News Young Farm Families Vie for Top Title

Young Farm Families Vie for Top Title

Young Farm Families Vie for Top Title
August 1, 2023 |

By Marlee Jackson

The three couples vying to be Alabama’s Outstanding Young Farm Family (OYFF) have diverse farms and backgrounds but share a critical common denominator — faith.

That faith, coupled with hard work, is a key component of their success, said Alabama Farmers Federation Young Farmers Division Director Hunter McBrayer. The Federation coordinates the annual contest, where Young Farmers 18-35 vie for nearly $80,000 in prizes.

“Competing in the OYFF is an incredible opportunity for farmers to track growth from their first year farming to now and make plans for the future,” McBrayer said. “Making the finals is a testament to the years of hard work and sacrifice these farm families put into their businesses. We’re proud of all three finalist couples and are excited to honor them this August at the Farm & Land Expo in Mobile.”

OYFF finalists are Mitchell and Rebecca Henry, Lawrence County; Brady and Anna Peek, Limestone County; and Whit and Amanda Lovelady, Talladega County.

The OYFF competition recognizes farmers for excellence on the farm, in their communities and within the Federation. More than 50% of their income must be subject to production risk. Finalists were chosen after an application and interview process during Young Farmers Conference this February; on-farm judging followed in June.

The OYFF winner receives $40,000 toward a new Ford truck courtesy of Alfa Insurance; a John Deere 825i Gator sponsored by Alabama Ag Credit and Alabama Farm Credit; a lease on a John Deere tractor provided by John Deere, TriGreen and SunSouth; and an expenses-paid trip to the American Farm Bureau Federation national contest in January 2024.

New this year, the first runner-up family receives use of a Kubota M series tractor, courtesy of Kubota. The second runner-up family receives a prize package from Corteva Agriscience. Both runners-up also receive $500 from perennial sponsors Alabama Ag Credit and Alabama Farm Credit. 

The Henry Family – Lawrence County

Mitchell Henry might have grown up in Montgomery County, but when given the option to take over his grandfather’s cattle farm in the Tennessee Valley, moving north was an easy yes. 

“You have to go where your opportunities are,” said Mitchell, 29. “I always had in my mind that I was going to graduate from Auburn, come here and continue the farm.”

That operation, Hardin Farms in Lawrence County, was founded in 1939. It’s an 84-year legacy Mitchell and wife Rebecca take seriously. 

“Mitchell genuinely loves farming,” said Rebecca, 30, who was raised on a Madison County cattle farm. “I’m proud of his work ethic. Mitchell sees a project, envisions it and brings it to fruition.”

Since moving to Moulton, Mitchell’s projects have included tripling hay acreage; purchasing equipment to harvest hay; and adding a trailer to haul feed, silage and poultry litter.

Herd health is improving, too.

Hardin Farms historically bought higher-risk calves from sale barns. As stocker numbers grew, Mitchell began buying weaned, vaccinated cattle from local farms. That careful attention is reducing risk and improving his bottom line. So is lengthening the acclimation period for calves once they reach the farm. In seven years, morbidity rates decreased by half, while mortality rates dropped from 10% to 3%.

The Henrys are honest: Managing a nearly century-old farm is challenging. But those challenges — repurposing buildings, redesigning pens and organizing scrap metal — also represent their blessings.

“We’re established; we’re rooted; we’re here; and we’re not going away any time soon,” Mitchell said. “Land takes time to get it how you want it. Years of farming this land have allowed me to operate in a way that is a lot easier. We have infrastructure where everything flows easily.”

Mitchell has expanded the farm’s footprint to 400 acres. He’s annually retaining ownership of nearly 1,000 stocker cattle and has diversified into cow-calf production. That’s in addition to streamlining record-keeping and building a new shop.

Mitchell purchases local feedstuffs — cotton gin debris, beer mash and scrap corn — to lower his cost of gain. The products are mixed with high-protein corn silage to create the cattle’s primary feed source; they feast on haylage, too.

Mitchell and Rebecca Henry of Lawrence County are Outstanding Young Farm Family finalists. They have a son, Clint.

