2023 Farm City Banquet Awards Stories

The 2023 Farm City Banquet was held on Tuesday, November 14th, at Rivertown Community Church.  The annual celebration is organized by the Jackson County Agriculture Coalition, which is not a formal entity, but simply a cooperative effort of six organizations that support agriculture in Jackson County.  The six organizations include Jackson County Farm Bureau, Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District, Jackson County Cattlemen’s Association, Florida Peanut Producers Association, Farm Credit of Northwest Florida, and UF/IFAS Extension Jackson County.

The 2023  was attended by over 300 people from all across the community.  No banquet is complete without a great meal.  Dr. Terry Nichols and the Uncle Henry Farms crew, with assistance from Cattlemen’s Association members for preparing the smoked brisket, and Brenda Pettis and staff catered the remainder of the meal, made complete with her wonderful pecan cobbler.

An event of this magnitude would not be possible without the financial contribution of organizations in the Ag Coalition and business sponsors.  Platinum Sponsors for this years event were:  Jackson County Teacher’s Credit Union, and People’s South Bank.  Gold Sponsors were:  Ham Peanut Company, Malone Peanut Company, and Tidewater Ag & Construction Equipment.  Silver sponsors included:  AgriGold, American Forest Management, Bayer Crop Science, Clover Leaf Cotton Gin, Golden Peanut Company, Helena Agri Enterprises, Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, Southern Cotton Organization, Sowega Cotton Gin, SunSouth John Deere, and West Florida Electric Cooperative.

Chris Franklin, Principal of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, organized and presided over the youth organization presentations.  Chris said, “We are fortunate to have strong youth agricultural organizations in our communities, and they are represented to share with you their accomplishments from the previous year.  Representative from the 12 youth agricultural organizations shared their annual updates. These organizations included: Cottondale FFA (junior and senior chapters), Graceville FFA (junior and senior chapters), Grand Ridge FFA, Malone Middle FFA, Malone High FFA, Marianna Middle FFA, Marianna High FFA, Sneads FFA, Jackson County Junior Cattlemens Assocition, and Jackson County 4-H.

Doug Mayo, County Extension Director, UF/IFAS Extension Jackson County, provided Ag Award presentations to 11 farm families, and the Farm City scholarship winner.  The following are the full stories for each recipient:

Because this is the 50th annual Farm City Celebration, the planning committee wanted to do something special.  We wanted to highlight the original Outstanding Farm Family that was recognized by Jackson County Farm Bureau at their 1955 banquet.  In 1973, civic clubs joined together with Farm Bureau to hold an annual celebration during Farm City Week for the first time.  Farm City Week is celebrated nationally the week before Thanksgiving.

1955 Farm FamilyJames L Ditty Family

Joining us here tonight are Jimmy Ditty, his daughter Beth and her husband Charles Reiff, who are descendants of James Isaac Ditty, who was the very first Outstanding Farm Family recognized in 1955.  Please stand at your table to be recognized.

The Ditty family farmed in Jackson County for more than century. Jimmy shared the following excepts from a fascinating history on the Ditty Farm.

James Isaac Ditty was born in 1910 and started his farming career with mules on 165-acre farm that was a combination of cleared cropland and some woodlands and grew the farm to 440 acres over his lifetime.  He farmed in the Northeast quadrant of Jackson County in the Dudley Community, in what has become known locally as “The Ditty Desert,” because it is one of the sandier areas to farm in the county.  While the soil can dry out very rapidly, it is excellent soil for growing peanuts when there is adequate moisture.  In addition to peanuts, James raised corn to feed their mules, hogs, and milk cows.

James married his wife Ethel Gulford in 1941.  They had three children, Jimmy, John, and Jean.  James was good man who worked very hard to provide for his family.  To make ends meet, he was also a bus driver for the School Board.  Back then bus drivers owned and maintained their own busses.

Jimmy remembers fondly that, “Every night the family would gather around the fireplace after supper and listen while Daddy read the Bible to us.”  Jimmy also remembers fondly when James got his first tractor, which was an Oliver 60 series, 20 horsepower row-crop tractor.  James took a wooden shotgun shell crate and fixed up as a seat so Jimmy could ride along with him around the farm. While a 20-horse tractor seems really small these days, it was a huge improvement from mules.

