For 39 years, Thomas Ellis has practiced diversification with cattle, poultry, and pecan processing and manufacturing enterprises at Triple E Farm and Priester’s Pecans Inc.
The third-generation Lowndes County farmer is representing Alabama in the Sunbelt Ag Expo / Swisher Sweets Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest. The winner, who earns $15,000 from Swisher International plus other prizes, will be announced Oct. 19 at the expo in Moultrie, Georgia.
Ellis grew up on a dairy farm and studied marketing and agriculture at Auburn University. He purchased part of a commercial beef herd in 1981 and rented pasture before purchasing land. Two years later, he and wife Melissa built their first broiler houses.
Their farm now spans 1,000 acres of owned and rented land and includes annual production units of 45 cows and calves; six to 12 bulls; 1,000 stocker calves; and three broiler houses. Additional crops include 450 acres of grazing, 400 acres of mixed summer grasses and 60 acres of ryegrass and winter peas for baleage.
Triple E calves are marketed through stockyard sales, board sales or replacement heifer and bull sales.
The Ellises own Priester’s Pecans Inc., a pecan processing and manufacturing business started by Thomas’s grandfather, Hense Ellis, and L.C. Priester in 1935. The company annually cracks, shells and processes more than 1.5 million pounds of improved gift-quality pecans.
“I began working with Priester’s full-time in 1985 and served as vice president until 2002, when my sister and I purchased the business from our dad,” Ellis said. “On average, we have about 100 employees in our various operations.”
In 2018, Ellis became the sole owner of the brand, as well as the shelling and manufacturing business. The company buys pecans directly from growers in Alabama, Georgia and Texas. For 85 years, Priester’s has provided a stable market for pecans.
Ellis’s sister and her family operate Priester’s Retail Inc., which manages a brick-and-mortar store. Annual sales for Priester’s Pecans Inc. top $10 million.
Ellis said his wife is the fulcrum of the agribusiness, the one who “pulls us all together by taking care of our home and supporting all our efforts.” Melissa is from a cattle and forestry business family, and the two met in high school before marrying in July 1979.
They have three sons — Tyler, Stinson and Taber — who, along with their wives, are involved in the farm.
Ellis believes strongly in stewardship.
“The proper use and maintenance of our natural resources is the key to the longevity of our operations and our economy,” he said.
Through years working the land, Ellis has faced challenges, including a major fire in 1998 in which the retail store, candy kitchen and bakery were destroyed during the holiday season.
“Reconstructing a bigger, better facility helped the company overcome the setback and provided a modern facility that met new food safety requirements,” Ellis said.
He added, “We invested in a second facility in Georgia in 2004 that didn’t generate expected sales to sustain it, and then came the recession of 2007–08 that necessitated selling the facility and moving forward. We live and hopefully learn from all our decisions and actions. The ongoing challenges are balancing the diverse aspects of our farm, instituting effective time management practices, finding trustworthy people for responsible positions and making sure family members are supported in a strong and consistent way.”
In the future, Ellis hopes to purchase more land to accommodate expanding cattle production. The family will continue to graze stocker cattle with the intent of owning a greater percentage of those cattle.
At Priester’s Pecans Inc., plans include a $600,000 investment in new equipment in the shelling operation, new cooking equipment and sales growth.
“Besides just seeing what’s planted in the earth take root and grow and thrive, it’s been a privilege getting to know and learn from the larger agricultural community here in Alabama,” he said.
As Alabama’s representative in the Farmer of the Year contest, Ellis receives a $2,500 cash award, an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Ag Expo from Swisher International, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States Cooperative and other prizes.