If Susan Weaver Ford wasn’t a farmer, she’d be a basketball coach. In fact, she was one before returning to her Kenly, N.C., farm.
For two years, Ford was a dedicated strategist on the sidelines of the women’s basketball team at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.V. As assistant coach, she recruited athletes, studied game films, developed players’ skills and coordinated logistics.
Most importantly, she honed her relationship skills. Ford knows success in farming is all about partnerships and win-win negotiations — especially when you farm in one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S.
From 2020 to 2021, Ford gained 8,900 neighbors, as the population of her home county of Johnston jumped 4%. The county, once ruled by multigenerational farms and tobacco production, is quickly becoming overrun by brand-new housing developments, as nearby Raleigh, N.C., extends its tentacles into the countryside.
“I used to farm fields that now have 40 houses,” Ford says. “The city is meeting us pretty quick.”
This means Ford is faced with a churning list of landlords — sometimes even multiple landlords for a field fewer than 40 acres. She is also questioned about her production practices, large equipment and role as a farmer.
But Ford takes this in stride. She’s turning the challenge of urban sprawl into opportunities to expand her farm’s footprint and truly become the farm next door.
“When people ask me about farming, I take the time to answer,” she says. “I do all I can to communicate about agriculture because anyone and everyone is a consumer.”
BORN TO FARM
In Kenly, N.C., Ford farms with her father, Ray Weaver. They grow tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and cotton across 2,000 acres.
“I’m an only child, and dad just couldn’t get away from me,” Ford says. “If he was on the tractor, I was with him. I would race home from school, and instead of doing homework if we were setting tobacco, I’d run out there and walk behind him to do his transplants.”
Even though the family has farmed for generations in eastern North Carolina, Weaver’s father had to sell his farm. When Ford was born, Weaver was faced with the hard decision of keeping a stable factory job or going all-in on farming.
“He made the decision to farm,” Ford says. “Now I’ve even had the chance to buy back some of that family land we’d lost.”
SEPARATE BUT TOGETHER
When Ford joined the farm 20 years ago, she eased into ownership. She started by contributing labor then slowly added her own crops and machinery. Now she’s the one buying land as they look to expand.
While Ford runs equipment, her big impact has been on the financial side — fine-tuning budgets, marketing grain, negotiating contracts and doing high-level risk management. Most big decisions are made collaboratively between Ford and her father.
“We share equipment and labor, but we have our own individual crops,” Ford says. “We do things separately but together; it’s an odd situation, but it works for us.”
Even though the father-daughter duo can butt heads, neither would trade the arrangement.
“She’s everything to me, and I’m proud of her,” Weaver says.
Ford adds: “One of the main reasons I chose farming as a profession is that I get to work with my dad.”
Ford’s passion for farming is already rubbing off on the next generation. She and her husband, Brian, have two daughters, Camden and Peyton, and a son, River.
A few years ago, big storms crushed crop potential. Peyton, understanding the rough financial picture for the farm, decided she wanted to create a new income stream for the family. Ford’s response: Draft a business plan.
That idea pushed the 13-year-old to raise and sell pasture pigs locally.
“Peyton is an entrepreneur who shares with her classmates what she is doing with her business,” Ford says. “Her pride in being the daughter of a farmer never ceases to make me proud to do what I do.”
LIFE BEYOND TOBACCO
Tobacco was once a staple on every farm in Ford’s area.
“In the past, tobacco paid the bills and the other crops created what we called Christmas money,” Ford says. “But regulations are now more complex, labor costs are higher and decreases in smoking have cut contract pounds back a ton. So, it’s not the crop it once was, but it’s still the crop that defines us as a farm.”
To compete and adapt to these changes, Ford is constantly analyzing her crop mix. When crops, such as cotton or wheat, don’t project a profit, they are nixed from the lineup.
“Sometimes I’m bullheaded, and I just can’t do what my daddy does all the time,” Ford says. “So, I put oats in my mix on some land that’s real sandy. It’s only 80 acres, but I have a local buyer and it fits well into our harvest plan.”
Over the years, Ford has also added peas, butterbeans and pumpkins, which she markets direct to local buyers.
Ford is a master at respecting tradition but not letting it tie her hands, says D. Weston McCorkle, her former loan officer and now the agricultural programs specialist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“Susan has been able to create her own piece of the operation and add value to the existing operation,” he says. “She looks for opportunities to add new crops or find innovative ways to market to her community.”
THE PATH FORWARD
When Ford joined her father on the farm 20 years ago, her goal was simple: Grow the operation.
“Today, I want to continue to refine our farm plans to embrace our motto of quality over quantity,” she says. “Being quality-minded, we can make more with less than less with more. For example, at one point we had 250 acres of tobacco, but in hindsight I could have made more with 125 acres because of the focus and care I could have given it.”
In many ways, Ford is still a small farmer, as several producers in her area farm over 20,000 acres in multiple counties. That combined with urban sprawl means she must take the long view with her strategy.
As she looks to the future, Ford says her goals are straightforward:
- Remain profitable, viable and relevant as a farm.
- Increase our adoption of technology to be more efficient.
- Leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren.
“I hope at least one of my children will love farming enough to come back,” Ford says.
As the sixth generation of her family to hold the reins of the farm, and the first female, Ford is teaching her children that good management, combined with resolve and perseverance, are forces for success.
Listen to Susan Weaver Ford share her farm’s story with Andrew McCrea on the Farming the Countryside podcast:
Snapshot of Weaver Farms
- Operation: Susan Weaver Ford and her father, Ray Weaver, grow tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and cotton across 2,000 acres. Their team includes three full-time and 11 part-time employees.
- Family: Ford’s husband, Brian, is a teacher. They have three children, Camden, 14; Peyton, 13; and River, 8.
- International Exposure: In 2021, Ford was selected as one of two Americans to be Nuffield International Farming Scholars. She has been traveling the world to explore how female farmers can succeed and support each other.
- Community: Ford is on the board for North Carolina Small Grains Association, her county Farm Bureau and the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly, N.C. She volunteers with her local elementary school, recreational sports league and church.