Six Outstanding Young Farm Families were chosen as finalists in a statewide contest open to farmers between 18-35 years old who stand out as agricultural leaders on their farms and in their communities.
This month’s Neighbors magazine features the three remaining finalists. Others were featured in the September issue.
Judges toured the finalists’ farms and will select the overall winner. The six finalists will be honored at the Alabama Farmers Federation’s 93rd annual meeting in December when the winner is announced.
The Outstanding Young Farm Family will receive a prize package valued at more than $60,000, including $35,000 toward the purchase of a new GM vehicle, sponsored by Alfa Insurance; an 825i John Deere Gator, courtesy of Alabama Ag Credit and Alabama Farm Credit; and a lease on a John Deere tractor, provided by local John Deere dealers and John Deere. The winners will represent Alabama in San Diego at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Achievement Award competition during the organization’s 2015 annual convention.
For more information on the Young Farmers program, visit AlfaYoungFarmers.org
The Bittos of Baldwin County
Growing up in a south Alabama farm family helped instill a passion for conservation in John Bitto. For the last decade, he transitioned from conventional tillage to no-till practices on the 3,000 acres he farms, saving time, fuel and the soil.
“We just try to have as little of a footprint as possible,” John said. “We try to use the least harsh chemicals available and spray as little as possible. We also plant grass in our ditches to slow the water down and allow it to be filtered by the plants.”
As Baldwin County Young Farmers chairman, John willingly helps other farmers experiment with these techniques.
“A lot of folks ask questions about it, and we live in an open farming community, so we all help each other out,” he said. “We can see what’s worked across the fence and ask them, and vice versa.”
Although John grew up on the farm, he didn’t always want to follow in the footsteps of his father, David Bitto.
“I really had no plan to farm until I started scouting crops in high school — I got paid to walk people’s fields looking for bugs, disease and other things that needed to be addressed,” John said. “It was a lot of fun.”
After graduating from Auburn University with a degree in horticulture, John had the opportunity to rent land from a neighbor to farm, and he’s been at it ever since. Currently, he grows peanuts, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, millet and raises beef cattle. John has also grown vegetables to sell directly from the farm and is interested in pursuing that venture again.
John’s wife, Jennifer, an orthopedic physician assistant at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, had never been on a farm until she met John. Raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, moving to the farm three years ago was a bit of a culture shock, she said. Now her coworkers ask her gardening questions, and when John grows produce, they all want to be customers.
“And I think it will be a great place to raise children,” she said. “It will help them develop a great work ethic.”
The Wilsons of Jackson County
For Hollywood, Alabama, farmer Colin Wilson, the stars of his show are beef cattle.
Early in his career, Wilson dreamed of being a veterinarian, but he said tough science classes changed his mind. Instead, he chose an animal science degree from Auburn University. The decision proved to be a good foundation for Rocking W Cattle Company in Jackson County, where he and his semi-retired father have 320 cattle.
Cattle seemed like an obvious choice instead of diversifying into row crops.
“It made more sense for me to stick with what I’m best at,” Wilson said. “It’s all cows with us.”
Wilson started with 10 cows of his own in 2001. His herd has grown to 225 cows, 40 replacement heifers and 10 bulls on 900 acres of land.
Despite challenges that include a shortage of pastureland in his area of the state, Wilson said he’s been “blessed with help” from retiring farmers willing to rent land.
In addition to his cattle, Wilson has a livestock supply business where he sells water tanks, hay and mineral feeders and wraps. He also is a beef representative for Southeast Select Sires.
Wilson was a graduate of the third Agriculture Leaders For Alabama (A.L.F.A.) class at the 42nd Commodity Producer’s Conference Aug. 7 in Huntsville, an experience that allowed him to think outside the box.
“Any time I can go on anyone else’s farm, I try to pick things up,” he said. “For example, we toured a sweet potato farm. It might not have anything to do with cows, but if it’s a successful operation, I want to see what makes it successful.”
Wilson is the Jackson County Young Farmers Committee chairman and on the State Young Farmers board. He said his time in the Federation has made him a better farmer and advocate for agriculture.
Wilson and his wife, Kristi, have two sons, Trent, 7, and Eli, 4. He said the best part of his job is the freedom he enjoys and the miracles he witnesses through agriculture.
“I like structure as much as anyone else, but I can make my own schedule farming,” he said. “I like seeing cows being born and watching them grow into something. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they surprise you.”
The Morrisons of Dale County
What started with 25 cows and a dream grew into a diverse, successful farm for Dale County farmers Paul and Vicki Morrison.
The Morrisons expanded their farm from 50 acres of peanuts, 50 acres of rye seed and 25 brood cows to 2,400 acres including 700 acres of cotton, 525 acres of peanuts and 500 brood cows on 700 acres of pasture.
“We already had the land rented for peanuts, so instead of the land laying fallow, we used cotton in our rotation,” Paul said. “We started with 100 acres of cotton, and after we bought a picker it kept growing to what it is today.”
Paul said he enjoys everything he grows, but peanuts keep him on his toes.
“You never know what you’re going to get until you plow them up,” he said. “They’re more challenging, and I like that.”
Vicki, a math teacher at G.W. Long High School in Skipperville, helps Paul in the afternoon and during summer breaks.
“I’d say teaching and farming are the two jobs that go best together,” she said, adding that she often heads to the fields after her day at school.
The combination of teaching and farming helps their farm, but the Morrisons agree the blend helps promote agriculture in their community.
“We’ve got one kid who helped us out for five or six years,” Paul said of a student who worked on the farm in the summer. “Last year, he planted a few acres of vegetables. He liked it so much, he planted even more this year.”
Paul is the Dale County Young Farmers Committee chairman, a Dale County Farm Service Agency (FSA) committee member, secretary/treasurer of the Dale County Cattleman’s Association and a member of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association. Vicki serves on the Dale County Farmers Federation Women’s Leadership Committee and is a member of the county’s Young Farmers Committee. The Morrisons are active Morgan Baptist Church members, where Vicki serves as youth leader and Paul recently was ordained as a deacon.
Vicki said she and Paul are proud to be farmers, adding she couldn’t imagine them living life any other way.
“Something about planting a seed and watching it grow—you know there’s a higher power,” she said. “Being around agriculture, you witness miracles every day.”