Explore Thompson Farms in Dixie, GA a hear about one family's generations-long commitment to sustainable pig farming. From overcoming market challenges to embracing whole hog butchery, the Thompsons showcase a unique blend of traditional southern practices and innovative approaches, ensuring every piece of meat leaving the farm is of the highest quality.

From muddy pig spa days to the processing plant, this episode provides an intimate look at a family-driven operation that prioritizes the well-being of its animals. 

Thompson Farms
Credit: ThompsonFarms.com


Abby Thompson:  Well, we're a small family farm, so we want to make sure that every piece of meat that leaves here is made with a quality that we would make if our family was eating it.

David Zelski: Pigs. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have bacon. And a life without bacon is no life at all.

Theme Song: I came from the mud, there's dirt on my hands. Strong like a tree, there's roots where I stand.

David Zelski:  I'm David Zelski. And this is the Fork in the Road podcast presented by Georgia Grown and the fine folks at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Each episode, we feature stories from Georgia's farmers, fishermen, merchants, artisans, chefs and others who help provide Georgia grown products to folks in the Peach State and beyond. Today, we're headed to the small town of Dixie, Georgia, about halfway between Valdosta and Thomasville and barely ten miles north of the Georgia-Florida Line. This is where we'll find Thompson Farms, a family farm that's been going for generations. Here, their business is pigs, but this isn't your average pig farm. These pigs are free range, and they get to graze on over 1000 acres. They eat a 100% vegetarian diet of non-GMO corn and non-GMO soybean meal in addition to the ryegrass and millet they graze on year round. Thompson Farms is even animal welfare certified by Global Animal Partnership. Abby is the marketing manager. Her grandmother, Joanne Thompson, established the farm when she bought its first 660 acres of land in 1918.

Abby Thompson: We're at Thompson Farms, where we do everything from raising the pigs to the humane harvest and the packaging of the meat.

David Zelski: The work of Abby's father and grandfather made the farm a thriving family business for decades, before changes in the market caused them to switch focus.

Abby Thompson: My grandfather Raymond, and my dad, Andrew, started the farm together. We've always had a family business and row crop farming, cotton and peanuts. And they've always had pigs. They raised pigs to market. They just have them in the, wooded areas outside of their, crop fields in the early 200-, late 1990s, early 2000s, a lot of the local butchering operations that they were sending the pigs to were getting bought up. So their the closest facility was in the Carolinas. So they didn't want to load hogs up and stress them out and have to, drive hours and hours to the nearest facility. They soon realized that they were either going to have to get out of the hog business completely, or figure out a new way to do things.

David Zelski: Abby's grandfather had the idea to bring the processing side of the business closer to home, and that's how Thompson Farms became a pig centric operation.

Abby Thompson: In the early 2000s, we started Thompson Farms and back then it was called Thompson Farms Country Cured Meats. So, what we did was we had, an old processing plant. Well, it was new then. It's old now, where we would, we would send our hogs to get harvested and then would come back here and we would, butcher them on site. And we had a little retail shop inside of our, our processing plant where people could come out to the farm, we could tell them our story and, they could purchase the meat right there. Now, we do the same thing now, but just a little bit bigger. So, my granddad has since passed away, but it's still a family business because my dad runs the farm with his sister Donna. And then, of course, I'm here. And my brother is as well.

David Zelski: Pasture raised pigs aren't something you see on every farm. As Abby explains, it's not just enjoyable for the pigs, it actually makes for a better product.

Abby Thompson: We did things differently because our pigs were outside on pasture, and they were living a good life. And so, you know, in the early 2000s, the pasture raised farm fresh really wasn't as popular as it is now. And so we had to figure out a way to, make our business work. So we went to all the farmers markets you could think of to try to get people just to try our, our meat. I mean, I remember my granddad would just give away samples all the time, give away packages of sausage. He's like, you have to try this. And he his motto was, if anybody came to our farm, they wouldn't leave without anything. They would always go home with some of our product.

David Zelski: Abby and the whole Thompson family honor the way of doing things established by their ancestors. While at the same time staying wary of the innovations that could improve those methods.

