They till the fields, harvest from the earth and provide us with food. They’re in the business of growing. They are Baldwin County farmers, working thousands of acres and producing tons of crops. Here are their stories, a sampling of the trials and triumphs down on the farm.
“This was a lot easier when I was a lot younger, ” laughs Joel Sirmon, discussing the farmer’s life. He and his brother, James, manage Sirmon Farms in Daphne, 4, 000 acres of abundant crops — especially sweet potatoes. Like most Baldwin County farms, Sirmon’s has been handed down through the generations. Family ties, it seems, are almost a prerequisite.
“It’s difficult for someone to start a farm from scratch today, ” Sirmon notes. “Costs are prohibitive.”
Actually, the costs are jaw-dropping. A tractor is upward of $300, 000, a cotton picker goes for about $800, 000 and seed can cost $700 a bag. Unfortunately, you need lots of bags.
“It is a difficult job, ” says Cody Rhodes, Sirmon’s assistant farm manager. “You can’t run this business from an office.” It is the ultimate in fieldwork, but in a good way. “There’s just something about putting seeds in the ground, working the soil and seeing crops sprout, ” Rhodes adds. “You know immediately if you did it right.”
Planting Money — And Hoping it Sprouts
Just down the road from the Sirmons’ place stands Daphne’s Penry Farms. Decades earlier, it was made up of only 80 acres. Today, that number has grown to about 2, 000. Cotton, peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops call it home.
Daniel Penry followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He grew up working the fields and learning the business hands-on. Today, Penry is co-owner with his father, Steve.
“I love farming, ” says the younger Penry, an Auburn University graduate in agricultural economics, who has national and state recognition for leadership in the farming community. “But I don’t want to say I do this solely out of love. You can make a decent living at farming. If not, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
The key to “decent living” is watching every dime. As Penry notes, “Prices for what we sell our crops for have not changed much in 15 years, but production costs have increased at least two-and-a-half times or more. We squeeze every dollar.”
To Infinity and Beyond — Via Tractor
Technology is part of the squeeze — expensive, necessary and downright amazing. Most don’t notice while driving through Baldwin County, but those roadside amber waves of grain are being watched by spacecraft.
That’s not all. Soil spraying? Calculated by computers. Crop irrigation? There’s an app for that. Tractors? Oh, they’re just piloted from outer space.
“I wish Dad was alive to see a tractor drive itself, ” says Doug Lipscomb, owner of Foley’s James E. Lipscomb & Sons Farm. “Today’s tractors are auto-steered by GPS satellite. Every row is as straight as a .22 shot from one end of the field to the other. Press a ‘tractor’ button and satellites drive it, plowing perfect, straight rows.”
Baldwin County farmers rave about satellite-directed tractors, but are quick to note that there’s a human onboard, too. Tractors are not totally unmanned — yet.
Lipscomb’s farm is about 3, 000 acres. Crops include peanuts, soybeans, field corn and sweet corn. He is also an owner of Riverview Turf, which produces lawn grass turf for residential and business properties, including four Super Bowl fields.
“I farm because I love being outdoors and caring for what the good Lord gave us, ” Lipscomb says. One of the biggest problems Baldwin County farmers face? Lipscomb and others agree — traffic.
Combines Meet Spring Breakers
“Many of Baldwin County’s thoroughfares were built in the 1940s and ’50s, designed as farm-to-market roads, ” Lipscomb says. “But traffic has increased, and our machinery, tractors and trucks are much bigger and wider. Our roads are not.”
It doesn’t help that planting season often coincides with spring break, when thousands of vacationers convene in Gulf Shores. There are many things on a beach-bound, college-aged spring breaker’s mind. Soybean production is not one of them.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I was a college student trying to get to the beach, ” recalls John Bitto, the 36-year-old owner of Elberta’s Bitto Farms. He acknowledges that, on occasion, the Baldwin County farmers’ equipment slows traffic which, at times, causes certain agitated motorists to salute with gestures not requiring all fingers. “Please remember, we don’t like being in the way any more than you do, ” Bitto says. “However, we have to. This is our livelihood and your food.”
