Teamwork Is Key To Driskell Farm’s Success
When Mobile County farmer Bert Driskell competes for Southeastern Farmer of the Year this month, he will be representing a family partnership that has survived droughts, hurricanes and low prices.Bert, 56, formed Driskell Farms with his brothers, Darrell, 59, and Keith, 49, in 1963. He said the key to their success has been “teamwork.””There’s enough to do that when one of us takes a project, the other two don’t worry about it,” Bert said. “We make major decisions together, but we don’t second guess each other. There’s enough to do that we don’t have to fight about it.”Not surprising, when asked the same question, Keith’s answer was “shared management,” and Darrell’s was “working together.””We all think about the same,” Bert said–although he admits being “a little more liberal” when it comes to change.All three brothers, however, agree that adapting to change has helped them survive when other farms have not.Take row crops for instance. When Bert was in high school, he had a farrow-to-finish hog operation. He later switched to finishing about 5,000 hogs a year, and was even named the Alabama Farmers Federation’s (then Farm Bureau) Outstanding Young Farmer in the pork division. The family also ran a dairy and had about 600 acres of row crops.After getting out of the hog and dairy businesses, the brothers continued to farm mostly corn and soybeans until 1985, when low soybean prices forced them to switch to cotton. Then, in 1998, when changes to the Farm Bill allowed quota to be transferred among counties, they further diversified their operation to include peanuts.”About the only way we have survived has been to change,” Darrell said.But switching crops was not always easy. Bert recalled that when the brothers first decided to plant cotton, they were in the midst of financial turmoil. Soybean prices were low, and the family was still recovering from one of the worst hurricanes to hit Mobile County in the state’s history. About that time, he attended a Farmers Federation meeting where he noticed that the cotton farmers he met didn’t seem to be nearly as stressed. He started talking to them about cotton, and the rest, as they say, is history.”We got into cotton because of two people, one being Jerry Newby (now president of the Farmers Federation) and the other being Russell Hendrix (now president of the Washington County Farmers Federation),” Bert recalled. “We asked Russell how a farmer gets into the cotton business, and he told us to buy a cotton picker. ‘Once you do that,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to plant a crop.'” The Driskells took Hendrix’s advice, and Bert said they bought a cotton picker about two days later.But when harvest season rolled around, the nearest gins were 100 miles away. So, the Driskells converted used car carriers into cotton wagons, and for the next 10 years, they hauled their cotton to the gin in semi trucks–20 bales at a time.That all changed in 1995 when the brothers and other area farmers got together and built Producers Gin in nearby Theodore, Ala. Last year, they also helped start a peanut buying point in their area to cut down on transportation costs of their second biggest crop.Today, the Driskells farm 8,000 acres in Mobile County and two neighboring Mississippi counties. Cotton is still their number-one crop (about 5,000 acres), but they also raise peanuts, corn and beef cattle, and they have a stocker calf operation.Recognized as one of Alabama’s premier family farms, Driskell Farms was honored this year when Bert and his wife, Linda, accepted the Alabama Farm-City Committee’s top award: The 2001 Farm of Distinction.As this year’s winner, the Driskells received $1,500, a farm sign and the chance to compete with seven other state winners for the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award at the Sunbelt Expo, which will be held Oct. 16-18 in Moultrie, Ga. The winner of that competition will receive $12,500 from Swisher International Inc. The Southeastern Farmer of the Year also will receive the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor from AGCO for one year, as well as a year’s supply of clothing from Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company.Bert and Linda said they are proud to represent Alabama in the competition, but they insist any award really belongs to the whole family. Besides the partners, Driskell Farms also employs Bert and Linda’s sons, Darrin and Kevin, as well as Darrell and wife Joyce’s daughters, office manager Lisa Sessions and secretary Dana Roberts. Linda does not work on the farm, but she is the assistant supervisor for the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in their area.As for the size of the operation, Bert said that was more of a matter of necessity rather than planning.”To us, staying in business required getting bigger. Our margins are so small, there was no way for us to stick where we