It’s a real shock to the genteel Antebellum culture of the Tennessee Valley to see a beautiful young woman–albeit dressed in a grease-stained T-shirt, dirty jeans and mud-caked work boots–leap from the cab of a cotton picker.But passersby do a doubtful double take when a second Southern belle steps forth onto the deck of another of the monstrous machines.Welcome to the brave new world of agriculture, where Leigh Anne and Elizabeth Newby spend 80-hour weeks working the fields of the family farm–and love every minute of it.”It’s all I ever really wanted to do,” said Elizabeth, 21, the red-headed daughter of Jerry and Dianne Newby of Athens and the seventh generation of the family to take to the fields. Currently on break from classes at Calhoun Community College where she has been a student since her senior year at Ardmore High School, she plans to finish her education at Athens State University. She is pursuing a degree in business administration, which she plans to use to help chart the finances of the family farm–one of the largest agricultural operations in Limestone County.”I feel like I’m doing what I was born to do,” she said. “It’s in my blood. I have no desire to ever leave. I hope we can continue to farm for generations to come.”Cousin Leigh Anne, 24, daughter of Jerry’s brother Jimmy and his wife Martha, took a different route back to the family farm. The former all-star athlete at Ardmore High School spent four years completing a history degree at Auburn University and “just getting away from farming” before finding she could–and wanted to–go home again. Unlike Elizabeth, she remains a bit uncertain as to whether farming is her future, but it is very much her present.”All my friends from school think I’m crazy,” she said. “But I always spent summers on the farm and I’m happy to be back. I don’t know if I really want to stay on the farm, but Granddad and Dad said I could always come home again if I wanted to. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I really did miss it when I left.”The girls’ fathers, Jimmy and Jerry Newby, along with her grandfather James Newby, built the family farm operation which planted 4,525 acres of cotton this year. The family fields extend from Limestone County northward into neighboring Giles County, Tenn. Jerry has become a leader in Alabama’s agriculture community, currently serving as president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance Co.In addition to cotton, this year the Newbys planted 1,045 acres of soybeans (340 of which replaced cotton which was lost due to flooding), 625 acres of wheat and 620 acres of corn. They continuously graze 800-1,000 head of Holstein steers. The brothers also are partners in Moore-Newby Gin.Leigh Anne’s initial foray into higher education at Auburn led her into a field closely related to the family business, as she worked toward a degree in agricultural business. She even worked for a time as an agricultural chemicals salesperson. She later changed her major to history, with an eye on a teaching career.But recent developments in education, with the state budget crunch currently making a teaching career seem rather insecure, drew her home to the farm. While Leigh Anne had often spent summers here working with the family operation along with cousin Elizabeth, this is the first full season she has spent on a cotton picker.”I still need lots of help,” she admitted. “Like a couple of weeks ago when the cotton picker caught fire. A couple of wires (in the basket) got crossed and shorted and the cotton just blazed up. Luckily it didn’t do much damage, but it sure scared me.”I didn’t want to run the cotton picker any more, but Dad made me climb back on the very next morning. I’m glad, because I really enjoy it now.”The family has been very supportive of her efforts on the farm, Leigh Anne said, with older brother John, who is a partner in the row crop operation, providing lots of help and instruction.”It took dad a while to accept it,” she said of her job operating the cotton picker. “At first he didn’t think it was any place for a woman, but I think he’s finally come around.”It’s raised lots of eyebrows, especially from people just passing by and seeing us. Lots of them stop to take pictures. But I don’t think the local growers have any problem with Elizabeth and me. There’s more and more women becoming involved in agriculture around here.”Her boyfriend also has accepted her new role, Leigh Anne said, often coming around to ride the picker with her.Advances in farming have made it easier for women to enter new agricultural career roles, Leigh Anne said, with equipment becoming so automated it no longer takes the physical strength of a man to operate it.”I’m just happy the cotton picker was invented,” she said with a laugh. “I’d hate to be out there picking this field by hand like they used to do.”Elizabeth remains a bit uncomfortable about being singled out as a female pioneer in agriculture. To her, “it’s just a job, just like any other.””In the past, boys, girls, the whole family went to the fields to pick cotton,” she said. “And there’s lots of other women involved in agriculture, lots of them right here in Limestone County.”She said the family has always encouraged her to follow her heart and continue the tradition of farming.”They’ve always told me I could do whatever I wanted to do,” she said.For Elizabeth, what she wanted to do is to work on the farm.”If I’m not in school, I’m here–doing whatever has to be done, whatever’s going on,” she said.What’s going on now is the cotton harvest, and the Newby girls face several more weeks of long hours in the field. Three cotton pickers currently harvest the family’s crop, picking 100-150 acres per day at a yield of 800-1,000 pounds per acre. Heavy spring rains meant the crop was planted late, with 1,000 acres having to be replanted due to flooding, so the harvest season has been extended due to the late-maturing plants.”We’re about halfway there,” Leigh Anne said in late October. “With a little cooperation from the weather, we hope to be finished by Thanksgiving.”Reprinted with permission from the Athens News-Courier. Time-sensitive facts and crop acreages were updated by Neighbors.
Cousins Follow In Fathers’ Farming Footsteps