Another favorite memory was in 1955 when the family was recognized by James Godwin, the head of Farm Bureau, as Jackson County’s Outstanding Farm Family at the annual Banquet. Later that year they rode over to Tallahassee in their brand new 1955 Belair Chevrolet car in the parade to the North Florida Fair.  Farm Family honorees from every North Florida County were in the parade that went right through downtown Tallahassee out to the Fairgrounds.  Later that night there was a special dinner held in their honor at the fairgrounds.  The North Florida Fair made being selected as a county’s Farm Family a huge honor back then.

Jimmy graduated from Malone High School in 1959.  After two years at Chipola Community College, he got his AA degree and transferred to what was then called Troy State University.  After a year of classes, the farming itch took hold of Jimmy.  He moved back to Jackson County and started a hog and broiler chicken operation.  He married Celta Schack in 1964 and started his own family.  Celta’s father was M.A. Schack who was well known and a dairyman and beef cattle rancher in his time.  They had their daughter Beth in 1967.

Tragically, Jimmy’s father James died suddenly from a heart attack, at age 54, in 1964. Jimmy took over the family farming operation in addition to his own operation.  In 1965, his brother John died, at age 18 from a brain tumor, so it was up to Jimmy alone to support his mother and his own family by keeping the family farm and his own operation going.

With the help of an FHA loan, he built a house and then started to grow the family operation.  Later, Hally Horn of the Production Credit Association (what became Farm Credit today) was able help Jimmy to borrow the funds to gradually the farm all the way up to 1001 acres.  Jimmy quit the broiler operation and started building a beef cow herd and growing quota peanuts.  Jimmy shared that a grass pasture peanut rotation was the best way to get top peanut yields.  In addition to expanding his acreage, Jimmy also invested in irrigation.  In the “Ditty Desert,” irrigation was a game changer for him.  Once he got more irrigation, he had to sell the cows.  Keeping all those diesel motor pumps going manually was a full-time job.  In 1999, Jimmy Ditty was recognized as the Outstanding Farm Family in Jackson County.

Like many farmers in the area, he grew other crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, and watermelons, and livestock such as hogs, broilers, and cattle, but the crop that kept the farm going for two generations was quota peanuts.  Over the years Jimmy was recognized five times as the top yielding peanut farmer in the county in the 100+ and 150+ acre categories.  His best yield came in 1980 when he had a field that averaged 5,080 lbs./acre, which was big at time when 4,000 pounds was a high irrigated yield, and a ton to the acre was the county average on dryland.

Once Jimmy reached the age he could draw social security, he retired from farming in 2001.  Over the years Jimmy and his dear friend James Williams helped each other farm.  It was only natural that once Jimmy retired, he leased the farm to James’ son Mike, who still farms the Ditty farm today.  Mike is like family to Jimmy.  All in all, farming in Jackson County has been a great life for the Ditty Family.  Jimmy said, “The Lord blessed us in many ways.

2023 Outstanding Farm Family – J&J Produce – Jerry Scurlock and Jason Hatcher Families

In 2023, Jackson County Farm Bureau selected two families to recognize as the Outstanding Farm Families, because they farm together in partnership under the name of J&J Produce.  Jerry Scurlock and Jason Hatcher are second cousins who grew up in the Cottondale area on family farms growing a range of crops and livestock on diversified farms. Scurlock farmers have been in the US since the 1700s, but they know for sure there have been at least four generations of Scurlocks who have farmed in Jackson County. Arvin Scurlock, or W.A. as he was commonly known, had one of the first stationary peanut picker machines in the area.  The type that required pitch forks to load from stack poles.