Abby Thompson: This is what we've done. This is what my grandfather and my dad set into place. And you know the old saying, what's not broke? You know what's, what what is it? 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' You know the old way of doing things, the slow way of doing things works. It works for us. I mean, I work for everybody, but we haven't changed much around here. Now we are. We like to consider ourselves, pretty open to change, because we always want to make sure that we're raising our animals the best way possible, and we always want to make sure that we have the best meat to provide our customers. So we have changed some things here and there. But, really, it's just those old southern farming practices that make this place what it is.

David Zelski: That is 21st century farming with a strong reverence for the old ways. And at Thompson Farms, hard work and faith are the cornerstones of everything they do.

Abby Thompson: Our hands have really worked hard to make sure that everything is done perfectly for our customers. I mean, it's a lot of grunt work that goes into doing everything yourself. So when you raise the pig, when you harvest it, and when you process it, it's all up to you. You don't have a middleman, to rely on. So you have to make sure your supply is there, that your butchering skills are there, your customer service skills are there. And we're a small family. You know, we're a small team, so we wear a lot of different hats. But we like to think that we know what we're doing now. Or, well, we really don't. I think God just gives us the the knowledge and power that we need to run the place. He's really the hands that are keeping this place afloat. So we just do what we're, we were put on this earth to do.

David Zelski: Thompson Farms is a whole hog butchery. That means they sell every part of the pig. Yes, even the snout. And trust me, y'all, it tastes better than it looks. And Abby tells me that educating folks about the lesser known cuts of a pig not only contributes to a greater culture of sustainability. It's smart for their business.

Abby Thompson: We have to be smart and make sure that, we're utilizing the whole animal. It's not just a business model. It's not just a marketing word. Whole hog butchery. You know, it's not, just this new idea. It's, again, it's that old farming model that we live by. Like, you don't want to have your product sitting there that, a customer's not going to get. You don't want to waste anything. So we want to make sure that the whole hog is getting used. And so that's what that's something we have to really talk to our customers about and teach them that that's more sustainable not only for us, but it's better for you too, to be able to understand where your food comes from and how the farmer's mind works. You know, there's only certain amount of, butts you can get off of a hog and only certain amount of shoulders and bellies and loins. So you really have to we really have to think, okay, how is this hog getting used to the best of our ability?

David Zelski: Family is another pillar of the Thompson Farms business model, and it takes every member to make it work.

Abby Thompson: My dad and I kind of tag team inside on the processing the business side, and, my Aunt Donna, she owns operation with my dad. She is the jack of all trades, really, she keeps us running. She runs the retail facility as well. So if you come in here and purchase something from our farm shop, she's the lovely lady that you'll be working with or you'll be shopping with. And my brother works here as well. And after college, he came and, decided he wanted to be a pig farmer. So he is our animal welfare manager out here. He just makes sure that all the pigs are happy and healthy.

David Zelski: Out in the pasture, I talked to Abby's brother, Bayly about his work with the pigs.

Bayly Thompson: I feed him every day. I run the slaughter facility, so I do everything from breed the pigs to have them as babies, to grow them until they get time to kill. And there's just a constant circle of life out here on the farm. I'm in charge of that.

David Zelski: There are plenty of challenges to running a farm where the comfort of the animals is a priority.

Bayly Thompson: Oh yeah, low stress definitely makes a better, better meat. But I will say the summertime and the wintertime in South Georgia has its challenges when it comes to making an animal comfortable. A pig when it, when it can't sweat, you got to make sure it stays shady in the summertime. So it's a constant battle to keep them in shades. We have huts and shade cloths over there behind the farm that, on our farm to where we can keep them cool throughout the summer. And in the wintertime, I think it's worse on us humans because we have that cold humidity out here in the wintertime, and pigs love cold. So I mean, that works out pretty well, but, it's a constant battle, but it's what I love to do, and that's what my family loves to do. So we enjoy it.

David Zelski: Another thing that sets Thompson Farms apart — the lack of smell. There's two main reasons for that. The first is that these pigs are raised on grass as opposed to concrete, the more typical method. That means their, droppings simply become part of the soil.

