By Jeff Helms
Morgan County farmers Mark and Sandy Byrd overcame skeptics and setbacks to build the 2022 Farm of Distinction. This month, the poultry, row crop and cattle producers will compete with nine other state winners for the title of Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who hears, ‘no,’ and answers, ‘yes,’ when I want to achieve something,” Mark said. “Success hasn’t come automatically, and life’s been a struggle at times, but that’s not failure. Giving all you’ve got is the measure of success. And it’s only possible through hard work, focus and trust in the Lord to see you through challenges.”
During high school, family, friends and teachers discouraged Mark from pursuing his dream of farming. Undeterred, he bought a used tractor and hay baler at 14 and planted his first 15-acre soybean crop on rented land after graduation. In 1993, he and Sandy sold everything they owned except a John Deere 2355 tractor, cashed in his retirement from a truck-driving job at Walmart and bought a 102-acre farm with four poultry houses.
“We were told by many people we were out of our minds, but we were confident it was the right decision for us and our two sons, Perry and Rodney,” said Mark, who serves as Morgan County Farmers Federation president and represents District 2 on the Alabama Farmers Federation board. “I continued to drive a truck part-time for about six months to qualify for the necessary loan, and Sandy ran the poultry operation while substitute teaching to help make ends meet. We were blessed to have wonderful neighbors and friends around us who shared their farming knowledge and helped us in so many ways.”
Today, Byrd Family Farms spans almost 2,000 acres and includes seven poultry houses, a 25-cow beef herd and over 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. The Byrds recently expanded their grain-drying and storage capacity by 75% and plan to build a farm store where they can market meat, bagged grain and other Alabama-grown products.
Federation Area 1 Organization Director Barrett Gilbert nominated the Byrds for the Farm of Distinction contest, coordinated by the Alabama Farm-City Committee.
“The Byrds are the perfect example of how hard work and dedication can achieve the American agricultural dream,” Gilbert said. “They have built a farm legacy few first-generation farmers ever achieve. Mark and Sandy are efficient in their work methods, diversified in their operation, and through their work ethic and strong beliefs, they are an inspiration and blessing to others.”
As Alabama’s winner, the Byrds received a John Deere Gator from TriGreen and SunSouth dealers, a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative, an engraved farm sign from the Federation and Alfa Insurance, and $2,500 and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International. Syngenta will donate $500 to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in the Byrds’ honor.
The Southeastern Farmer of the Year will be announced Oct. 18 in Moultrie, Georgia, and will receive $15,000 from Swisher, along with other prizes.
Over the years, the Byrds have endured drought, severe storms, low commodity prices and a poultry house fire. Through it all, they’ve relied on faith to sustain them.
“When we make decisions here on the farm, I really seek the Lord’s guidance, and he’s never let me down,” said Mark, who sings bass for Living Faith Quartet. “In farming, we plant seeds, and we wait on the harvest. When we are out ministering, we’re planting seeds, and we hope and pray that it grows and their lives will change because of something we say or do.”