News Building On The Past, Saving For The Future

Building On The Past, Saving For The Future

Building On The Past, Saving For The Future
February 29, 2004 |

As Jake Harper drives along a dirt road running through his farm, his thoughts turn to cattle and timber and the ancestors who made a living from the rolling hills in Wilcox County. He’s carrying on that family tradition, hoping one day to pass it along to his children.”See that old railroad bed,” Harper said as he points to a long, narrow opening amid tall pine trees. “My granddaddy used to load cattle on rail cars right there and ship them to New Orleans. He’d ride on the cars with them all the way there. Back then, there wasn’t a Montgomery market.”Harper’s life is filled with memories and stories about the families who have gone before him on their farm in Wilcox County. His father was an active leader in the Wilcox County Farmers Federation. He’s keeping that tradition alive as well. He was elected Southwest Area Vice President of the Alabama Farmers Federation in December. He continues to serve as president of the Wilcox County Farmers Federation, is a member of the Federation’s State Forestry Committee and is a former District Director and State Young Farmers Committee chairman.Harper and his wife Pam live in a home built in 1838 along with their children Jacob, 16, Morgan, 12, and Claudia, 8. Harper grew up on the family farm just down the road, and he used to visit his grandmother when she lived there.”My granddaddy (Jacob Harper Sr.) was the first person around these parts to have Angus cattle, and he was the first president of the Alabama Angus Association,” Harper said. “My daddy followed him and, well, I just have always wanted to make a living here doing what I’m doing.”After graduating from Auburn University in 1978 with a degree in animal science, Harper returned home a year later and began farming with his father. Jacob Harper Jr., Jake’s father, passed away two years later.”I don’t do everything just like my daddy did, but a lot of it is the same,” Harper said. “He always had a cow-calf operation, and it worked well for him and my granddaddy. But for the past several years, I’ve retained ownership of my calves right through the feedlot. The longer you have them, the longer you’re money is exposed and the higher the risk. But I figure the risk is worth it, and I’d rather make a profit off of what they gain in the feedlot than the feedlot owner.”The Harpers have 300 brood cows which are primarily bred to black Angus or Charolais bulls. In addition to keeping the calves from those cows each year, the Harpers buy another 200 calves or so each fall to condition for the feedlot.
“We keep them until they weigh about 700-800 pounds, and as we get a truckload ready and the market is right, we send them on to the feedlot,” Harper said.Cattle prices have always been unpredictable–even in recent years, he said. As beef prices began to inch higher around the turn of the century, the terrorists acts of Sept. 11, 2001, sent the market reeling. After the market rebound, it continued to climb to record highs in 2003, until a confirmed case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) just before Christmas caused the market to plummet.Harper said he’s confident the market will bounce back again–how long that takes will determine how painful it will be for producers.Keeping production costs low is Harper’s primary goal in his beef operation. He is constantly on the lookout for good feed byproducts that can be used as cattle feed, often buying in bulk loads to get it at the cheapest price.Beef cattle have provided the Harpers with a good living over the years. Jake, his father, grandfather and great grandfather before him all have been cattlemen. The family’s timber business, which includes several thousand acres, has allowed the family to continue to acquire land that they hope will be passed along to the next generation.Harper manages the timber business that he shares with his two sisters, Juliette, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., and Rose, who lives in Birmingham. Trees are cut on a rotation system based on tree maturity, market conditions and environmental stewardship. Harper is assisted in his decision making by a management plan offered through Scotch Lumber Co. Proceeds from the family’s timber sales are used to purchase more land.”I guess we’re trading trees for dirt,” said Harper, who provides most of the labor for his farm. “We want to have enough land that my children and my sisters’ children can make a living here if they choose to.”The timberland also provides additional income through hunting leases. Much of their land, which abounds with whitetail deer and turkey, is leased to five or six hunting clubs each year. But the Harpers reserve enough of their land for personal use–namely Jacob and Morgan who are both avid deer hunters.As if Harper wasn’t busy enough with his farm and his leadership roles in the Alabama Farmers Federation, he also serves on the Wilcox County Soil and Water Conservation District and is past president of the Alabama Association of Conservation Districts. He has been active in and currently serves as president of the Alabama Treasure Forest Association. Harper, who was in the first class of the Alabama Ag and Forestry LEADERS program, said that experience influenced his decision to accept more leadership roles. But he holds a special place in his heart for the Farmers Federation.”I can’t tell you how important the Farmers Federation has been to me over the years,” Harper said. “My daddy was on the county board, and when he died, they named me to take his place. I’ve made a lot of close personal friends from all over the state through the Federation, and the work it does as an organization is priceless.”The Federation is the only organization that represents all the commodities and all the farmers. It keeps farmers united, and that’s more important than ever as we become fewer in number,” he said. “The Farmers Federation is the voice of agriculture in Alabama and keeps agriculture in the forefront. I know it works to protect my rights and our way of life.”Farming as a way of life isn’t just lip service. When the Harpers get together with Pam’s family, the topic inevitably turns to farming and the Farmers Federation. Her brother Mike Dunn is the president of the Bullock County Farmers Federation and in December was elected as a district director (state board member). Her other brother, Steve Dunn, is president of the Geneva County Farmers Federation. Her father, Morgan, serves on the Pike County Federation Board and is a member of the State Forestry Committee.Pam is busy in her own right. She and Jake met at Auburn University where she received a pharmacy degree. Years ago, she and Jake owned their own drug store in Camden. They eventually sold the store, and now Pam works part time at a local pharmacy. In between work and home, she’s busy driving to ball games for the boys or taking Claudia to gymnastics and dance.As for what the future holds, Harper said he sees his beef operation becoming more conservative in the next few years. “I want to focus on improving my cattle operation, but will probably draw in just a little bit,” he said. “With more commitments of my time, it’s hard to get it all done.”

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