The Roberts Family — Dekalb County
When it comes to crop rotation, Jamie and Lindsey Roberts reverse traditional trains of thought on the DeKalb County hills of Murphree Seed Farm.
“Most people plant oats as a rotation, but oats are our priority,” said Jamie, 33, who owns the operation with Lindsey and her relatives, Ken and Deborah Murphree.
Since Jamie joined the farm in 2010, the Collinsville-based operation doubled to 1,600 acres of no-till cropland, planting 1,000 acres of black oats annually, as well as specialty crops like partridge peas. This year, they’ll also harvest 600 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of double-cropped soybeans.
“When I first started working here, all I wanted to do was grow crops,” said Jamie, an Illinois farm-family transplant who moved to Alabama at age 12. “The longer I worked, the more I wanted to concentrate on the seed business.”
Under Jamie’s guidance, storage increased from 16,000 to 240,000 bushels. The business annually ships 1,500 tons of oats and custom blends cover crops and wildlife mixes for Southeastern customers. The Roberts own about 800 acres of land. They hope to buy more and add center pivot irrigation. New ventures include growing heirloom Indian corn for the specialty grits market.
They’re raising the next generation, too — Luke, 6, and a daughter due in August.
“My job as a pharmacist at Walmart has allowed me to serve our community while having a flexible schedule,” said Lindsey, 33. “Our goal is for me to go part time and work more on the farm.”
Lindsey and Jamie, who married in 2005, are also involved in DeKalb County Young Farmers, where Jamie is vice chair.
“Farming can be stressful, but I love it,” Jamie said. “It means the world to raise our family around agriculture.”
The Johnson Family — Randolph County
Back-to-back off-farm jobs are pushing full-time farming front- and-center for Ben Johnson.
His experiences at the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and now Koch Foods help Ben and wife of four years Bethany on their poultry and cattle farm in Randolph County’s Omaha community. But the 30 year old is working toward the day when he hangs up his traveling boots for good.
“I always had an interest in farming. There were days when I’d be in the office and all I wanted to think about was what needed to be done on the farm,” said Ben, an Auburn University graduate. “My experience as an FSA loan officer deserves a lot of credit to where we are financially and with the farm.”
Bethany echoes those lessons when teaching math at Woodland High School.
“I tell my kids, ‘You can do anything you want, but you need business sense,’” said Bethany, 30.
Their farm has diversified since 2011, when Ben bought 50 beef cows. His career swap to Koch Foods as a service technician clued them into a nearby poultry farm for sale, and today, Johnson Farms includes four 40-by-500-feet broiler houses, 150 cows, 450 acres of pasture and 150 acres of row crops. These days, the farm also includes Blakely, 2, and Brooks, 9 months.
“You get to see results of your hard work. Whether it’s cattle or chickens, you’re raising something,” said Ben, an Alabama Farmers Federation State Poultry Committee member. He and Bethany are Randolph County Young Farmers Committee chair and secretary, respectively, and attend Providence Baptist Church.
The Johnsons say they hope to expand the cattle herd, add broiler houses and have Ben farm full time in the next decade.
“His fun is anything on the farm. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst job, he enjoys it.” Bethany said. “We keep it simple. We have farming and our faith and our family. That’s it.”
Luke Smelley — Hale County
Raising five children, catfish and cattle amid the rolling hills of Hale County is a dream come true for Luke and Lana Smelley. There’s Levi, 9; Violet, 7; Everett, 4; Daisy, 2; and Iris six months. The girls all have flower names.
“With a last name like Smelley, we thought their first names should be something fragrant,” said Lana.
For 34-year-old Luke, a career outdoors was always his goal.
“When I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to work outside,” he said. “I started renting acreage from neighbors. From there, I was able to acquire more land with ponds and pastures.”
Today, Luke and his wife as 3G Farms own 975 acres around their homesite, which includes pastures, ponds and timber. Luke manages his dad’s ponds plus his own and produces nearly 5 million pounds of catfish annually. He also manages another 3,500 acres of rented pasture, hayfields and ponds. He harvests about 1,400 large rolls of hay to feed his beef cattle herd and stocker calf business.
“Feeding cattle with my kids, and watching them enjoy life out here is what it’s all about,” Luke said. “I enjoy the catfish business, but cattle are my passion. I can’t imagine raising my kids anywhere else.”
Lana and Luke met 13 years ago while she was a student at the Rural Studio in Newbern, an off-campus design-build program of Auburn University’s architecture program. After growing up in a military family, she said life in west Alabama was different and interesting.
“It was a shock at first,” said Lana, 37, a licensed architect with her own business. “I had a mental image of what farmers looked like and the jobs they did. My first impression was wrong. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Luke and his entire family.”