Mitchell’s resourceful nature is a trait inherited from his maternal grandparents, Clinton and Barbara Hardin. Clinton said it’s a dream come true for his grandson to carry on the family’s heritage of hard work.

“An operation like this, you’ve got a lot of things to learn,” Clinton said. “Mitchell’s been learning that. He’s at the point where he can do it without me, and that’s great. Barbara and I feel blessed that he and Rebecca are here.”

Since marrying in 2018, the Henrys have grown involvement in the Alabama Farmers Federation. Mitchell graduated from the premier A.L.F.A. Leaders program, was State Young Farmers Committee chair and is the local Federation secretary and treasurer. The Henrys have helped lead the county Young Farmers Committee, serve on the State Beef Committee and are involved in other ag organizations.

When she’s not working as a pharmacist in Courtland, Rebecca helps in the hay field or mans the computer when working cattle. Her support is essential, Mitchell said.

“I don’t know what I would do without Rebecca,” Mitchell said. “She really helps me be able to get up in the morning and do what I do every day.”

Rebecca also spearheads Hardin Farms merchandise and social media highlighting farm life. That perspective now includes Clint, born in March. The young farmhand hit the hay fields early, riding with Mitchell at 2 weeks old.

“If he’s anything like me, Clint will grow up to love every second outside,” Mitchell said. “I just love being out in God’s creation.”

The Peek Family – Limestone County

Brady Peek has an eye for innovation.

Since 2010, the Limestone County farmer has improved efficiency, diversification and his bottom line by trading equipment, fine-tuning planting, and investing in on-farm storage and out-of-state cropland.

“I like all parts of growing things, whether it’s a crop, a business, growing personally or trying to help the people that work for us grow,” said Brady, 30.

He and wife Anna, a teacher, annually farm 2,000 acres across Lauderdale and Limestone counties — one of Alabama’s fastest-growing areas. To preserve their ability to farm, the Peeks have gradually bought land, maintained healthy relationships with landlords and cleared timberland. They’ve also purchased land in Nebraska, which they rent to Corn Belt farmers.

“Being a farmer at heart, I’ve got a strong connection to land,” Brady said. “Land here sells for commercial prices. That led me to looking toward somewhere I could buy farmland with the hopes of keeping it farmland.”

Back around Elkmont, the Peeks have improved yields on corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat through nutrient management, cover crops, GPS technology and increased irrigation.

“By not focusing on the number of acres we grow, we can focus on small details we believe make all the difference,” Brady said. 

The Peeks custom farm, too, and haul grain and poultry litter. This diversifies their business, maximizes equipment and helps neighboring farmers. They’ve also added a petal patch and sweet corn field; produce is sold locally and promoted on social media. 

Brady has improved on-farm storage — for inputs and grain. Two new grain bins improved harvest and marketing efficiency, and two more bins are planned within five years.

Brady and Anna Peek of Limestone County are 2023 Oustanding Young Farm Family Finalists.

Though Brady hails from a generational farm family, cultivating Peek land wasn’t a sure bet. His father, Jeff, exited farming to focus on the family’s equipment business when Brady was 12.

Four years later, a desire to farm pushed Brady to plant 100 acres of soybeans with help from local farmers and his father.

“Brady’s a better farmer than I ever was,” Jeff said. “Sometimes when you grow up in farming, you have the passion, and sometimes you just think you do. Brady is actually passionate.”

Skills learned in his father’s shop help Brady run modern equipment with minimal expense. He sources machinery across the country, performs repairs and uses the equipment for a season. It’s then marketed worldwide.

Since marrying Brady in 2018, Anna has incorporated lessons learned on the farm into curriculum for fifth graders at Athens Intermediate School. Anna also runs farm errands, brings food to the field and rides in the tractor with Brady. 

She’ll soon share her buddy seat with son Ridgeway, who was born in July.

“I’m excited for our kids to grow up on a farm, see the hard work that goes into it and learn everything they can from us,” said Anna, 29.

Brady praised Anna, calling his helpmate “the voice of reason.”

“She brings fresh perspective and gives good advice,” he said. “She’s the glue that holds everything together.”