Bayly Thompson: When you do everything on the dirt and on grass and not on cement, you don't smell a thing. And it is, you know, the only thing you smell is money, because and money and just a good life, you know, that's it.

David Zelski: The second reason a visit to Thompson Farms may cause some existential confusion for your nose. Their rotational grazing system.

Abby Thompson: Everybody is so shocked when they come here. And they they take the first deep breath out of getting out of their car and they're like, wait, this isn't what it's supposed to smell like out here? Yeah. It's just clean farm, fresh air. Because, how we raise our animals is we make sure they're on a rotational grazing system. And because we do that, it gives the land time to rest, and the pigs aren't accumulating a lot of waste. So, you don't have that pig farm smell. It's just, nice, crisp country air.

David Zelski: The rotational grazing system isn't just good for the land. It's good for the pigs, too.

Bayly Thompson: Yeah. We rotate. Well, you have to. A pig would destroy the grass like it's within a week they'll have a pen messed up where you had to move on, move them on to another. Another pasture for them to graze on. It it just depends. We don't we don't put rings in our pigs nose. We keep them, you know, we don't we don't put any stress on them like that because that pretty painful outing for them. So they root around, they have a big time rooting through the dirt. And it's just a constant moving them to another part of the farm. That way they can mess that up and let you know God do his thing and, put grass back over dirt and their old pens. So that's that's what we do.

David Zelski: One thing pigs love is they get muddy. You know, that's kind of their whole deal. As Abbie explains, it's not just fun. It helps them beat the heat.

Abby Thompson: Pigs don't have sweat glands. So they need a place to be able to cool off, especially out here in South Georgia in the summer. So they get a nice coat of mud on them to keep — it acts like a sunscreen, and, it repels the bugs. So it really is like a spa, if you think about it. Do you think we can charge a service to have people come out and have a spa day with the pigs?.

David Zelski: Pig spa? Yes. Sign me up now. Yes. Pigs do love mud. But what does mud love? Water? Bailey showed me their system for getting it to all those thirsty swine. You know, I see these tubes coming out. Tell me about that. That's all.

Bayly Thompson: Oh, yeah? Well, you had to have water for animals. And with pigs you have to have it. So that way they stay cool. And I've spent a many a summers trenching a lot of lanes throughout this farm to where we can run a lot of water lines under the ground. So we make sure every pig has at least one water hole, if not two, depending on how many, pigs we have in the pen and how big the pen is. It's just a constant, constant water flow for them to, you know, enjoy the water and wallow around in the mud. But that's the main part of it. You had to have water for these pigs to drink.

David Zelski: Thompson Farms take special care to make sure their pigs have the best life a pig can have. They feed them the finest non-GMO corn and soybean meal. And they even have special certifications for animal welfare.

Abby Thompson: We want to show our customers that we are doing everything that we can to make sure they get a quality product, and usually that is through different certifications that we get. So one of them, that we like to tell people we're non-GMO. So our, our hogs get non-GMO corn and non-GMO soybean meal. So you'll see on on our package, it does state that we're non-GMO. We're also certified, by Global Animal Partnerships for Animal Welfare. So we do get audited, throughout the year to make sure that we're doing what we're, what we're supposed to be doing. So we have high animal welfare standards, and, our animals are eating good quality food.

David Zelski: Out in the pasture, Abby introduced me to a younger group of pigs that were cute, but also had a bit of a rambunctious vibe.

Abby Thompson: I like to call these, elementary school kids. Now, they're probably a couple months. Oh, no. They're probably about 4 or 5 months old.

David Zelski: They feel like a rowdy bunch. Yeah. Are these the delinquents?

Abby Thompson: Yeah, I think they're — all of our pigs are a little delinquent out here, and they're all. All have a little fun streak in them. A lot of people think that pigs are lazy and just big, lazy animals that don't move all day. But that's so not true. You'll see out here, they're very active. Once you give them space to do so. So they love to root. They love to run. They love to play with other pigs.

David Zelski: I notice a different, color on some of them. Yeah. Some are black some are pink, some are brown.

