Two Alabama farmers who defied the odds by building successful businesses from scratch earned the opportunity to compete for more than $15,000 in prizes and the title of Alabama Farm of Distinction.
Walters Farming Co. of Gallion and Byrd Family Farms of Danville are vying for a chance to represent their home state in the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest and join 36 other Alabama farms that have won Alabama agriculture’s most distinguished honor. The winner will be named during the Alabama Farm-City Awards Program and Luncheon April 7 in Birmingham.
“The Farm of Distinction contest recognizes farm families who excel in management, innovation, stewardship and community engagement,” said Alabama Farm-City Committee Chairman Jeff Helms. “The list of winners since 1986 reads like a who’s who of Alabama agriculture. Stanley Walters and Mark and Sandy Byrd are cut from the same cloth. They inspire us with their faith, ingenuity, resilience and servant leadership. It’s a blessing to showcase their outstanding farms.”
The Farm of Distinction winner will receive a John Deere Gator from SunSouth and TriGreen dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); a farm sign from Alfa Insurance; and $2,500 from Swisher. They’ll also be honored at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Oct. 18-20 in Moultrie, Georgia. The runner-up will receive a Traeger grill and supplies valued at $1,000 from First South Farm Credit (FSFC) and a $500 gift certificate from AFC.
Farms were judged on productivity, stewardship and management when judges visited Feb. 24. Judges were Alabama Cooperative Extension System Director Mike Phillips, Sweet Grown Alabama Director Ellie Watson and FSFC Vice President of Credit Clay Borden.
Walters Farming Co.
When Stanley Walters graduated from college, his father gave him 38 acres of forestland. Forty-four years later, the Perry County farmer has leveraged that small financial base into a 7,000-acre row crop and timber operation spanning four counties.
“I had a love for the farm from my grandfather and my uncles,” said Walters, whose father was a merchant. “That’s all I ever wanted to do. So when I got out of Mississippi State, I started farming on a very small scale. I bought a 155-acre pasture and ran Angus cattle. We had 62 acres of rented land where I grew cotton.”
By the time Walters’ son, Clay, returned from college in 2002, the farm included 3,000 acres of row crops. The partners have since doubled their acreage, split evenly between corn and soybeans. Almost 2,300 acres are irrigated. They maximize production through conservation tillage, soil testing and precision agriculture.
“It’s all about efficiency and what you can get done,” Walters said. “Technology is the future. Without technology, the bigger equipment would be half defeated.”
Besides investing in his farm, Walters gives back by helping direct producer-funded checkoff dollars to research, education and promotion as chair of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Wheat & Feed Grain Committee.
“I really think I get way more than I give,” Walters said. “The interaction with these other farm leaders gives you the best insight. You very seldom have a unique problem; everybody’s going through the same things.”
Federation Area 6 Organization Director Mac Higginbotham praised Walters’ ingenuity and resilience.
“All producers are facing some challenging issues right now,” Higginbotham said. “Stanley represents the efforts producers are taking to overcome these challenges by incorporating new technologies and adapting to modern-day practices. Farmers are not quitters; they are always looking for better ways to adjust and adapt when things get tough. Stanley is a great example of the perseverance I see in our members.”
For Walters, toughness comes from a sense of stewardship.
“This land has been here a long time before us, and it’ll be here a long time afterwards,” he said. “I’ve got grandchildren who I hope will farm. But more than that, it’s our duty to be good stewards, and that’s what drives me. This is not ours. We’re just caretakers.”
Byrd Family Farm
As a high school basketball star, Mark Byrd’s parents and teachers advised him against a farming career. But the self-described headstrong teenager didn’t listen and today runs a diversified farm with wife Sandy and sons Perry and Rodney.
“I guess it was just in my head as well as in my heart,” said the Morgan County farmer. “If I’d really known what I was getting into, I might have cowered down a little bit, but I’m glad I didn’t.”
Byrd began pursuing his dream as a 14 year old, when he borrowed money to buy a tractor and hay baler. At 18, he rented 15 acres and planted soybeans. A decade later, he and Sandy cashed in his retirement from Walmart for a down payment on a poultry farm.
“The four houses were only 3 years old, so we pretty much bought a new operation,” Byrd said. “We had 102 acres that came with the farm. We’ve grown that to include seven poultry houses, and we’ve totally upgraded the older houses.”
The Byrds also grow corn, wheat and soybeans while continuing to bale hay for neighbors.
“We went from about 40 acres the first year to nearly 2,000 acres now,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a grain handling system and can store right at 100,000 bushels. We’re able to work with less equipment because our trucks are not being tied up waiting in line to unload.”
The Byrds are increasing their grain drying and storage capacity by 75%. They also have a 25-cow Charolais beef herd. Future plans include a retail store where they can sell corn, wheat straw and other Alabama-grown products.
Alabama Farmers Federation Area 1 Organization Director Barrett Gilbert said the Byrds were selected for the Farm of Distinction contest by their peers.
“A committee selected Mark and Sandy from about 16 nominations,” Gilbert said. “Nominations were based on farm quality, industry advocacy and community involvement. It speaks highly of Mark and Sandy to be chosen from such an outstanding group.”
Byrd, known throughout the Southeast as the thunderous bass singer of Living Faith gospel quartet, credits God for seeing him through tough times.
“I don’t know how anybody could farm without having God on their side,” he said. “When we make decisions, I really seek the Lord’s guidance, and he’s never let me down.”