In 1999, Jerry and Jason started raising watermelons together while farming their primary row crop acres independently.  Their partnership was successful, so they increased their acreage and later diversified further, adding squash and greens.   In 2006, they came up with a new scheme to try growing fresh peas.  The original plan was just to grow enough to feed their families, friends, and neighbors. The only issue is that their test plot was five acres.  The Lord blessed their pea patch with an abundant crop, so they had way more peas than they knew what to do with.  Farmers are entrepreneurs by nature, so they decided to try to market some of their peas.  Originally, they had hoped to sell the peas in the hull but that is not what grocery stores, or their customers wanted.  A Produce Manager from a local grocery store suggested cleaning and shelling their peas on the farm before trying to sell them.  So, they set up shop on Jerry’s carport with a single sheller and cleaner and a cooler.  Now they believed they had a very desirable product, so they made another attempt to market their extra peas. They took some cleaned and shelled peas to a local Grocery Outlet store to test the market.  The peas sold out before Jerry and Jason could even get back to the farm.  They had a hit!

What started as an idea for two cousins to add some income to their farming operations became a specialized business.  In 2007, J&J Produce was formerly established.  They grew enough peas to supply the whole chain of Grocery Outlet stores in the region.  Next, they struck a deal with a Piggly Wiggly chain owner and the business plan got bigger.  Over time J&J Produce supplied cleaned & shelled peas for 60 locally owned grocery stores.  This was a great arrangement as Jerry and Jason got to know the owners and the managers personally with each delivery.  Not only that, but the locally owned stores paid for their produce on a weekly basis, unlike much larger corporate produce buyers.  They later added growing green Virginia “Jumbo” peanuts to give them another product for the stores they contracted with.  To build their supply they also started contracting with other farmers in the tri-state region to grow peas, and then later added butter beans for them as well.

Today J&J Produce farms 200 acres of peas and 130 acres of Virginia or “Jumbo” peanuts for the fresh boiling market.  Once this became the focus, the duo stopped farming other crops for rotation and leased their acreage out to other farmers to focus on their specialty of fresh peas and green goobers.  They still grow a few acres of watermelons and other produce to sell direct from the farm, but that is not their primary focus.

Jerry and Jason are full partners.  Jason handles crop spraying and marketing to stores.  Jerry handles wholesale sales to warehouses, and the coordination with the contracted farmers that helps them meet the huge demands for their products.  Jeremy McClenny is another farming cousin that has been employed to help meet the demand for pea and peanut production.  Over half of what J&J Produce markets now comes from contracted farms.  In the peak of the season, J&J Produce will clean, sort, shell, and pack 400 8-lb. bags of peas per day for a total of 2,000 bags per week.  They also pack and sell 500 bags of butter beans each week.  Their season for peas and butter beans runs from May 1 to November 1, and green peanuts from July 15 to November 15.  To keep the harvest constant, they plant in 8-10 acre blocks every two weeks to spread the supply through the season.

Growing produce has traditionally required extensive hand labor for harvesting, sorting, cleaning, shelling, and bagging.  Key people, like Rosie, that oversees the pea and peanut cleaning for many years are getting harder to find.  Their once loyal workers are being recruited to other types of work with higher wages.  The future for this operation is developing automation to minimize their dependance on migrant labor.  There are varieties of peas that can be harvested by machines.  There are also machines that can automate the sorting and cleaning in addition to removing the hulls.

There are two key people that Jerry and Jason owe much gratitude for their success.  Mike Golden with the Grocery Outlet chain helped J&J Produce tremendously.  He helped them become suppliers of the Associated Groceries Warehouse that supplies the entire Grocery Outlet store chain.  Golden also helped them expand into the green peanut business.  Ricky Treadwell, and now his son Adam, were instrumental in getting the contract with the six Piggly Wiggly Stores.  J&J Produce would not have been successful without the support of these locally owned grocery store chains.  Big corporate grocery store chains don’t have the same relationships with local farmers.

Jerry and Jason offer some sage advice for other farmers in the area.  Leslie Spurlock, Jerry’s dad, shared some advice that he has always remembered, “You do all you can do, and the Lord will take care of the rest”.  This can be a hard truth to swallow, but the reality is, you must focus on what you can control and let go of the rest.  Jerry and Jason firmly believe that farm life builds character, so it’s a great way to raise a family.  It takes hard work and dedication to follow through on what you start.  They advise others to take baby steps to start new ventures and build your systems before making too many promises.  In the produce business, you have to grow the crop, market your products, and then harvest, prepare, and deliver your product on time.  If you don’t keep your promises, by following through on commitments, you will lose your customers.  Jerry and Jason have built solid business relationships with store and warehouse managers because they go the extra mile and always make the deal right.  If you can develop solid relationships, and deliver on your promises, raising and selling fresh produce is a rewarding business.  J&J Produce is also very thankful for all their local repeat on-farm customers too.  They look forward to the opportunity to visit and catch up each season at the produce stand.

