to help with the operation. He worked getting the NC farming operation up and running, and after five years, began his own organic family farm.

Leading by Example

There were not many other farmers in Kenny’s community that were farming organically in 1987. Kenny says the decision was based on his wife’s wishes to protect their three children from the dangers associated with the use of chemicals in farming. Kenny’s wife, Wanda, was a registered nurse with knowledge of the dangers associated with the use of pesticides and herbicides. She saw incidences of cancer that she associated with chemical exposure. And Kenny was familiar with the prolonged side effects of using Agent Orange, a disastrously powerful herbicide used during the Vietnam War.

So, with his three children as helpers and one small tractor, Kenny turned the land they rented into a productive organic vegetable farm. The kids and their cousins helped log hundreds of miles on the tractor in the first couple of years. Soon, the Haines family was selling to retailers, including Wellspring Grocery in Raleigh, NC. In the 1990s, Kenny incorporated organic grains into his farming system. When Kenny’s son, Ben Haines, joined him in running the farm, they named the farm, Looking Back Farm. Looking Back Farm now includes 350 acres in production in Tyner, NC. “When we started farming 30 years ago, we were the weird people down the road. We are still the weird people down the road, but we are only half as weird now,” Kenny muses.

When asked about his influence on other farmers, Kenny emphasizes it is important to never go around telling people what to do, that it is best to lead by example. He says they have never come down on anybody about the way they want to farm. “People can watch what you do,” he says. “And if you are able to do it in a productive manner, they will start asking questions. We get a lot of people calling and asking questions, and we have always tried to help anybody that we could.”

Bringing Choice Back

Kenny feels farmers are up against more hurdles today than when he first got into farming because of increased government regulations, retail consolidation, and consolidation in the banking sector. He remembers when there were four different tractor dealers in his area, and they are now owned by one company. “There is no competition and this affects equipment costs,” he says. “The same goes for the banks. It used to be that you would go to a bank to borrow money and the person you are sitting across from had kids that went to the same school as yours, or the kids were on a ball team, or you went to the same church. There was a personal relationship. But now, all the banks are being gobbled up, and you don’t know who you are dealing with and they don’t know anything about you.”

The same concerns Kenny has about retail and bank consolidations transfer to the agriculture world as well. Kenny has been involved with RAFI’s Breeding for Organic Production Systems (BOPS) program since its inception The BOPS coalition brings farmers and breeders together to better understand the challenges they face in using organic seed in the Southeast and to advocate for public plant breeding, something Kenny sees as a crucial need.

“The seed companies are getting more consolidated,” says Kenny. “And I think that for the same reasons, it is important to have seeds that are not owned by some conglomerate somewhere. These big companies could care less about whether seed is GMO or not. When farmers plant seeds that are supposed to be non-GMO and then grow them organically, and later they are found to have GMO contamination, they can lose thousands of dollars. I think farmers should be able to have a choice about whether to grow GMO or not.”

Leaving the World a Better Place

Because farmers are up against increasing hurdles, Kenny feels it is now more important than ever to have policy analysts and specialists who will protect the best interests of farmers, speak for them, and represent them in Washington, D.C. He stresses the importance of organizations like RAFI, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. He says these organizations are also important in helping to reinvigorate farmers because“it is important to have a place where you can meet other people with the same views and goals as you have, who want to leave the world a better place.”

At RAFI, we are proud our work is shaped by farmer leaders who have come together to make change happen. We strive to ensure that farm families and rural communities thrive, and we can only continue to do this working side by side with farmers and farmer leaders like Kenny Haines.