Six outstanding family farms will be showcased April 6 as they compete for the title of Alabama Farm of Distinction at the Alabama Farm-City Awards in Birmingham.
The winner will receive over $12,000 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. 17-19.
Alabama Farm-City Committee Chairman Jeff Helms said the 2017 recipient will join an elite group of past winners.
“More than 30 Alabama farms have been recognized since the program’s inception,” Helms said. “They include family businesses raising everything from row crops and beef cattle to catfish and timber. Each of these farms is distinct because of the owners’ commitment to continual improvement and their positive impact on the community.”
Alabama’s Farm of Distinction will receive a John Deere Gator from SunSouth, TriGreen and AgPro dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); $2,500 from Swisher International; and an engraved farm sign from Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance. All six finalists will receive a $250 AFC gift certificate.
Judges Jim Allen of AFC, Chris Cline of AgPro and Dr. Deacue Fields of Auburn University visited the farms March 1-3.
Tony Beck enjoys running his own business, but the Crenshaw County farmer admits it's a big responsibility.
“What I like about being a farmer is being my own boss. But the bad thing about that is you’ve got to have the get up and go to get up and get it done,” Beck said.
With four poultry houses and a 200-cow commercial beef herd, there’s always plenty of work at the 1,000-acre farm. So when Beck needed open-heart surgery in 2013, he was thankful for good friends and neighbors.
“They stepped up and took over. It was in better shape when I got back than it was when I left,” he said.
Today, Beck works to repay the favor by helping neighbors with their hay and cattle while preparing the next generation to take over his farm.
“I would like for the farm to still be intact and stay in the family,” he said. “I’ve got some great-nephews that really love farming, and I hope one day they’ll look back and say, 'Uncle Tony set me up right.'”
Agriculture runs deep in Dakota Caraway’s family, but when it came time for him to put down roots, the Covington County farmer was on his own.
“All my family on both sides had been farmers, but by the time I came along, there wasn’t any farmland left or equipment,” he said. “So, I pretty much had to start from scratch.”
Eight years later, Dakota has proven hard work and determination pay off. Caraway Farms now includes 740 acres of cotton, peanuts, hay and a 100-cow commercial beef herd. Dakota and wife Amanda also care for 500-700 stocker calves a year.
“If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to be determined because there are a lot of bumps along the road and a lot of setbacks,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Dakota says he wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone. “I love to take care of good land and make a good crop,” he said. “I have my wife working beside me and our kids out there with us all the time. It’s the only life I want.”
The Caraways have two children, Madison, 7, and Jack, 4.
Todd Cassebaum approaches farming with a strong work ethic, ingenuity and the commitment to quality he learned from his father.
“When I was a little kid, Dad said we needed something to do,” he said. “We started planting a little patch of sweet corn — my sisters and me. I think the first year we planted a couple acres, and we bought a trampoline.”
Today, Todd and wife Hope farm 1,250 acres in Baldwin County where they raise peanuts, corn, cotton, millet, pecans and vegetables. They also have a 160-cow commercial beef herd.
The Cassebaums say good crop rotation and investment in irrigation are keys to their success.
“We can do a little better job with vegetables with irrigation water because we can put it on when it needs it,” Todd said.
Increasing productivity is important because development along the Gulf Coast is consuming cropland.
“We have to learn to increase with what we’ve got,” he added. “We can’t find any more farmland, so we’re trying to grow within the acres we have.”
The Cassebaums also are catering to the expanding population by growing more fresh produce. They have built a loyal customer base for their sweet corn, peas, butterbeans and watermelons by focusing on quality and service.
“We try to give them more than what they expect,” Todd said. “We like the baker’s dozen. We don’t know a dozen as 12; we know it as 13 ears.”
The Cassebaums are passing the work ethic and values they learned from their parents onto their son, August, and daughter, Kelsey.
“The only reason I’m doing a lot of this now is I want them to take over,” Todd said. “I want them to have the same opportunity I’ve had.”
At Timberland Cattle, Bill and Carol Freeman are growing food and fiber together on the rolling hills of Lamar County.
“Our farm consists of a tree farm and a cattle farm,” Bill said. “We run cattle in our trees, and they work well with each other.”
The 850-acre operation includes 200 acres of pine plantation, 600 acres of pastureland and 50 acres of hay. The Freemans have a 300-cow purebred Angus, Simmental and SimAngus herd, along with a 100-cow commercial beef herd.
The farm sells about 75 bulls each November in an on-farm, video production sale and bred heifers at a spring sale.
The Freemans maintain a strict herd health program, utilize rotational grazing and installed irrigation to ensure year-round forage is available.
“We just came out of a severe drought,” Bill said. “Had we not irrigated, we would not have gotten the grass to come up.”
Despite the hard work it took to make Timberland Cattle the showplace it is today, Bill is quick to give thanks for his blessings.
“The keys to my success, I feel like, are from our Father,” he said. “I really believe without the blessings we get from Him we wouldn’t have ability to do what we do. I really love being outside and love being able to produce cattle.”
The Freemans have one daughter, Jessica.
Chris Langley has worked for the same boss his whole life — himself.
“I got started years ago with animals when I was a kid — with goats, rabbits, chickens and pigs,” Chris said. “I bought my first heifer when I was 16, and I got started on showing livestock.”
The young entrepreneur expanded his beef cow herd and rented pastureland with money he earned from selling eggs, rabbits and hogs. Meanwhile, he spent evenings and weekends in the forests of Chambers County building a pulpwood business.
“My father helped me get financed with a pulpwood truck and a 440 John Deere skidder,” he said. “I started logging when I was old enough and have been logging ever since.”
Today, Chris Langley Timber and Management Inc. operates three fully mechanized logging crews, and Langley Farms includes a 320-cow commercial beef herd on 2,650 acres of timber, hay and grazing land.
“My philosophy of farming is the harder you work and the more you put in it, the more you’ll have and get out of it,” Chris said. “You’ve got to be mechanically minded, creative and think smart at all times. And if you do those things, you will be successful.”
Chris and wife Elizabeth have instilled those same values in their children, Christopher, Charlie, Chandler and Chelsea.
“We started each one of them off when they were 9 years old showing calves,” Chris recalled. “They’ve been dedicated to it. It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to love it to do it. And they’ve won some championships and won the state a few times.”
Agriculture was the only career Nick McMichen ever considered.
“I was born to be a farmer,” Nick said. “We come from a long line of farmers, and it’s the only thing I truly ever wanted to do.”
Still, the Cherokee County native admits his path to full-time farming took some unexpected shortcuts. He intended to attend college before coming home to his family’s 400-acre farm, but when opportunity knocked, Nick answered.
“When a local farmer decided to retire, he was farming 500 acres and gave us the opportunity to rent that land,” Nick said. “I jumped at the chance. I had to sacrifice my education, but I continue to learn every day.”
Today, McMichen Farm spans 4,000 acres in three counties, including 1,000 acres of timber, 1,500 acres of cotton and 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
Nick credits his thirst for knowledge and willingness to experiment for the farm’s success. He’s conducted on-farm cotton variety trials since 1990.
“What we gain is invaluable,” Nick said. “It’s part of my continuing education.”
The McMichens are working to increase farm productivity through conservation tillage, soil testing and irrigation.
“Irrigation is the single best investment on the farm,” Nick said.
The McMichens are putting in three center-pivots this year and building a 12.5-acre pond. They're also reclaiming an 800-acre farm in the bend of the Coosa River that was planted in pine trees.