Investing in people, not just production

Features - Cover Story

North Carolina’s Worthington Farms prioritizes future- focused farm management training.

September 12, 2022

L-R: Worth Williams, Donna Worthington Williams, Gary Whitehurst and Mike Worthington took part in the Executive Farm Management Program.
Haley Manning Photography

When Isaac Worthington bought land near Greenville, North Carolina, in 1837, it’s unlikely he foresaw the diverse crops supporting Worthington Farms through the years. But with the family-owned company’s bicentennial approaching, it’s easy to imagine he wouldn’t be surprised to see Worthington Farms still going strong.

Through the years, Isaac’s descendants expanded from flue-cured tobacco, livestock and traditional row crops to nursery stock, liner production and small-berry tissue culture. Fifth-generation farmer and company president Donna Worthington Williams stresses other ventures along the way had varying degrees of longevity and success. But the company adapted from generation to generation to survive, thrive and move ahead.

Anticipating and adapting to change

For its first 150 years or so, Worthington Farms’ primary crop was tobacco. Today, its fields still grow tobacco, soybeans and corn, but about 70% of production focuses on nursery crops. “Tobacco is what got us in a position that we could do other things,” Donna shares. “But we know that is coming to an end.”

She credits her father with laying the groundwork for Worthington’s nursery production. He planted the company’s first field-grown shade and ornamental trees in 1978. “He always was looking for the business to be more diversified and not have all our eggs in one basket,” she recalls. But not much happened with the trees for a few years.

Then Donna — along with her husband, Tod Williams, and her brother Mike Worthington, both company vice presidents — returned to the family business after college. Those field-grown trees caught their attention, and the nursery got its start.

In 1990, the company added pot-in-pot container tree production, the state’s first. Nursery expansion through the years brought a distribution and rewholesale yard, then a pre-dug B&B stockyard. After a key liner supplier exited the market, Worthington filled the void. Its first crop of 3- and 5-gallon tree liners shipped in fall 2019. “We decided that we could do as good a job or better than they were doing,” Donna says.

Farm manager Worth Williams, Donna’s son, says decades of adaptations reflect the need to stay relevant, remain a family business and stay profitable. “I think every generation has seen the need to grow and diversify for the stability of the company,” he says.

Donna shares that the nursery’s goal has been high-quality products, not necessarily high volumes. Managed growth — slow and steady — has been key. But growth at Worthington Farms isn’t limited to production.

Advancing business through education

As with most family-owned businesses, finding and agreeing on the best path for Worthington Farms hasn’t always been simple. Generational changes bring more factors into play. One integral aspect of Worthington’s preparation for the future has been investing in people, not just crops.

A few years ago, Worth became aware of an operational-focused educational program designed for large, family-owned agricultural businesses. Always interested in avenues for professional development, he was impressed by the Executive Farm Management (EFM) Program and its comprehensive approach.

Developed by North Carolina State Extension, Clemson Cooperative Extension, East Carolina University College of Business, and University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, the program went deeper than leadership to cover strategic planning, human resources, labor, financial and risk management, branding and marketing, diversification and more. Speakers and instructors came from inside and outside the ag industry.

Worth believed the EFM program could help prepare Worthington Farms for the future. Convincing his mother to attend the program with him came next. “I thought it was important for her. She continues to take on more management responsibilities. And I thought it would be good for us to attend together,” he says.

The intense EFM program requires commitment on several levels. For example, the 2023 program runs for nine days, split into three sessions, spread over six weeks in January and February. Attendees travel between three states — Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — for classes. With a program limit of three people per business, sliding registration fees run from $3,500 to $7,000 per person.

It took some talking, but Donna agreed. And she’s very glad she did. “We were having generational changes, and we just needed to take the wheel and make some changes,” she shares. The pair attended in 2019, the only nursery represented that year.

The program proved so valuable that Worthington Farms sent two more people to EFM in 2022: Mike Worthington and production manager Gary Whitehurst. A 20-year-plus employee, Gary oversees about 75 acres of container nursery production and 300 acres of B&B, along with many other duties. The company plans to send more people to EFM in coming years.

Haley Manning Photography

Gaining broader perspectives

Getting outside her business to learn from others was one of EFM’s most valuable aspects for Donna. Despite operational differences, the diverse agricultural businesses at EFM faced similar challenges.

Labor was one example. “EFM helped me be more comfortable embracing the H-2A program, which we are currently enrolled in for our second year. The majority of the operations at EFM used H-2A employees,” Donna says.

