Hard work, innovation and stewardship are common traits among six unusual farms vying for the title of Alabama Farm of Distinction at the Alabama Farm-City Awards program April 5 in Birmingham.
The winner will receive more than $20,000 in cash and prizes and will represent Alabama in the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Oct. 16-18.
Alabama Farm-City Committee Chairman Jeff Helms said this year’s winner will receive an even bigger prize package, thanks to Register Barns.
“Jeff Register started building pole barns while in high school as a project for 4-H and FFA in 1990,” Helms said. “Twenty-six years later, he operates one of the most respected custom building companies in the Southeast.
“Last fall, he contacted the Alabama Farm-City Committee about sponsoring the Farm of Distinction program and has committed to build a 40-by-60' pole barn for our winner.”
Alabama’s Farm of Distinction winner also receives a John Deere Gator, courtesy of AgPro, TriGreen and SunSouth dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); an engraved farm sign from Alfa Insurance; and $2,500 as the state’s representative at the Sunbelt Ag Expo.
Each finalist receives a $250 gift certificate from AFC and an engraved plaque.
Judges Grace Ellis of the Alabama FFA Foundation, Dorman Grace of TriGreen and former Alabama Farmers Federation Commodity Director Jim Cravey visited the farms Feb. 21-22.
Clemmons & Hamner Seed Farms
Greg Hamner has spent a lifetime growing seeds.
For 26 years, he cultivated the hearts and minds of students as a teacher while helping run the family seed-cleaning business.
Seven members of the Hamner and Clemmons families, including Greg's wife, Diane, work together in Lauderdale County — preserving heritage grain varieties and striving for improvements in all they do.
“Everything we produce is for seed,” Hamner said.
Although the family business started as a service to local farmers, the 2,000-acre farm now grows and cleans soybeans and grain for everything from grist mills to hunting preserves.
“We produce multiple GMO, as well as non-GMO, crops of soybeans, corn, wheat, triticale and grain sorghum in the form of wildlife game food,” Hamner said. “We do 13 varieties of non-GMO open-pollinated seed corn.”
Hamner said growing seed grain and top-quality Angus breeding stock is a lot like teaching school. It’s all about building on agriculture’s legacy while preparing for the future.
“We've been blessed my entire life by being involved in agriculture because it's something about that attachment to the soil that always brings out the very best and the honesty in people,” Hamner said.
Trey Montgomery of Greene County could see Leavellwood Lodge before anyone else.
Standing atop a rocky hillside overlooking an eroded ravine, he envisioned a farm where natural resources were carefully managed for wildlife and outdoor recreation.
“God gave me a special talent to see raw land, and imagine what it could be when managed for its highest and best use,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been really fortunate to be stewards of this land.”
Today, Leavellwood spans close to 5,000 acres and is known as a premier destination for deer, turkey and dove hunting as well as bass fishing. The lodge sleeps up to 20 in two buildings. Trey and wife Pam provide everything their guests need — from home-cooked meals to hunting guides.
The Montgomerys' guest list includes outdoor enthusiasts from 40 states and even overseas, but some of their favorite visitors are those they host for free.
“We’ve always wanted to give back to our community, and what better way than to bring terminally ill kids in here and host their families?” Montgomery said. “For the last eight-10 years we’ve hosted wounded warriors, and it’s just been tremendous.”
When most teenage boys were chasing girls and cruising the town, John DeLoach was rounding up calves and hauling hay.
“I was 13 when my grandfather passed away,” he recalled. “Grandma talked about selling the farm, but I told her I’d come every day after school to help. At 16, when I graduated high school, I pretty much took over running the farm.”
Twenty-six years later, DeLoach and wife Kate have one of the most productive row crop operations in Shelby County. They admit, however, transforming the farm wasn’t easy.
“The first year I planted 30 acres of corn with a two-row planter,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I harvested it with a one-row ear snapper and a dump truck I built out of scrap material.”
Today, the 1,325-acre farm includes 375 acres of cotton, 250 acres of soybeans, 200 acres of wheat and 150 acres of hay. DeLoach Farms also boasts some of the highest yields in the area.
DeLoach’s land management plan includes 20 acres of improved wetlands where he regulates water levels to provide food and habitat for waterfowl. His future plans include adding honeybees, a vineyard and agritourism with the help of son Jess.
Thomas Adams believes in making the most of his farmland.
“I believe that all land needs a purpose. First and foremost, I'd like to grow peanuts or cotton,” he said. “If it's not conducive to that, we’ll grow forage to feed our cows. If it's not suited for hay, we would like to graze cattle on it. And if it's not good for grazing, it needs a tree on it. Every acre of land needs to produce something.”
That philosophy has helped Thomas and wife Farrah grow their family business in Henry County to almost 2,000 acres, including 1,500 acres of crops, 100 beef cows and four poultry houses.
“Last year, we had 850 acres of peanuts and 750 acres of cotton, and the remainder was in small grains or hayfields,” Adams said. “In 2016, we added four poultry houses to our farm. It has been a great asset to our farm.”
Adams also is working to expand on-farm irrigation. Since 2011, he’s brought water to 200 acres with a goal of irrigating half of his cotton and peanut land. He also would like to add two more poultry houses, which would provide additional fertilizer for the cropland.
Tyler Sanders started driving a tractor at age 10, and he hasn’t looked back.
“When I graduated high school, I had an accounting scholarship. So I went to a local college for about a year,” Sanders said. “But when my grandmother got sick, it gave me the opportunity to come back to the farm, and I've been farming here ever since.”
Today, Tyler and wife Madison farm in Houston County with his father and uncle. It’s a multi-generational farm focused on row crops, cattle and poultry.
“This past year, we had about 2,000 acres of peanuts that yielded about 3,600 pounds per acre, and I had about 500 acres of cotton that yielded about 800 pounds per acre,” he said.
The Sanderses also raise chicken for Wayne Farms, which ends up on the menu at places like Chick-fil-A.
“We needed a little bit more income from somewhere, and I thought having chicken houses would be a good income,” Sanders said. “We had two built and are in the process of building two more.”
When not helping on the farm, Madison works at the local farmers co-op.
Penala Farms in Sumter County is a testament to the resilience of farmers.
Conceived as a peach and pecan operation, the land later was home to a sheep herd and feed mill. Today, Sid and Susan Nelson produce catfish and beef on the family farmstead.
“My grandfather and grandmother bought this farm in 1912 and moved from Pennsylvania,” Nelson said. “I joined my dad in the operation in 1970, and I feel it's my privilege to pass it along to future generations.”
Each year, the Nelsons harvest about 1.5 million pounds of catfish while caring for almost 300 commercial brood cows. They also sell pecans from what was once a 700-tree orchard. Catfish, however, is the family’s main focus.
“We built our first ponds in 1980, and the first crop was in 1981,” Nelson said. “That was five ponds, or about 60 acres of water. Today, we have 220 acres in ponds.”
In all, the farm covers more than 2,000 acres. The Nelsons’ historic home — filled with antiques dating back to the turn of the century — overlooks ponds teeming with catfish.
“In 1981, we were stocking 1,500 fish per acre,” Nelson said. “Now, the normal stocking rate is 6,000-9,000 per acre.”