Two Alabama farms committed to improving their communities through hard work, innovation and stewardship will compete for the title of Alabama Farm of Distinction at the Alabama Farm-City Awards luncheon April 2 in Birmingham.
The overall winner will receive more than $15,000 in prizes. Alabama Farm-City Chairman Jeff Helms said either farm will represent the state well in the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Oct. 20-22.
“Alabama is blessed with exceptional farmers,” Helms said. “The Ellis and Williams families are the cream of the crop. They are salt-of-the-earth people who built successful businesses, which allow them to give back to their communities through leadership, economic development and conservation of natural resources.”
Alabama’s Farm of Distinction winner will receive a John Deere Gator from AgPro, SunSouth and TriGreen dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); a farm sign from Alfa Insurance; and $2,500 as the state’s representative at the Sunbelt Ag Expo. The runner-up will receive a Traeger grill and supplies valued at $1,000 from First South Farm Credit and a $500 gift certificate from AFC.
Farms were judged on productivity, stewardship and management. Judges Bob Plaster of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Brandon Simpson of First South Farm Credit and Jimmy Carlisle, retired department director of the Alabama Farmers Federation, visited the farms Feb. 11.
Triple E Farm
When it comes to agricultural diversity, Thomas and Melissa Ellis of Lowndes County cracked the mold. Not only does Triple E Farm excel in beef cattle and poultry production, but their Priester’s Pecans is known far and wide for a variety of delicious shelled nuts, candies and confections.
“We consider ourselves an agricultural family from the word ‘go’,” Thomas said. “We’re looking forward to having the fifth generation come along and be involved in the business, but right now we’re really enjoying seeing our sons and daughters-in-law involved in the business.”
Triple E Farm began in 1981 when Thomas bought part of a commercial beef herd from the widow of a respected cattleman. Two years later, he and Melissa built their first poultry houses. Today, the operation spans 1,000 acres and includes a 50-cow beef herd; 1,000 head of stocker cattle annually; and three poultry houses producing almost 400,000 chickens a year. Meanwhile, Priester’s Pecans cracks, shells and processes more than 1.5 million pounds of gift-quality nuts a year and produces candy, baked goods and snacks.
Over the years, the family has overcome challenges including high interest rates, a tornado, a fire at the pecan store and failure of a second pecan business in Georgia.
Through it all, the Ellises have been steadied by faith.
“I depend on the good Lord to help me get up every day and have a positive attitude and just keep moving forward,” Thomas said. “I feel like my wife and I are just maintaining what we’ve been given the opportunity to care for, whether it’s Priesterʼs or the land.”
As for the future, Thomas said he hopes to expand the farm by purchasing land currently rented from neighbors while continuing to grow the cattle and pecan operations for his three sons, who work in the business.
“I had somebody tell me once, ‘If you do a really good job with other people’s things and treat them like your own, it will take you places,’” Thomas said. “So we have an opportunity to do that. And here at Priesterʼs, we’ve got pretty bold sales growth goals. We’re trying to grow sales so we can not only take care of our family and our boys, but we have a lot of families who depend on this business right here in the community.”
Circle W Farm
Circle W Farms in Henry County leaves little to chance. By taking advantage of irrigation, new technology and intense management practices, Andy and Karen Williams have helped grow their family row crop and cattle farm from less than 300 acres 40 years ago to over 3,000 today.
Andy said about 60 percent of their row crop acreage is irrigated, resulting in better yields for corn, cotton and peanuts.
“We’ve noticed that with irrigation you build more organic matter in the soil and actually get higher yields,” he said. “We usually yield anywhere from 225 to 240 bushels of corn (per acre). We’ve had some 6,500-pound (per acre) peanuts under irrigation. It can be very beneficial on dry years where outside the circle itʼll be 500 pounds, and then you make 5,000 under the water. It’s a safety net for us, too. It’s a lot of work, but with the new technology, we can control a lot of the irrigation circles with our phones.”
Andy, who farms with brother Sammy, brother-in-law Glenn Will and son Jason, has installed pumping stations and pipelines to deliver irrigation water to their crops. Each year, Circle W Farms harvests about 500 acres of peanuts, 650 acres of cotton and 300 acres of corn. They also have a 400-cow commercial beef herd and about 900 acres of managed timber.
“When my brother and I started, we were renting my uncle’s land, and we’ve grown that to where we have 2,100 acres now that we own,” he said. “We manage the timber just like the corn and cotton.”
That’s not to say Circle W Farms hasn’t faced challenges. In October 2018, Hurricane Michael devastated the cotton and peanut crops and caused damage to fences, timber and barns. Andy said the family has been able to overcome setbacks by being self-sufficient. They clean and save their own peanut seed and save money by doing their own mechanical and earth-moving work.
“We’re not cutting back on our inputs. You cannot cut back on fertilizer, seeding rates or irrigation,” he said. “You’ve got to keep investing in your crop. But, we run our equipment a little longer and do our own repairs. We try to save as much money as we can, and we put our faith in God. We feel that God’s gonna take care of us.”