Neil Rhonemus loves when his baby girls arrive—all 300 of them. He can’t resist swooping down to pick up one of the baby pigs and tickle her snout as she squirms. Sometimes he sits down and lets them crawl up on him so they can become familiar with his presence.
“They’re like a bunch of puppies. You can’t let them chew on you too long,” the Clinton County Farm Bureau member laughed. “You can’t not pick one up and pet it. My momma taught me how to take care of baby animals as a kid and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Rhonemus is a contract grower for Eagle Creek Swine LLC, a division of Heimerl Farms in Johnstown. The pigs arrive when they are 21 days old and stay anywhere from four weeks to five months. Rhonemus is paid to feed and take care of the animals in his two barns until they are ready to be marketed by PIC International. The majority are sent to other facilities for breeding purposes. Over the course of a year, Rhonemus’ farm raises more than 10,000 pigs.
“This is what some consider a large farm, but it’s a farm built by a family and run by a family,” Rhonemus said. “We’re caring people doing our job and taking care of the animals every day.”
In 1942 his mother and father moved to the farm located about 40 miles east of Cincinnati, which in the early 1800s was known as “Porkopolis” for its large pork-packing industry. Growing up, Rhonemus dreamed of being a cowboy and raising cattle but the lack of good pasture dictated what he could successfully raise. His father died when he was 10, and his mother taught him life lessons on the farm such as how to bring a struggling newborn pig back to life (really warm water).
Rhonemus and his wife of 25 years, Diane, raised two children, Lucas and Lisa, on the farm with him sometimes working three or four jobs. Ten years ago he built a second barn in Highland County and started raising pigs full-time. The career change was necessary. ABX Air, the freight handling company he worked 14 years for, had announced plans to cut thousands of jobs, delivering a devastating blow to the community. Rhonemus was grateful he had a backup plan.
“It’s not the 401k I dreamed of but at least I had the farm,” he said.
Rhonemus now spends his days taking care of his girls and making sure they are healthy and happy. His barns are a comfortable 75 degrees and are clean and dry. On cold days, a heated mat keeps the animals warm, and on hot days, water mists down on them. The barn’s slatted floor allows manure to fall into a storage pit below the pigs, keeping the animals clean. Chlorinated water is pumped into the barns to help protect the pigs from diseases carried by animals such as birds.
Because pigs are very susceptible to diseases, Rhonemus and other hog farmers have very strict protocols in place. Among the requirements are on-site showers, special clothing and sanitization of equipment for anybody going into the barns. Visitors can’t be in the buildings if they have been at a livestock or hog facility within the past four days. Rhonemus is so careful that he tries to avoid going into the city of Hillsboro, which has two stockyards and numerous surrounding farms and agricultural stores. When former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the farm, they had to do a virtual tour of the barns.
“We are blunt about why everybody has to follow the protocols,” Rhonemus said. “Disease can be carried in numerous ways, including through the nasal cavity and vehicles. There are lots of (pig) lives and dollars at stake.”
Taking care of the environment is equally important to Rhonemus. For more than 20 years, his farm has had a comprehensive nutrient management plan that outlines storage and disposal procedures for manure. The pit under the pigs is designed to hold a year’s worth of manure and is pumped out twice a year to be injected into the soil of area farms for fertilizer.
Rhonemus, who is vice president of Clinton County Farm Bureau, is passionate about being active in his community, which he affectionately calls L.A. (Lynchburg Area). Every winter he provides pulled pork sandwiches for the area’s athletic booster drive. Last year he helped bring the movie Farmland to the historic Murphy Theatre in downtown Wilmington where he watched Star Wars seven times as a kid. The county Farm Bureau paid for the movie, and admission was a canned food or toiletry donation for the homeless shelter. FFA students from four chapters acted as ushers and after the movie was a young farmer discussion panel.
“Our community is proud of its local history, and my neighbors work to support it by trying to buy products made in the area even if it costs a little more,” he said.
Having a sustainable business is key, whether it’s selling locally or internationally, Rhonemus said.
“You’ve got to have the right market. At the end of the day, you have to pay the bills regardless of whether you’re selling a load of cabbage or a truckload of pigs,” he said.
For Rhonemus, a recent note summed up how grateful he is to be a farmer. The note, attached to a sledgehammer he had repaired, came from two retired military men he sees at a local diner. The note reads: “This is presented to Neil because of his leadership and ability in support of our nation’s food chain requirements insofar as quality pork standards are met and maintained.”
See for Yourself
Known as Uncle Squeal by many, I make my living raising pigs. I am a Bacon Farmer and I welcome you to look inside my barns—Neil Rhonemus’s description on his YouTube page where he gives visitors a glimpse inside his barns.
Ohio ranks 8th in the nation in hog production, supporting about 10,000 jobs and making a more than $1 billion economic impact. Learn more about Ohio’s hog farmers at Ohio Pork Council’s website or on Facebook.
Follow Rhonemus on Twitter: @rhonfarm