Two Alabama farms known throughout the Southeast for producing high-quality plants and shrubs will compete for the title of Alabama Farm of Distinction at the Alabama Farm-City Awards April 4 in Birmingham.
The overall winner will receive more than $15,000 in prizes. Alabama Farm-City Chairman Jeff Helms said either farm would make Alabama proud as the state’s representative in the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Oct. 15-17.
“We are blessed to have two outstanding farms vying for Alabama’s top honor,” Helms said. “Dairyland Nursery in Mobile and Dixie Green Inc. in Centre both demonstrate the hard work, resilience, stewardship and innovation that are hallmarks of Alabama’s farm families.”
Alabama’s Farm of Distinction will receive a John Deere Gator from AgPro, SunSouth and TriGreen dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); an engraved 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.
The farms were judged on productivity, stewardship and management. Judges Samantha Carpenter of AFC, Tami Culver of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, and Andy Leslie of First South Farm Credit visited the farms Feb. 26.
DIXIE GREEN INC.
When it comes to poinsettias, mums, caladiums and spring plants, it’s a small world — at least for Dixie Green Inc. of Cherokee County.
Started in 1979, the family business has grown from a single 28- x 96-foot greenhouse to almost 12 acres of heated space plus another eight acres of outside space for plants.
“We’re the major poinsettia supplier for Walt Disney World,” said Hank Richardson, who runs the farm with wife Shelia and sons John and Daniel. “We also do poinsettias for the Opryland Hotel in Nashville and ship all over the Southeast.”
Richardson, who grew up on a cattle, hog and row crop farm, started growing plants with his brothers in 1974. Five years later, they merged with another local greenhouse to form Dixie Green. Over the years, the family has faced its share of challenges.
“We hadn’t been in Dixie Green but a few years, and we had a major fire. It was big setback,” Richardson said. “About 10 years after that, we had a blizzard and lost four acres of greenhouse. Then, in 2007, we had a drought that kind of killed sales because people couldn’t water their plants. We survived the 18 percent interest; we survived the fuel shortages.
“Going through all the challenges, we just wouldn’t give up,” he added. “We weren’t willing to fail. We were going to do everything we could to keep it going.”
Today, Dixie Green grows plants for Lowe’s and Walmart through a contract with Young’s Plant Farm of Auburn. Another 15-20 percent of their crop is purchased for fundraisers. Each year, the Richardsons and almost 50 employees produce about 500,000 spring plants; 325,000 caladiums; 15,000 ferns; 250,000 mums; and 250,000 poinsettias.
Richardson said seeing the joy on customers’ faces makes the hard work worthwhile.
“What I like most about being in the greenhouse business is the satisfaction you get from growing a crop, seeing it finish and shipping it to clients who get to enjoy the plants.”
Dairyland Nursery has taken a new shape in recent years, but its roots are firmly planted in the Mobile County soil.
“Our dairy started with my papaw and my father in the mid ‘40s,” co-owner Mark Williams recalled. “We actually sold out in ’02, but about two years prior, we started up the nursery. We were blessed to participate in the Gulf States Horticultural Expo and picked up some customers right off the bat.”
Today, Dairyland Nursery includes eight acres of woody ornamentals ranging from junipers and hollies to boxwoods and border grasses. The farm’s specialties, however, are decorative topiaries — carefully sculpted by hand over multiple growing seasons.
“I really like the artistic side of it,” Mark said. “I have one man here (Moxie) who is a master at shaping plants, and between me and him, we’ve been able to produce a consistent, high-quality product year after year.”
Julie Williams, who is a partner in the operation, said Dairyland has carved a niche by propagating almost all of its plants, which ensures products are true to name and variety. They also cultivate native species like elderberry — popular for its medicinal value.
“I like being outside and just enjoying nature,” Julie said. “There’s always something to do. It can be stressful, but it’s very peaceful as well.”
Julie said working at the nursery has been good for their daughter, Katelyn, who is pursuing a degree in physical therapy.
“Growing up, it taught her how to work,” Julie said. “She’s very dedicated and is always willing to lend a helping hand. The country life has really shaped her, and she’s growing up to be a fine young lady.”
While Mark said he misses milking cows, mending fences and cutting silage, he is proud to continue his family’s farming legacy.
“Being in the nursery business keeps me in agriculture, and that’s definitely where I want to be,” he said.