Sponsored each year by the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Outstanding Young Farm Family Awards Program recognizes young farmers between the ages of 17 and 35 who do an outstanding job in farm, home and community activities. Division winners representing 13 commodities were selected in February. Of those, six will compete for the title of overall Outstanding Young Farm Family for 2003. The winner will be named at the Federation’s 82nd annual meeting in December. This month, Neighbors profiles seven commodity division winners. Look for features on the six finalists in the coming months.Catfish DivisionYou might say Travis Wilson has been farming all his life. But when the sixth-generation Dallas County farmer started raising catfish with his father, Butch, and brother-in-law, Willard Powe, in 1992, he discovered an occupation that suits him to a tee.”The reason why I know farming is the job for me is because there’s no other job that I could have that would be as family oriented,” said Travis, who describes his role in the 2,000-acre operation as that of “farm manager.””My responsibilities involve everything from fence maintenance to bookkeeping,” he said. “As with most farming operations, no job is too small or too large, it all has to be done by the end of the day.”When the Wilsons and Powes started raising catfish 11 years ago, they had 150 acres of ponds. Today, they have 460 acres of water, 439 of which are dedicated to producing food-size fish. Each year, the family produces about 2.8 million pounds of catfish, which is processed by Southern Pride Catfish. The remaining 21 acres of ponds are used for fingerlings. In addition, the family has a 240-cow beef cattle operation. Travis said the biggest challenge he and other catfish farmers face right now is low prices.”With there being such an oversupply of fish, it is hard to sell the total number of fish that we would like at a profitable price,” he said.Although catfish is traditionally considered a Southern delicacy, Travis said there is tremendous potential for the development of markets worldwide. As those markets develop, he hopes the price of catfish will improve so he and his wife Keisha can continue to farm and eventually pass the operation along to their son, Trevor, 1.”My number one goal is to create a situation that will enable my children to start farming, if that is what they would like to do, and leave them in a hopefully sound financial situation,” he said.Soybean DivisionJessie Hobbs said he knew he wanted to farm the first time he ever got dirt between his fingers and under his nails. As a third-generation farmer, he witnessed first hand the pride his father and grandfather had in being “tenants” of the land, which God had entrusted to them.Today, the Limestone County young farmer and wife, Amanda, have a child of their own, Sarah Bess, 3 months. And while Jessie still enjoys watching soybeans, cotton and corn spring from the soil, he also sees himself as a teacher who can educate others about the importance of agriculture.”I feel farming is the most important job in the world. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Jessie said. “I want to make the non-farm community more aware that agriculture has been–and must continue to be–a vital part of our nation’s success and security.”Jessie sees soybeans playing an especially important part in America’s future. “I believe we must place more emphasis on bio-fuels, which will not only make our country more self-sufficient, but also will help farmers in the long run,” he said.In recent years, Jessie and his father, Howard Hobbs Jr., have grown mainly cotton on their 3,000-acre farm. But this year, Jessie said the family planted 2,000 acres of soybeans, 800 acres of cotton and 200 acres of corn. Jessie, who graduated from Auburn University in 1998 with a degree in agronomy and soils, said rotating the crops should be good for the soil. In addition, recent changes in the farm bill made planting soybeans more attractive this year.So far, Jessie said the crop is looking good, although heavy spring rains have caused some delays. Besides the weather and prices, Jessie said urban sprawl is his biggest challenge. He said using minimum tillage practices have reduced the farm’s pesticide usage, which has helped him coexist with his non-farm neighbors.Dairy DivisionWhen Will and Joni Gilmer of Lamar County returned from their honeymoon last month, the newlyweds already had about 200 hungry mouths to feed. No, the Gilmers don’t have any children yet, but as operators of a 195-cow dairy, they have plenty to keep them busy.For Will, however, the rewards of farming are well worth the long hours he spends milking, feeding and tending crops.”I was born into a family farm; I enjoy farm work, and I am positive I can provide a comfortable living for my family by continuing to farm,” Will said. “My goal is to become successful enough to be able to afford quality help, so I can have some measure of free time, and so my children will have the opportunity to farm.” Will began taking over operation of his family’s dairy in 2001 after graduating with honors from Mississippi State University. Today, he is putting his degree in agricultural engineering technology and business to work on the farm. He maintains an extensive computerized database on his herd, and he records milk weights every three to four weeks. He also has experimented with various feed rations to maximize production, increase profits and raise the butterfat content of his milk. Perhaps his family’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the fact that the farm is debt-free and profitable–despite low milk prices.Since returning to the farm Will has increased his average annual production from 18,000 pounds of milk per cow to 18,200. He attributes this increase to a slightly shorter average lactation length and higher quality hay. The Gilmers currently have 200 acres of corn, which yields about 3,000 tons of silage per year. They also have 75 acres of hay.Will is chairman of the Lamar County Farmers Federation’s Young Farmers Committee and has hosted tours at his farm for area kindergartners.Sheep and Meat Goat DivisionIn 1988, Lauderdale County young farmer Jay Cornelius participated in his county’s first organized youth lamb show, “and the rest,” as Jay says, “is history.”Today, the two-time Outstanding Young Farmer in the Meat Goat and Sheep Division has 75 breeding ewes and raises some of the best show lambs in the state.”I enjoy raising sheep, and it provides added income for my family,” said Jay. “My goal is to raise, sell and produce a quality product.”One could well argue that the young farmer already has accomplished that goal. As a young showman, Jay twice placed first