Let me introduce the J&J Produce families to you.  Jerry Scurlock (1st J) and his wife Mary Ann have been married for 44 years. Mary Ann works full-time on the farm as the finance and office manager.  They have two children that grew up on the farm.  Their son Adam Scurlock and his wife Amber have three children:  Jackson-10, Lyla-7, and Sawyer-3.  Adam is a Civil Engineer for DOT and Amber is a Certified Accountant but is currently working full-time raising their children.  Their daughter Megan married Stephen Trimble, and they have three children: Barrett-11, Ruby Kate-9, and Finn-7.  Megan is a 2nd grade teacher and Stephen a high school teacher and softball coach at schools in Cottondale.

Jason Hatcher (2nd J) has been married to his wife Dawn for 28 years. Dawn is a Special Education teacher who handles the promotion of the farm through social media.  She also helps on the farm after school and through the summer when harvest is in full swing.   They have two children Breanna-20, who helps through the summer while in college to become a physical therapy assistant (PTA), and Brock-18, is enrolled at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC), In Tifton, Georgia, pursuing a degree in agriculture.

The Outstanding Farm Family Award is sponsored by the Jackson County Farm Bureau.  Please join me in congratulating Jackson County’s 2023 Outstanding Farm Families:  Jerry & Mary Ann Scurlock and Jason and Dawn Hatcher and their families that all have worked hard together to make J&J Produce successful.

Peanut Farmer of the Year – Lynn McKeithan

Our 2023 Peanut Farmer of the Year is Lynn McKeithan. Lynn moved to Florida from North Carolina in 1966 with his parents, James and Dorothy McKeithan and his dad began farming in the Grand Ridge area. Lynn graduated from Marianna High School in 1970, Chipola College in 1972, and then attended Auburn University. In 1975 Lynn purchased a house and 40 acres in Cyprus, that same year he married his high school sweetheart Teresa Stone, and they will celebrate their 48th anniversary on November 29th.

Lynn farmed with his dad and brother from 1975 to 1999, and in 2000 he started farming on his own. He grows peanuts, corn, cotton, soybeans, and hay along with managing a herd of brood cows.  Lynn owns 320 acres of farmland and rents another 400 acres, all dryland or rainfed, with part-time help from his brother, David Lipford, and Alex Dudley.

Despite the rainy weather this week, this growing season’s heat and drought has made it one of our hardest crop years in a long time, especially for dryland peanut farmers. Ask any grower and they will tell you, this year they have felt the strain of lower-than-average yields and even lower grades. However, the farming community is resilient, you cannot succeed as a farmer without that trait. Farmers endure and look to a better future and growing conditions, without them, there would be no food. This year, Lynn grew 230 acres of peanuts, largely Georgia 06G, but also tried AU 17 on some of his acres.

Lynn and his family have long been active in our farming and local community. He is a member of Saint Lukes Episcopal Church and has served on the vestry, which is the leadership council for the church. Lynn was the outstanding young farmer in 1984, he and his brother Larry were the Jackson County Farm Family in 1987, and he was selected as the Cotton Farmer of the Year back in 2004. He has served on the board and as president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau and also on the board of the Florida Peanut Producers Association. Teresa helps Lynn with bookwork and moving equipment on the farm, she also works part time at Paramore’s Pharmacy in Marianna.

They have two children and four grandchildren. Their daughter Amanda Tyler married to John Tyler, son of Kay and Phillip Tyler has twin boys, Graham and Stone who will be 13 in December; their son Lee McKeithan married to Ashley Tanner, daughter of Andy and Nancy Tanner of Mobile, Alabama has two daughters, Mary Tanner (12) and Riley Marie (8). Amanda and Lee live in Spanish Fort, Alabama. Lynn is one of five children; he has three sisters in North Carolina and his brother Larry and his wife Debbie McKeithan live here in Marianna.