Abby Thompson: We have different breeds out here. We have Yorkshires, Berkshires, Duroc, and then some Landrace. We have some Herefords as well.

David Zelski: So the black one here, what is that?

Abby Thompson:  That's a Berkshire. Berkshire.

David Zelski: Berkshire. Sorry.

Abby Thompson: Well, I'm not my country voice comes through, Berkshire.

David Zelski: That's all right. Yeah. And then what do we have over here?

Abby Thompson: That's a Duroc. The red. And then, the little white pigs with the pink undertones, those are Yorkshires. And then, we have a lot of cross breeds out here, too.

David Zelski: Oh, man, those pigs are so awesome. I just hope they thought I was cool. And after we saw some young pigs, Abby then took me to see the mama sows.

Abby Thompson: These are the mama sows. So they each have their own hut and what we like to call a pig pool, which is the wallows, of course, so they can cool off during these hot summer months. And you can see they're right over here enjoying a swim right now.

David Zelski: Even though they each get their own space. These social creatures sometimes like to snuggle up. So they each have their little house.

Abby Thompson: They do double up in there. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Pigs really like to be close to one another. So you'll see. I don't know how they fit, but two huge pregnant mama sows in there together. So you have to really be careful and watch out and make sure that they're not going into labor while another one's in there. But they're pretty smart. I mean, they've got plenty of room out here to spread out.

David Zelski: Thompson Farm also processes the meat. And I got to look at their processing plant.

Abby Thompson: So we're in our processing plant right now, and behind us we're packaging everything up. But, how it happens is we we bring the carcass from our harvesting center, which is just about a football field away. And we bring it in right here, and it's wheeled. The carcasses are wheeled in to our processing room right here. It's broken down, and, everything is packaged and boxed, weighed right here. And, if we want to heat treat anything, we have the capabilities of to do that as well. It's in the back. So we have smoke houses and, cook rotisserie cookers and everything. My dad made sure to design everything that we needed in here, to make sure we could do it seamlessly.

David Zelski: It was a busy day at the processing plant, with Abby and her family moving all around quickly to fill the week's online orders.

Abby Thompson: So my dad's shipping out package right now. You see the bacon in the quick chill cooler? I didn't open up the quick chill cooler. Oh, good. Good. I'll have to take him back. Okay. Yeah. Oh watch out. So people can order directly from our website and we ship out. That's a quarter hog. So a large cooler will hold a cooler hog so people are able to fill their freezer for pretty good price instead of having to pay, full retail prices to fill their their cooler, or their freezers. We're able to offer, more bang for their buck by doing a quarter hog or half hog or a whole hog.

David Zelski: Thompson Farms has streamlined their operation, so the raising, butchering, processing and packing of their product all happens close together.

Abby Thompson: So since we do everything on the farm, we are able to, harvest the animals, which is just like a football field away from our processing facility. So when the carcasses come in right here at this loading dock, they'll just get wheeled into our, butchering room right in here. And that's where we, break down the carcass into the delicious pork chops and where we make the sausage and, hang the bacon in our salt room.

David Zelski: From treating their pigs like royalty to processing every part into delicious meat for the consumer. Thompson Farms is a family farm that truly cares about sustainability and quality.

Abby Thompson: Well, we're a small family farm, so we want to make sure that every piece of meat that leaves here is made with a quality that we would make if our family was eating it. So we just we know that if you've had our product, that hopefully you've loved it, and that you'll continue to love it.

David Zelski: For more stories like this one, you can watch A Fork in the Road on GPB-TV or any time on the GPB.org website. GPB.org/Podcasts is where you can listen to and subscribe to this p odcast or download it on your favorite podcast platform.

I'm David Zelski. Thanks for listening to A Fork in the Road.


A Fork in the Road airs Saturdays at noon and Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on GPB-TV. Check your local listings for other replays throughout the week and watch all episodes anytime at GPB.org/ForkintheRoad.  Please download and subscribe to the Fork in the Road podcast at GPB.org/ForkintheRoadpodcast or on your favorite podcast platform as well. 


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