Despite being reared on an Elberta farm, handed down from German ancestors who settled there originally, Bitto did not always want to be a farmer. “In fact, at first I hated it, ” he recalls. “But I worked high school summer jobs as a crop consultant. I learned to love the process, from growing to market.” He still does.
“The job is fun, challenging and rewarding, ” Bitto says, but he cautions that it’s a gamble. “Farmers don’t have to lay a million dollars on a casino table and roll the dice. We do, basically, the same thing, every year, gambling on the weather.”
For Land’s Sake
Weather is a factor, but hell and high water are not the biggest challenges for Baldwin County farmers. Land is — or rather, the lack thereof. Ironically, Alabama’s largest county in physical size is developing residentially and commercially, while shrinking agriculturally.
Corte Farms in Daphne is one of the oldest and most respected names in Alabama agriculture. But Jay Corte worries about how much longer Baldwin County’s agricultural industry and rich farming heritage will last.
“Landowners make much more money selling their property to commercial developers or residential subdivision builders than they can make from leasing it to farmers, ” Corte notes. Baldwin County is booming and is one of the fastest growing areas of Alabama, “But unless something changes, I don’t see farming — as it is done today — being here in the next 50 years, ” Corte says. “Land is just too valuable to farm.”
Corte has seen many changes in farming over the years. A half-century ago, Baldwin County was synonymous with Irish potatoes. Not anymore. Peanuts, cotton and sod grass have largely replaced the spuds of Ireland.
Though he worries about the future of the land his ancestors settled over 100 years ago, Corte has few regrets. “Farming gets in your blood, ” he says. “You’re born with it and enjoy it. You have to or you won’t put in the 60 to 80 hours a week required to do it.”
Twelve Months a Year
In 2000, Preston Ryals’ agricultural endeavors included 50 acres of crops. Today, with business partner James Lovell, Loxley’s Lovell and Ryals Farms includes about 1, 700 acres of peanuts, corn, soybeans and more. He relates to the long hours of farming and, contrary to the perception, there is no off-season. Although farm crops aren’t as active in the winter, a farmer’s work never stops.
“We plant corn in March and finish up cotton around Christmas, ” Ryals says. “About January, we start getting ready for the new season — maintenance work on equipment, preparing the soil and getting fertilizer in the ground.” The circle of life continues.
“You learn quickly to be good managers, ” he continues. “This is a low-margin business. It takes years to develop the land, huge financial investments to make it work and years to learn not just farming but the business of farming.”
This hard work yields the true fruits of their labor. “I think farmers feel good knowing that, in this business we love, we contribute to society, ” says Ryals. “It’s a good feeling knowing we help make a difference.”
A Legacy with the Good Earth
Celeste Lazzari, a third-generation, 400-plus-acre farmer based in Daphne, agrees with Ryals. “Planting a seed, watching it grow and tending it — that’s what it’s all about, ”
In Lazzari’s case, genetics contributed to the family business in more ways than one. “My grandfather farmed before me and now my sons, Trent and Tyler, are doing it.” Like others, Lazzari marvels at the changes in technology in farming over the past few decades. “Seed genetics have greatly increased harvests, ” he says. “Seeds are yielding much more than what we saw 40 years ago.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Lazzari and others in Baldwin County. Most don’t see themselves as competitors but rather as fellow stewards of the soil — providing food for the people, in a clean environment for terra firma.
“No one cares more about the environment than farmers, ” says Rhodes. “Clean air, water and earth are not just good environmental practices; our livelihood depends on it.”
Lazzari perhaps sums up Baldwin County’s farmers by offering a composite view of the vocation: “At the end of the day, the reward is your peace of mind. You plant your crop, tend it, harvest it, sell it and feed people. It’s what we do every day, and it’s a good feeling.”