at the Alabama State Fair and won the Alabama Bred Championship four out of five years. He has since bred four Alabama State Lamb Show champions. He also has promoted the industry by working with the youth who purchase his lambs to make them better showmen.Jay said one of the keys to raising champion club lambs is breeding. He carefully selects high-quality ewes and rams for his flock based on both their bloodlines and conformation. Jay also has worked with livestock judging teams to help them develop an eye for selecting quality sheep.Jay said one of the biggest challenges he and wife, Alison, face in raising show lambs is finding a good source of high-quality feed–a problem he has overcome by mixing his own rations. Despite the challenges, however, he remains optimistic about the club lamb business.”We are looking forward to the future and hope to continue producing top club lambs,” said Jay. “We enjoy raising sheep very much and hope to continue our successful operation for years to come. We hope to eventually pass the operation on to our children.”To learn more about Jay and Alison’s operation and to see pictures of their award-winning lambs visit their website at www.corneliusfarms.com/lambs.htm.Poultry DivisionWhen Bill and Melissa Walding received their first batch of chickens at 5W Farms in January 2002, it was the realization of their lifelong dream to own a farm where they could provide a better quality of life for their children.Today, the 5Ws–Bill, Melissa, and children, Emily-Ann, 7, Bo, 5, and Jacob, 2–have four broiler houses on their 132-acre spread as well as 33 brood cows and 60 acres of hay. And while they admit they had a lot to learn about raising chickens, the Waldings already have distinguished themselves as outstanding growers.During their first year of production, the Waldings ranked in the top three–in their grower group–four times. This year, they expect to raise five or six batches of birds for Charoen Pokphand. That’s over a half million chickens.With that many birds, the Waldings have to work hard to make sure the chickens get adequate feed, water and ventilation. Bill also uses a computer to track mortality and feed conversion. In addition, the Waldings are mindful of the environmental impact of their operation, so they developed a nutrient management plan with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they maintain buffer zones around their fields to capture any runoff.As for the future, Bill said he would like to add two more poultry houses and increase his beef cattle herd to 150 cows. Meanwhile, he currently is working to enhance the natural resources of the farm.”We have started clearing old land to put in pasture and are improving wildlife habitat and food sources,” Bill said. “We have an abundance of deer, turkey and wood ducks.”We started this farm from scratch and are building from the ground up,” he added. “When possible, we plan to build two fish ponds and put in some type of irrigation for hay fields.”Wildlife DivisionThe 16,000 acres of forestland Joe Mathis manages in south-central Alabama is a prime example of how timber production and wildlife management can work together.As forest manager for B.A.S. Timber, which is owned by S.E. Belcher Jr. and Dr. Alan Belcher, the Bibb County young farmer is responsible for 39 hunting clubs that lease 12,000 acres from the company. In addition, Joe, along with farm managers Marty Mitchell and Hester Creel, intensively manages 3,125 acres for wildlife.”In order to improve wildlife production, a very extensive feeding program has been put in place (on the 3,125-acre tract), which includes planting various crops for year-round forage and having a well-defined management program,” Joe said.The wildlife preserve includes 1,500 acres of hardwoods and wetlands, 750 acres of pine plantations and 925 acres of row crops and hay fields. Each year, 20-30 acres of timber are harvested in the preserve, so there is always an abundance of food for deer, turkey, dove, water fowl and small game, Joe said.”We always select the poorest timber and leave quality, mast-producing trees when possible, and we do not disturb the ground or waterways,” Joe said. “We also have approximately 41 food plots that range from 1-7 acres in size.”Joe said limits are set on which bucks to harvest and added that doe management is a key element of the overall management program. He also works with the hunting clubs that rent land from the company to ensure wildlife is properly managed on those tracts.Joe said his job provides a good way of life for him and wife Amy and their children, Joseph, 2, and Elizabeth, 6 months. “I’ve always had a strong desire to work in a field that I would enjoy–whether or not it would be my main source of income,” Joe said. “In this case, I have been blessed with both the enjoyment and comfortable income that comes with my job.”Bee and Honey DivisionBarry and Christy Etheridge produce about 1,800 pounds of honey a year on their Escambia County farm, but when Barry first tried his hand at beekeeping 18 years ago, he was interested in something else honey bees provide.”I got started in honey production for pollination of our cucumber fields,” Barry recalled.Although Barry no longer raises bees primarily for that purpose, pollination remains the honey bee’s most valuable contribution to agriculture. In fact, experts estimate that 80 percent of all crop insect pollination is done by honey bees–making bees worth about $14 billion to American farmers.For Barry, however, beekeeping has become a sideline business that meshes well with his other love, raising beef cattle. “I enjoy raising cattle and producing honey,” he said. “My goal is to produce as much honey and as many calves as I can, as economically as I can.”In recent years that’s been easier said than done. Like most Alabama beekeepers, Barry had to contend with low prices and pest infestations.Particularly troublesome to Barry and other Alabama beekeepers is the Varroa mite, a tiny pest that reproduces within the capped brood cells of honey bees and feeds on the blood of adult bees. Barry said he has been able to keep the pest in check, but it has increased his cost of production. In addition, he said he also has to remain vigilant to prevent losses due to tracheal mites, foul brood and wax moths.Fortunately for Barry, honey prices recently have rebounded. According to Buddy Adamson, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Bee and Honey Division, honey prices are up almost a dollar from where they were 18 months ago. That’s good news for Barry, who says, as long as he can remain profitable, he will continue to produce honey and, along the way, provide some extra pollination for Alabama farmers.
Outstanding Young Farm Families