Ways other businesses diversified inspired Worth. “To stay relevant and really grow their company, a lot of them were doing value-added stuff — processing some of their own products and that kind of thing,” he explains. “It was good for me to see how other companies were taking what would be their base and then expanding on that without really going outside of the industry.”

“I think the program’s helped us a lot and changed our perspective,” he adds. “A lot of people focus on day-to-day operations and lose track of the big picture. It helped tie those together, for both of us, and give us a new perspective.”

When Donna suggested Mike and Gary attend EFM this year, Mike was hesitant. He appreciated the program, but struggled with breaking away from the daily operations of the changing family business. The program changed his perspective, too.

You realize how important it can be to the business for you to take time in your day to look at more long-term aspects of the business. And to try and change your pattern of work to benefit the business, not just your general comfort level,” he says.

Mike shares the example of an EFM case study. As part of the exercise, he and Gary helped evaluate whether aspects of the sample farm were still properly balanced or needed to change — a difficult task for many farmers.

“You get ultra-focused on production. And you’re not focusing on reevaluating what you’ve been doing to see if it still makes sense to be producing a crop that may have different dynamics than it did when you began it,” Mike says.

Gary emphasizes the need to get outside your comfort zone, think outside the box and reevaluate everything you do. EFM’s comprehensive approach exposed him to aspects of business that helped him get a bigger picture of the whole.

Accounting — long outside his comfort zone — is an example. “I’m never going to be any sort of accounting expert,” Gary says. “But I learned the right questions to ask and how to interpret the data.”

Bringing lessons home

Many educational programs separate attendees from the same business, but EFM keeps you together. As a result, Donna says, you learn the same concepts and speak the same language when you come home, which helps in sharing what you learned. Yet, everyone finds different pieces most interesting and impactful.

She came home with tools to analyze current business practices, recognize needs for continuity or change, and evaluate new opportunities. Human resources segments on personal analysis and building effective working relationships inspired a personal goal to add more team-building activities at Worthington Farms.

During his EFM sessions, Worth envisioned a tissue culture lab targeting the commercial berry industry. He used EFM’s business canvas model to analyze the new enterprise, which ties into the nursery operation and satisfies diversification goals. PhyllaTech, LLC launched in early 2019.

Mike and Gary gained insights into business and each other. “We have the same goals for the business, but our communication styles are very different,” Mike says. “… We started to better understand how we needed to communicate with each other as managers.”

Gary describes a breakthrough in understanding different communication, problem-solving and decision-making styles. “It was just like a light went on: You think about things this way and I think about things a different way. But they’re of equal value,” he shares.

Haley Manning Photography

Mike found training on the dynamics of working in a family business particularly helpful for family businesses that want to grow beyond their family members. He emphasizes how businesses need to change to ensure non-family employees are respected, treated equally and valued in the same way family members are.

Gary settles on two “most valuable” lessons learned: how the nursery fits in the bigger picture of agriculture and how different team members bring value to a team through their different personalities and different perspectives.

Growing for the future

The team at Worthington Farms realizes not everyone has access to a comprehensive program like EFM. But that doesn’t diminish the need to grow your business by investing in people through similar programs.

“Farmers and nurserymen work to stay updated on pesticide credits or irrigation credits or all the things like that,” Donna says. “But really, shouldn’t we be thinking about making sure our business is profitable and being strategic in that focus?”

Worth encourages business leaders to take advantage of professional development outside your company. “It’s important to get outside of your comfort zone, have new ideas and bring something back to the table to help grow the company and grow yourself professionally. That’s important if you want to keep growing,” he says.

Mike notes that every business grows and changes, but not everyone changes with them. The question, he says, is whether you’re going to grow with your business — a necessity if you want to contribute as much as you did when it was small. “I will have to work differently in order to benefit the business in the same way I did years ago,” he says.

He believes educational programs for family and non-family leaders in your business are essential as businesses evolve. He recommends that family businesses “send their family and their trusted and cherished employees” to EFM or similar programs. “I think they’ll work better together and make better decisions because of it,” he says.

And for anyone still thinking you can’t afford to spend the time or money, Donna Worthington Williams has a swift response: “You can’t afford not to.”

For more: www.worthingtonfarms.com; execfarmmgmt.ces.ncsu.edu Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer specializing in the horticulture and specialty agriculture industries. Reach her at jolene@jolenehansen.com