Eric O. Cates has plowed a lot of ground in 96 years, and farmers across the state continue to reap the rewards of seeds he planted as an Alabama legislator.
“I didn’t have any intention of getting into politics,” Cates said. “I just wanted to farm full time, but the opportunity came to run for the Legislature, so I did.”
Cates, who sponsored current-use legislation, served two four-year terms in the House (1974-1982). His bill still is credited with keeping Alabama farm families on their land because it taxes farm and forestland based on current use, not speculative value.
Today, Cates and his dog, Katrina, live on his 500-acre farm. He began managing the farm following high school graduation. After enlisting in the Army National Guard, he served his country during World War II in the Aleutian Islands then returned home to farm. Five years later, he was called to serve again in the Korean War.
Cates, who retired as a colonel, became director of the Butler County ASCS (now the Farm Service Agency) in 1958. He helped area farmers and managed his own beef cattle herd. After 16 years with the USDA, Cates’ heart of service led him to the Alabama House of Representatives.
“Mr. Eric was the man who tried to help as many people as he could when he was in the Legislature,” said Butler County Farmers Federation Board member Will Crenshaw. “Being a landowner, he knew the current-use bill was key, and if not controlled, taxes could put farmers out of business.”
Cates also served farmers through leadership roles in the Alabama Farmers Federation.
At age five, Cates attended the first organizational meeting for the Butler County Farmers Federation. He tells those who ask, “I might not have always been a member, but I’ve been a part of it since 1923.”
Cates has served on the Butler County Board of Directors since 1960, held the vice president position for several terms, initiated the Butler County scholarship program and was scholarship chairman for 10 years.
He’s most passionate, however, about the Federation’s political involvement.
“The Federation can be the farmers’ representative in state and national government level politics, and that’s really important,” Cates said.” I knew it was important before, but after I was in the Legislature, I knew it was even more important than I’d thought.”
Cates’ knowledge and experience are admired by Federation board members. Federation District 9 Director Garry Henry, whose area includes Butler County, said he’s proud to know Cates.
“Mr. Cates is highly respected among his fellow board members, and he’s the go-to man if you need advice on anything financial or political,” Henry said. “The respect everyone has for him is truly a testament for the kind of man he is.”
Federation President Jimmy Parnell, who formerly served as a district director whose area included Butler County, said he got to know Cates while serving in that position.
“He’s a real Southern gentleman,” Parnell said. “He has remarkable intelligence, and he can tell you anything about the state of Alabama. I’ve truly enjoyed having him as a friend.”
Cates lives on the Greenville farm he purchased in 1946. Since recently losing his wife of 69 years, Louise, he stays busy with his four children, 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
“I’ve had a great life. I’ve enjoyed most of everything that I’ve ever done,” he said, adding that he marvels at how much agriculture has changed in his lifetime. “We’ve moved from animal-powered labor to tractors. One man on a tractor can do what five men used to do with a horse. Back then, money wasn’t that important because you didn’t need it. You grew everything you needed on the farm.”