The Peanut Farmer of the Year Award is sponsored by Florida Peanut Producers Association,
Ham Peanut, Malone Peanut, and Golden Peanut Companies.  Honorees are selected annually by the Jackson County Extension Service with assistance from the Florida Peanut Producers Association.

Cotton Farmer of the Year – Bud Baggett

Our 2023 Cotton Farmer of the Year is Bud Baggett. Bud is a 3rd generation farmer here in Jackson County. He grew up helping on the family farm from a young age, and started branching out on his own when he was 19. Although he now manages his own farm, he is grateful for the opportunity to partner and continue farming with his father, Larry Baggett.

When asked about the farm, Bud said “I couldn’t do it without my wife Desiree, taking care of the kids and putting up with my late nights.” Bud and Desiree have been married thirteen years. They have three children, Grace (24), Sam (16), and Connor (12). Bud says that the key to a good farming operation is good help, and that he has 7 full-time employees and usually an additional 4 part-time during harvest.

Collaborating with his dad, Bud says Baggett Farms is about 6,800 acres. They raise cattle and grow several crops including cotton, peanut, corn, soybean, and small grains. The farm has a 3-year peanut/cotton rotation, planting grain in January and then combining that before planting the yearly crop. This year, about 3,700 acres were planted in cotton. Next year he expects his cotton acres to remain the same or increase slightly, but the market will be the deciding factor. Prices will determine his final acreage, as well as the crop use for his more marginal land. In 2023, Bud grew four Delta Pine cotton varieties with the bulk of his acreage planted in DP 9831. When asked about having a favorite variety, Bud responded “man, I wish I had some triple nickel.” He currently still has about 2,000 acres of cotton remaining to harvest for this season, a large farm has many challenges, including the longer extended harvest window. As most of you probably know, 2023 has been a hard year for both crops and farmers due to high temperatures, excessive heat warnings, and drought. Despite these challenges, Bud has been pleasantly surprised with several of his cotton fields, especially with his highest one so far this year, which yielded 1,230 lbs.

Here in Jackson County, Bud is a member of the Florida Peanut Producers Association and Farm Bureau. Joining Bud today is his wife Desiree and their children, as well as his parents Larry and Caroline, and her parents Bruce and Nola.

The Cotton Farmer of the Year is sponsored by the Southern Cotton Organization, Clover Leaf Gin, Sowega Cotton Gin, and Delta Pine Cotton.  The honoree is selected each year by the Jackson County Extension Staff with the assistance of local Cotton Gins and Farm Service Companies.


Corn Farmers of the Year – Dietrich Farms – 261 Bu./acre – DeKalb 6208

This year’s recipient for Corn Farmer of the Year is Dietrich Farms. Each year, the Jackson County Extension Service performs standardized corn yield checks across the county for all interested growers. Annually, the farm or grower with the highest yield check earns this award.

This year, Dietrich Farms grew 200 acres of cotton, 310 acres of peanuts, 225 acres of corn, and 140 acres of soybeans, while also managing 100 head of mama cows. They have a three-year rotation, so corn fits nicely in rotation with peanuts and cotton.

On average, the Dietrichs grow 225 acres of corn each year and are planning to maintain that for the upcoming 2024 cropping season. All their corn acreage is irrigated and planted in single rows on a 30-inch row spacing. This cropping season they planted four variety lines on their farm including some from AgriGold, Dekalb, DynaGro, and Pioneer. The corn yield from 6 tests across different varieties on Dietrich Farms in 2023 avearaged 244 bu./acre. Their official top yield for the year was 261 bu/acre, achieved with Dekalb 6208.

