Four farms as diverse as Alabama’s landscape will be in the spotlight April 3 when the 2014 Farm of Distinction is unveiled at the state Farm-City Awards in Birmingham.
One of the largest and oldest catfish farms in Alabama will compete alongside a north Alabama row crop farm that began during the financial turmoil of the 1980s. Joining them will be a landscape tree farmer nationally known for quality products. A four-generation produce and agritourism farm in a south Alabama town famous for sweet-tasting tomatoes rounds out the contest’s four finalists.
Bill and Beverly Kyser of Kyser Family Farms in Hale County; Jeff Webster and Mike Frazier of F&W Farms in Madison County; Phillip and Robin Hunter of Hunter Trees in Talladega County; and Gerald and Beverly Aplin of Aplin Farms in Geneva County were chosen to compete in this year’s contest. The winner will receive more than $10,000 in prizes, including a John Deere Gator from SunSouth, TriGreen and Snead Ag dealers; a $1,000 gift certificate from Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC); $2,500 from Swisher International and an engraved farm sign from Alfa Insurance. AFC also will provide $250 gift certificates to each finalist. The winner will represent Alabama in the Swisher Sweets / Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Oct. 14-16 in Moultrie, Ga.
Alabama Farm-City Committee Chairman Jeff Helms said the annual competition honors men and women who labor in the fields so the rest of the population can explore other dreams and opportunities.
“In a recent speech, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the single word that best defines farming is ‘freedom,’” Helms recalled. “Fewer than 2 percent of Americans today live and work on farms to provide food, fiber and opportunity for the remaining 98 percent. The Farm of Distinction program recognizes families who dedicate their lives to growing the products that sustain life, fuel our economy and create jobs.” A 2013 economic impact study by Auburn University showed agriculture accounts for more than 580,000 jobs and generates $70 billion annually for the state’s economy. The study inspired the state’s 2013 Farm-City theme, “Alabama Agriculture: Growing for You and Me.”
The Farm of Distinction will be the grand finale of the awards program, which recognizes county volunteers and students who worked to bridge the gap between rural and urban families during Farm-City Week and throughout the year.
Kyser Family Farms located near Greensboro could be called the first capital of “catfish country.”
“Back in the mid ‘60s, my father built the first four catfish ponds in Alabama to raise food-size catfish for people to eat, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Bill Kyser. “Our first harvest, we actually carried them up the hill by hand, loaded the trucks and sent them to Chicago.”
Today, the Kysers farm 3,724 acres including 800 acres of catfish ponds, 2,000 acres of pasture, 450 acres of timber and 300 acres of soybeans. Their 500-cow beef herd complements the catfish by utilizing the farm’s pasture land.
The Kysers ran a catfish hatchery for 29 years and currently have a plant that transforms processing plant by products into fish meal and oil for pet food.
Hunter Trees in Alpine was a dream of brothers Phillip and Will Hunter. After graduating from Mississippi State University, Phillip worked as a landscape contractor in Birmingham before joining with Will, an ornamental horticulture graduate from Auburn University, to transform a former row crop farm into one of the South’s top tree nurseries.
“Quality is very important to us, and that’s part of the success of our business,” Phillip said. “Landscape contractors or landscape architects often prefer our trees for their jobs because they know they will look good.”
Hunter Trees covers 300 acres, with 225 acres in production that includes about 125 varieties of trees and 65,000 plants. A website described as their “front door” along with social media, trade shows, advertising and direct email marketing keep the Hunters in touch with 1,800 clients.
Mike Frazier and Jeff Webster are distant cousins who began farming with Mike’s grandfather when they were students at New Hope High School. When the elder farmer became ill in 1986, the friends bought used equipment and took over the family farm. Webster credits those lean times for their longevity and success. “We grew up in a time when it was really tough on farmers,” Webster said. “A lot of neighbors and farms were going under financially, and it made us more aware of our financial situation. As we grew, we bought what we needed – mostly used equipment.
“We are now able to finance ourselves for the most part,” he added. “It’s made a lot of difference. We’re less stressed, and we’re able to make better decisions.”
F&W Farms grows cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat on 3,500 acres. The partners improved soil and increased efficiency of the farm by using reduced-tillage practices, precise soil sampling and GPS-guided equipment.
Gerald Aplin humbly rejects the idea he made Slocomb’s tomatoes famous, but he’s proud his grandchildren are the fourth generation on the family’s Geneva County farm. During the last 63 years, the Aplins have raised about 300 varieties of tomatoes — often planting more than 100 acres a year. Today, however, their business provides customers at 12 farmers markets up to 50 different kinds of produce including peaches, strawberries, pumpkins and, of course, tomatoes. They also have a thriving U-pick and agritourism business on 700-acres that draws thousands of school children and families each fall.
Aplin said seeing plants produce a crop that brings enjoyment to others is worth the long, hot summers — including times when he works 80 hours a week.
“I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I love to see challenges over the years,” Aplin said. “Things change, and you have to change. I like to see different varieties and watch them grow. If I was fixing to start over, I would go back to farming, even knowing all the hardships and all the good times. I think it’s a good place to raise a family.”