were,” Bert said. “We had to keep growing.”The partners said they tried to stop growing in the 1980s, and it was a disaster. Bert compared it to pushing a large rock up a hill. “As long as you keep pushing, the rock will keep moving,” he said. “But when you get to the top of the hill and start trying to hold it back, that’s when you get in trouble.”Despite the farm’s size, all three partners are still involved in the day-to-day business of farming. Darrell manages the labor; Keith makes sure the equipment is well maintained; and Bert handles the paperwork and is the farm’s “out front” man. A member of the Farmers Federation’s state board, Bert said being involved in the state’s largest farm organization has paid big dividends because it has allowed him to share ideas with other farmers.During harvest season, though, Bert tries to limit his travels because all hands are needed on the farm. In addition to their individual management responsibilities, all three partners operate equipment and do field work. Still, it takes about 20 additional employees to get all the work done. Bert said the hands-on supervision helps ensure the job is done right.”It’s crucial that one of us be involved with each harvest crew,” he said. “To get the maximum production out of your employees, you’ve got to be right there on top of things.”Keith said being in the fields on a regular basis also helps the partners monitor the condition of their crops.”You can’t see things real well from the end of the rows, but when you go over the crop two or three times with a sprayer like I’ve done this year, you can see exactly what you’ve got,” he said.To cut down on labor and to conserve the soil, the Driskells use minimum tillage or no-till practices on all of their cotton acreage. They also plant 100 percent Bt and Roundup-ready varieties. They use the Farm Analysis program to help track the performance of their crops, and they credit improved varieties and the Boll Weevil Eradication Program for helping them succeed at raising cotton. This year, they hope to harvest about 1 3/4 bales of cotton per acre as well as two tons of peanuts per acre and about 120 bushels of corn per acre.But yields haven’t always been so good. Droughts have plagued the farm for the past three years, and hurricanes are always a concern in the coastal county. By far the worst disaster in Driskell Farm’s 38-year history, however, occurred in 1979.”(Hurricane) Frederic blew away everything we had,” Bert recalled. “We lost all of our crops, and we didn’t have crop insurance. We woke up the next morning, and we were broke.”Although the partners admit that they are still recovering from Frederic, their biggest concern nowadays is urban sprawl.When Bert was a boy, his father farmed land right behind Mobile’s Springdale Mall. In recent years, though, land the Driskells once rented for row crops has been sold for housing developments.So far, the Driskells have been able to replace most of the land that is sold with new acreage. But low farm prices and slim profit margins are likely to continue putting pressure on the family. This year, the price of cotton is so low most farmers will have to make extraordinary yields just to break even. And peanuts, which have been a bright spot for the farm in recent years, are expected to follow suit when the Farm Bill changes. Currently, the U.S. peanut industry operates under a federal farm program that assigns quotas to farmers based on domestic use. The quota price is guaranteed, but because the supply of peanuts is controlled, buyers seldom offer less than the guaranteed price. As a result, the program operates at little or no cost to taxpayers.Trade agreements signed by the U.S. in recent years, however, are forcing Congress to dismantle the program. Bert predicts when that happens, the new price for peanuts could fall to about half of what it was just a few years ago. If this price trend continues, Bert said it will be hard for farmers–especially young farmers–to stay in business. His advice to new farmers is “watch your expenses.””When you start off with nothing, you can’t try to do everything just like your neighbor who’s been farming 20 years,” Bert said. “When you start making payments on everything you own, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to remember that your gross income has nothing to do with your net profit.”Understanding that simple concept has been another key to the success of Driskell Farms. The partners don’t indulge in extravagancies, and when possible, they reinvest in their business.Teamwork, adapting to change, reinvesting in your business–for the Driskells, this has been a recipe for success. It’s also a philosophy that’s guided them from hogs and soybeans to cotton and peanuts, all while enduring just about every kind of disaster imaginable. Through it all, they remain partners, brothers and friends, and the business they’ve built together is certainly a Farm of Distinction.