Years of pouring time, talents, finances and faith into their farms are paying off for three finalists in Alabama’s 2020 Outstanding Young Farm Family (OYFF) contest.
To qualify for the Alabama Farmers Federation contest, participants must earn a majority of their income from production agriculture and be 18-35 years old.
Finalists are Joe and Ashley McCraney, Barbour County; Josh and Savannah McCoy, Dale County; and Ben and Bethany Johnson, Randolph County.
They were selected at the Young Farmers Conference in Mobile in February. Judges will visit their farms this summer, and the winner will be announced during the Federation’s Farm & Land Expo in Mobile Aug. 1.
The 2020 OYFF scores more than $60,000 in prizes. They receive $35,000 toward a new Ford truck, courtesy of Alfa Insurance; a John Deere 825i Gator, sponsored by Alabama Ag Credit and Alabama Farm Credit; and the lease of a John Deere tractor from John Deere, Ag-Pro, TriGreen Equipment and SunSouth.
Runners-up each receive $500 from Alabama Ag Credit and Alabama Farm Credit. All finalist families received a $500 Red Land Cotton gift card.
The OYFF represents Alabama in the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Achievement Award contest during its annual convention in San Diego in January 2021.
The McCraney Family (Barbour County)
When Joe and Ashley McCraney were teenagers, they stood on a pond pier and set goals: get married, own a poultry farm and raise their family in Barbour County.
Eleven years of marriage, 10 poultry houses and three children later, the McCraneys are living their dream.
“This is the life we hoped and worked for,” said Joe, 32, an Alabama Farmers Federation State Poultry Committee member.
The McCraneys gradually grew their farm, first remodeling six chicken houses Joe learned about in 2015 while working as a flock supervisor for Keystone Foods. Helping other farmers succeed also equipped Joe with skills needed to maintain the farm while producing quality birds.
In 2017, Ashley left her job teaching troubled girls to manage Raising Grace Farm, a four-poultry-house operation they bought in Clayton. They now grow 1.7 million chickens annually in their 10 houses.
Ashley also homeschools 9-year-old Joe Mack “Trace” McCraney III, 8-year-old Hadley Kate and 5-year-old Ailey Grace. The kids help preserve goods in the canning kitchen, rescue animals and lend a hand at the poultry houses.
“I enjoy the lifestyle farming provides,” said Ashley, 30. “We’re invested in our community and can teach our kids the value of hard work and growing food for America and our family. We bring education to life.”
To further diversify, they’re adding an elderberry orchard and plan to raise show cattle. Last year, Trace bought a peanut picker on halves with his dad. They’ll grow 60 acres of the legume in 2020.
The McCraneys promote agriculture through the Barbour County Farm-City Committee and county Farmers Federation, where Joe is Young Farmers chair and Ashley leads the Women’s Leadership Committee. They attend Evergreen Baptist Church.
While diversification is important, the McCraneys strive for steady growth and quality end products.
“We want to expand the farm so there’s something for the kids if they want to be here,” Joe said. “We hope we can foster in them a love of agriculture.”
The McCoy Family (Dale County)
Six years ago, Josh McCoy swapped a desk job for a tractor cab. But the Dale County CFO-turned-farmer still crunches numbers to cultivate quality peanuts and a legacy for his sons.
“If it has our name on it, it needs to be top quality,” said Josh, 31. “Controlling different factors of production influences the quality of the crop we produce, including seed peanuts we eventually sell to other farmers. The peanut seed we raise drives the rest of the farm.”
Josh oversees day-to-day operations at Chris Thompson Farms, where his wife of seven years, Savannah, was raised. He grew up around cattle and poultry before attending Troy University and was the clear choice when the farm and Thompson Peanut Co. needed a manager. The company includes a buying point, shelling plant and seed peanut sales.
“I swore I wouldn’t marry a farmer,” said Savannah, 29. “Growing up, I loved it but knew how time-intensive farming was. We laugh because I married an accountant who was a farmer at heart. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Josh has worked to increase crop quality and acreage. In 2020, the farm will grow over 9,000 acres of peanuts and cotton, compared to 4,700 acres in 2014. He’s improved infrastructure, tripling center-pivot irrigation. Thompson Peanut Co. has seen considerable growth, as well.
Auburn University alumna Savannah teaches high school English through Alabama Virtual Academy. She picks up parts, checks irrigation, pulls peanut wagons and keeps books — in addition to raising sons Fields, 4, and Sutton, 2, in Midland City.
Josh is a Peanut Leadership Academy graduate and former Dale County Young Farmers chair, while Savannah was secretary. The McCoys are involved in preschool ministry at Bay Springs Baptist Church.
Despite their busy schedules, the McCoys agree farm life is worth it.
“Everyone has 24 hours in a day,” Josh said. “It’s how you use them that determines the person you are.”
The Johnson Family (Randolph County)
Nearly a decade of dedication, diversification and attention to detail paid off for Ben Johnson Feb. 27 — his last day as a service technician and first evening farming full time.
“If I had come home to farm right after graduating from Auburn, I wouldn’t have grown certain skills,” said Ben, 31. “That includes people skills, banking knowledge through the Farm Service Agency and practical poultry skills at Koch Foods.”
In 2017, Ben and Bethany, his wife of five years, bought four poultry houses near Woodland, where they annually raise 350,000 broiler chickens. That’s in addition to hay production, a 170-head beef cattle herd and 150 acres of corn and wheat.
In December, the Johnsons bought a fertilizer-spreading business. Randolph County is flush with cattle farms, offering ample opportunities for Johnson Ag Service LLC to spread lime and commercial fertilizer.
“We prayed for a sign that would seal the deal for Ben to farm full time, and this was it,” said Bethany, an Auburn University graduate and math teacher at Woodland High School. “He’s where he needs to be.”
Ben said he works to manage his time efficiently, knowing challenges pop up on the farm.
“We spend eight weeks raising chickens,” Ben said. “From the day they’re placed in our houses, we can see the results of the hard work we put in.”
To serve fellow farmers, Ben is an Alabama Farmers Federation State Poultry Committee member and leads the Randolph County Cattlemen’s Association. He chairs the Randolph County Young Farmers, and Bethany is secretary. The Johnsons worship at Providence Baptist Church, where Bethany helps lead the youth.
When Bethany looks across their backyard, she sees chicken houses, farmland and a bright future for their children. The Johnsons are teaching 3-year-old Blakely and 1-year-old Brooks to value faith, family and farming.
“Even though they’re young, the kids know farming is a lot of work,” said Bethany, 31. “These are lessons they’ll value forever.”