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Born on a small family farm in Eastern North Carolina during the midst of the Great Depression, Wendell Murphy learned the merits of hard work from his father, Norman Holmes Murphy. "Somehow it was ingrained at in him that he had to work almost every day, all day long, at something,"Wendell Murphy says of his father. "He didn’t want to do things the easy way."
Farming tobacco was anything but easy, but it was the crop that sustained the Murphys during young Wendell's childhood. The future farm executive recalls spending countless hours driving the tobacco-carrying mules from the fields to the barn during the yearly harvest. Wendell’s responsibilities grew dramatically when he was fourteen. His father had accepted a job that took him away from the harvest; he put his older son in charge of the farm that season, and Wendell rose to the challenge. "I was really proud I could do that, and I think that maybe that was the basis for knowing I could be a leader."
Leadership would come in time, but first there was school to finish. And even though Wendell’s parents did not go to college, they expected their three children to do so. After graduating from Rose Hill High School in 1956, Wendell Murphy moved to the big city of Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University, where he graduated in 1960 with a degree in agriculture.
A year later, Wendell Murphy took a truck ride with a friend that would change his life. "And we pass this little custom grinding mix feed mill, and Billy Register says, ‘I believe one of those would go good in our community." And I thought my skull was going to burst open. I mean, just that moment, it was just, I've never felt,well, I’ve never had a feeling like that, before or since, for him to tell me what I, what it is that I'd been looking for, that what I wanted to do with my life." It would take promises and passionate pleading. But he convinced his father to guarantee a loan, and Norman and Wendell Murphy went into the feed-grinding business. Murphy Family Farms was born.
Part 2: Business & Politics
Episode 2 of Biographical Conversations with Wendell Murphy describes a booming and rapidly expanding opportunities for the young entrepreneur. Soaring profits from grinding feed allowed Murphy to pay off his bank loans almost immediately, and the father-and-son team decided to extend their business, raising a few hogs on their property as well. Within a few months it became clear that raising hogs was more profitable than providing food for other farmers; by 1968, the Murphys stopped selling feed completely and devoted themselves solely to harm farming.
Despite challenges such as a devastating hog epidemic in 1969, Murphy Family Farms continued to grow. A natural leader from the start, Murphy consistently put new innovations, such as contract farming and, using new ideas and innovations to manage their rapidly expanding industry. With business booming in North Carolina, Murphy Family Farms expanded to open operations in Iowa in 1985, and became the number-one hog producer in the nation.
By this time, Murphy had his hand in more than one business; in 1982, the hog farmer from Duplin County had won a seat in the North Carolina State House of Representatives. Over the next ten years he served terms in both chambers of the State Legislature; when he left the State Senate in 1992, he was considered one of the most powerful figures in state government. But Murphy was happy to be back on the farm, where his true passion lay.
Part 3: Toward Merger
Much of Part 3 of Biographical Conversations with Wendell Murphy focuses on the challenges confronting Mr. Murphy during the later part of his tenure as chief executive officer of Murphy Family Farms. By now the top hog-producing company in the nation, the Murphy enterprise was on the front line of any controversy surrounding the effects of the industry upon the environment. In a 1995 series of reports, the Raleigh News and Observer investigated that topic. It also examined Wendell Murphy’s career as a legislator, and suggested that the hog-farming entrepreneur used his political influence to loosen environmental restrictions on agriculture laws. The N&O reports won a Pulitzer Prize. It also had a tremendous personal impact on Wendell Murphy.
“Each day I would read the paper and feel just terrible.” The situation got worse four months later, when a lagoon in Onslow County ruptured. Though the lagoon was not on a Murphy farm, it refocused attention on the newspaper articles. “All of a sudden, that one instance validated everything the newspaper had written,” Mr. Murphy says. “From henceforth, it was a fight, trying to deal.” Mr. Murphy’s fight continued throughout the late 1990s, as he battled to protect the image of hog farming in the face of continuous pressure from environmental groups, the mainstream media, and state legislators.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit Eastern North Carolina, causing immense flooding and damage, and also stirring more controversy over the measures the area’s hog farms take to capture waste and keep it out of local waters. By that time, Wendell Murphy had already agreed to a merger with Smithfield Farms.