Farmers from four distinct areas of the state are competing for Alabama’s Farm of Distinction title. The winner will be named April 11 at the Alabama Farm-City Awards Luncheon in Birmingham, held in conjunction with the Alabama Farmers Federation Women’s Leadership Conference.
In Mobile County, James and Joan Malone have dedicated their lives and farm to educating children and adults about the blessings and responsibilities of land ownership.
Part cowboy and part motivational speaker, James serves as executive director of the Alabama TREASURE Forest Association, but the Malones’ greatest legacy is an education program started with other forest landowners.
“Classroom in the Forest promotes the values of the family forest landowner and how he provides for society, as well as himself and his family,” James said. “It started with 32 children, two teachers and four parents, and now a little over 200,000 children have gone through that program.”
Each year, the Malones host about 1,000 people for tours, adventures and leadership training at their 700-acre Southern Heritage Land and Livestock Co. One of their newest programs is the 23 Psalm Ministry.
“The 23 Psalm starts at the very basic, ‘I shall not want,’” James said. “Once a man or a woman understands that the Lord will provide, they’re on their journey. Once an animal learns his master can provide, the training journey begins.”
While the Malones remain dedicated to educating the public about farming and conservation, their top priority is passing on a love of the land to their family.
“We now have the fifth generation born here, and our expectation for our children, grandchildren and our great-grandchild is that they love this land as much as we do,” he said. “But they’ll love it for their own reasons.”
In Elmore County, Joe and Patty Lambrecht of Oakview Farms have learned if you “mill” it, they will come. In fact, once customers tasted Joe’s stone-ground cornmeal, they returned time and time again.
Today, the Lambrechts also supply hydroponic lettuce, honey, blueberries, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, eggs and other farm-fresh products to neighbors, gourmet chefs and Marriott restaurants on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Joe says honesty is the key to keeping customers.
“We tell everybody we eat it first,” Joe said. “If it’s not good enough for my family, we won’t sell it. If they ask us a question about the crop, we tell them exactly what we’ve done to it.”
At Oakview Farms, education is always in season. With every pound of grits or quart of blueberries, the Lambrechts provide novice cooks and schoolchildren a lesson on how to grow and enjoy farm-fresh products.
“Patty and I speak a good bit to anybody who will listen to us,” Joe said. “We show them where food comes from. They have no idea eggs comes chickens or lettuce is grown in our greenhouses.”
In Pickens County, Dee River Ranch is more than a productive grain and beef cattle operation – it’s a laboratory where three generations of the Dee family challenge themselves to increase profitability and improve their land.
The youngest of 12 siblings who own the 10,000-acre ranch, Mike Dee is farm manager. His sister, Annie, serves as president. Together, the Dees are redefining “sustainable agriculture.”
“Sustainability is what we live for,” Mike said. “We would never do anything to hurt this soil because we want the next three or four generations to make a living off this land.”
The Dees have embraced precision technology, on-farm production of biofuels, electronic animal identification and conservation tillage. Their biggest investment, however, is a new irrigation system featuring a 115-acre reservoir and computerized pumping station.
While Mike expects the system to pay for itself in dry years, he said it will also sustain the farm for future generations.
“We’re not just trying to protect the land,” Mike said. “We’re trying to improve the land every opportunity we get.”
In Calhoun County, Ray and Delle Bean say they didn’t set out to be full-time farmers, but when Ray’s employer shut down its Anniston plant, the couple took a leap of faith.
“They offered me a job in Trenton, N.J., but Delle didn’t want to take two little boys away from the farm,” Ray said. “So, we took our 401(k) and made a down payment on two poultry houses.”
Today, the couple has four chicken houses and 200 brood cows on 954 acres, which includes a timber operation in Talladega County and 400 acres at their home in Eastaboga.
Pristine white fences border lush green pastures where cattle crossings facilitate rotational grazing. Perched atop the hill is Ray and Delle’s house. Though picturesque today, their homestead was not always beautiful.
Ray worked for the previous owner of their farm clearing trees and picking up rocks when he was in high school. After years of neglect, the place was a mess when he and Delle bought it.
“It was so bad Delle said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with that farm,’” Ray said. “I brought her up here to where the house is now and told her, ‘This can be a pretty place, but it’s going to take a heap of work.’ So, we set out to do it.”
Almost 20 years after building their first chicken houses, the Beans continue to work side-by-side.
“We are the workforce here,” Ray said. “If it’s not Delle doing it, or if I don’t do it, it just doesn’t happen.”
To showcase each finalist’s diversity, a special video will be played prior to the award presentation at the State Farm-City Luncheon. The winner is selected by a panel of agricultural experts who judge farms based on environmental stewardship, overall appearance, accomplishments, efficiency and leadership of the farm owner. Any size farm is eligible.
Alabama’s Farm of Distinction winner will receive prizes valued at more than $10,000, including a John Deere Gator from SunSouth, TriGreen and Snead Ag Supply; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative; a $2,500 cash award from Swisher International and an engraved farm sign.
The winner will represent Alabama in the Southeast Farmer of the Year contest at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Oct. 15-17.