AVON PARK – For much of his professional career, Jim Wood spent time as a real estate broker, a mortgage banker and a police officer, but in his heart, he had been a farmer for most of his life.
So when the real estate market took a downturn in 2007 and 2008, Wood began to focus on the farm he founded in 2001 and started to go hog wild, becoming one of the largest - if not the largest - Hereford hog breeding, slaughterhouse and supply company in the United States.
Secluded off Palmetto Creek Road in east Avon Park, Wood and his wife, Deborah, own Palmetto Creek Farms LLC, a swine farm that specializes in Herefords, noted by some of Florida’s premiere chefs for their meats’ juiciness and texture.
Earlier in his farming career, Wood - who spent time raising show pigs with his children, Jim III and Annesly, as they were growing up - dallied with 10 pure breeds and other crossbreeds such as Spots, Tamworths, Yorkshires, Landraces and Chester Whites. He then decided to focus full-time on Herefords, a breed of domestic pig named for its color and pattern, red with a white face. The breed originated in the United States and is a variety of swine created from a synthesis of Duroc, Poland China and Chester White or Hampshire, developed from 1920 to 1925.
During a workday on the farm Thursday, Wood, 58, a Miami native who moved to Avon Park when he was 1 year old, spent time driving his all-terrain cart around the swampy grounds and checked on his stock that averages between 400 and 450 pigs throughout the year. From the cart, he pointed out sandy, 10-acre tracts housing muddy farrowing areas - where piglet litters are born - surrounded by barbwire and low-voltage electrically-charged lines to keep pigs from wandering.
There, between 35 and 50 breeding sows are maintained in free-range areas allowing sows and piglets to remain together. Wood said the pigs are able to live more naturally, eating acorns, wallowing in mud holes and resting under oak trees, as opposed to living in 22-inch by 7-foot crates used in commercial farms, where sows are often artificially-inseminated, not allowing the hogs to procreate naturally.
“It’s not really cost-effective to do it that way, but it’s better for the animals all around and that style of farming is popular and attractive to the green movement,” said Wood, seated behind a cluttered office desk and under a daily farm schedule.
At Palmetto Creek, Wood - who recently became a licensed Baptist pastor - tends his hogs and fields of okra, black-eyed peas and peppers with three farm workers, who regularly check on sows who bear two to three litters of piglets around the farm per week. With sunlight weaving through oak and pine branches, piglets, sows and boars gallivant among trees and take dips in syrup-like black pools of mud.
Around the ground, the breeding sows rest in the approximately 40 birthing huts, nursing not only their offsprings, but even piglets that might have wandered in from the neighborhood.
Wood, who worked middle and high school summers as a “booger boy” herder for Dressel’s Dairy, said the process for keeping his stock healthy and moving along is set. After a litter is born, the piglets are determined to be breeders or not and tagged. Those that aren’t are sent at around 8 weeks old to a barn and a weaning pen where they are observed for several weeks. They’re then transferred to a “feed only” area and on to feed pens before its determined on physical condition and size whether they become part of the breeding herd or sent to be butchered in the farm’s USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.
Around Florida in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, hog and pig farming inventory was about 15,000 head worth about $1.8 million.
In Highlands County, most hog farming is done on a small-scale basis of a dozen pigs or less, said Ray Royce, executive director of the Heartland Agricultural Coalition. He said he wasn’t aware of any operations as large as Wood’s and what he does at Palmetto Creek Farms has been noted around Florida, especially with the Herefords, noted for superior intramuscular fat, a neutral pH and meat that is similar in color and texture to beef.
‘He’s done a great job of creating that (Hereford) market and he has a real entrepreneurial spirit in creating it,” he said. “He’s done a tremendous job. I really commend him making a market for his product.”
With Herefords, the care, patience and attention Wood gives to his stock and breeding program has made Wood the go-to source for some of the state’s most renowned restaurants.
David Didzunas, executive chef of the Hyatt Regency Orlando, said he’s been using pork supplied by Wood since the farm started. A chef for 25 years, he said Wood’s product is consistent and the quality is regularly commented on by restaurant patrons. He said he uses pork chops in a dried cherry mustard dish, as well as ground for bratwurst and Vietnamese spring rolls.
“He was doing this before the local boar market really took off; he was ahead of the game,” he said. “We’ve had a great partnership over the years.”
Towards the end of his workday driving around the farm, chatting with workers, looking for stray piglets and even stopping to pick black-eyed peas, Wood said he enjoys the day-to-day work in the sometimes foul-smelling pig farm environs although he doesn’t exactly know its future. His son and daughter found jobs with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and in engineering.
“It’s been neat doing this. When I was in real estate, I didn’t get near the attention I have with the pig farm, In real estate, I helped people get into homes that couldn’t without our help and that was fulfilling, but this has been fulfilling, too. We’ve been all over the state of Florida staying in high-end hotels and being featured in documentaries. Now, we’re just waiting for the fortune to come with the fame,” he said with a smile as he turned his cart around in black, muddy water.