While growing Peek Family Farms, the Peeks have cultivated involvement in the Alabama Farmers Federation, where they serve on the State Wheat & Feed Grain Committee. Anna serves on the local Women’s Leadership Committee, while Brady graduated from the premier A.L.F.A. Leaders program, chairs the State Soybean Committee and has served as State Young Farmers Committee chair.

Brady is something of a farming evangelist — spreading good news about the life he loves.

“Every day is different,” Brady said. “And it’s kind of nice because one day something might break down, and we may have the worst day ever. But for me, it’s the hope that tomorrow will be the best day ever. And a lot of times it is.”

The Lovelady Family – Talladega County

Armed with a chainsaw, open-cab tractor and vision for his family’s future, Whit Lovelady commenced clearing pastures long reclaimed by trees in 2013.

A decade later, cattle dot Lovelady’s land — a testament to the Talladega County farmer’s perseverance.

“I don’t think I’d farm if it wasn’t challenging,” said Whit, 32. “That’s why God made a farmer. Only certain people could take the beating and challenge and weather, the things out of your control. I’m not saying I’m special. It’s just challenging and different from any other career.”

Whit and wife Amanda manage 1,200 acres of hay fields and pasture around Alpine. Last year, they baled over 6,000 rolls of hay destined to feed their herd; stock local farms and stores; and supply producers out West. Equipment investments have increased efficiency, reduced labor and opened the door for custom farming.

Whit and Amanda cultivated appreciation for the land on respective family farms before meeting at Auburn University. Whit’s grandfather taught him about cattle, while Amanda grew up on an Autauga County cattle and row crop farm.

The duo set goals before marrying in 2015: Grow Whit’s 10-head herd and raise their family on a farm.

Achieving those goals was a lesson in patience, Amanda said.

Whit worked off farm for six years, first at Blue Bell Creameries and then as an ag teacher. Amanda taught ag, too, as they invested salaries and summer vacations into the farm, steadily clearing land and increasing cattle numbers.

Their progress and passion paid off in November 2018.

“Whit came home and said, ‘You know that Charolais farm off Highway 76?’” said Amanda, 29. “He said, ‘We need to talk to them tonight. They want us to buy them out starting tomorrow.’”

Wallis and Martha Schuessler were renowned Charolais breeders. They were aging and down a farm manager, and the herd was in decline. The Loveladys were a godsend, Wallis said.

“The whole operation would have fallen apart if it hadn’t worked out this way,” Wallis said. “Whit does a wonderful job.”

The Loveladys poured buckets of sweat equity into the farm, often heading there after school and working until midnight. They gradually bought the herd and equipment while learning the intricacies of registered cattle. Renting their mentors’ land was an answered prayer in an area known for rocky ridges and longtime leases.

Whit and Amanda Lovelady of Talladega County are Outstanding Young Farm Family finalists. They have two children, Annagrace and John Luke.

Since 2020, both Loveladys have farmed full time. Whit directs daily production for their hay fields and herd, which includes 130 registered Charolais, 23 registered Angus and 120 commercial head. Amanda manages the books, helps in the hay field and checks cows, often with 3-year-old Annagrace and 1-year-old John Luke in tow.

“This farm won’t run without Amanda,” Whit said. “I’m proud of that.”

The Loveladys’ innovative spirit is spreading Cedar Roost Ranch’s name ID. Last year, they rented the farm to a music festival, where concessions included Cedar Roost Ranch hamburgers and sausage. They sell those products and more to local consumers, too.

While farm goals include expanding their herd and hosting a cattle sale, the Loveladys channel former careers when advocating through the Alabama Farmers Federation. Both have served as local Young Farmers chair and on the State Hay & Forage Committee. Amanda serves on the local Women’s Leadership Committee, while Whit is a county board member and leads local Cattlemen.

The Loveladys are quick to note their work, while important, isn’t for them.

“We’re generational builders,” Whit said. “We might not reap all the benefits, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re building and expanding to where this can be an operation where you have an office, a meat store, a hay headquarters. We want a company, not just a farm.”

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