Dietrich Farms is truly a family business. Gordon & Christopher manage the day-to-day activities on the farm and Lady is responsible for bookkeeping, although she helps in the field during corn, peanut & cotton harvest. Today, the fourth generation also gets to help out and experience the farm firsthand. Christopher and his wife Holly live on the farm and have four boys, Jackson, Cale, JB, and Whit. Jackson and Cale help unload corn, run the dump cart and even the combine some. When Holly isn’t teaching middle school at Roulhac School in Chipley, she helps on the farm and enjoys working with the cattle. Gordon & Lady’s daughter, Hannah and her husband Mark live in Chipley with their three kids, Shelby, Cooper, and Cannon who can also usually be found around the farm too. Their youngest son Nicholas and his wife Chelsea live in Panama City with their son Banks and visit the farm as often as time allows.

The Corn Farmer of the Year Award is sponsored by AgriGold, and DeKalb.  This award is based on standardized yield checks provided by the Jackson County Extension Service.  If you would like your corn yield tested in 2024, please contact Ethan Carter, Regional Cop IPM Agent, to schedule an appointment.

Cattleman of the Year – Lee Bigham

Lee Bigham is a 4th generation Florida farmer.  During the Florida land boom of 2005, the Bigham family sold their family farm near Coleman, Florida, in Sumter County and bought the majority of the Croft Farm on Old U.S. Road in Jackson County.  After Lee graduated from high school in 2009 the family move here permanently.  Lee has worked full-time on the farm ever since they moved here.

Bigham Farms is primarily a commercial cow-calf operation.  They lease their irrigated crop land and produce cattle, hay, and grass seed on the rest of the farm.  His father Billy is President of Bigham Farms Incorporated, and Lee is the Vice President.  Lee handles the daily production on the farm with the cattle work, hay and forage production, pesticide spraying, as well as operation and maintenance of the equipment.  They have one full-time employee too.

Gradually Billy is shifting the management of the farm over to Lee.  Lee has really worked on improving the performance of their herd.  The last four years Lee has implemented a vaccination and long-range wormer program to boost the performance of their herd.  This year the Bighams sold the majority of their weaned calves averaging 700 lbs. right off the cow.  These high-quality calves are sold in semi-truck loads through Superior Livestock Auction, which provides nationwide video auctions.  Billy is really proud of their progress they have made and gives Lee much of the credit for the improvement.  Lee’s future plans include increasing their pasture acreage to gro their herd.  Hurricane Michael destroyed 160 acres of timber.  They have converted 60 acres to pasture so far, and will gradually continue the transition on the rest over the coming years.

In addition to the hard work on the family farm, Lee is developing as a leader in Florida Agriculture.  From 2014-2016, Lee was in the Florida Farm Bureau Leadership Program.  In 2018, Lee represented Jackson County in the Florida Cattlemens Association Leadership Academy.  For the past five, Lee has served as the State Director for the Florida Cattlemens Association as Jackson County’s representative.  In 2022, Lee was recognized as the Florida Farm Bureau Achievement in Ag State Winner.  He represented the state at the competition at the National Farm Bureau Convention held in Puerto Rico.

In addition to the state level leadership, Lee is also very active in the county Cattlemens Association, where he has served on the Board of Directors for the past eight years.  He served as the Secretary, Treasurer, and is currently the Vice President of the Jackson County Cattlemens Association.  He has served as the chair of the annual JCCA Golf Tournament that raised enough funds to offer 16 students $1,000 scholarships at Chipola College in their academic and vocational programs.  Lee also serves on Farm Credit of Northwest Florida’s Young, Beginning, and Small Farm Committee.

In addition to these numerous activities, Lee is also a dedicated husband and father.  He and his wife Rebecca have three children – Ava 11, Jolee 6, and just last week Wrenlee their newborn daughter.  As you can image Lee is a busy man all the time whether on the farm or at home.  But as the old saying goes, if you want something done, recruit a busy man, because he does not have time to procrastinate.

The Cattleman of the Year is sponsored by the Jackson County Cattlemen’s Association.  Nominees are selected by a committee of past recipients of this prestigious award.

Hay Farmer of the Year – Bill Conrad – Alfalfa Hay – RFQ Score 249

Bill Conrad is a 4th generation Jackson County farmer who farms north of Highway 2 in the Bascom Community.  Over the years, he has raised several traditional crops including peanuts, soybeans, corn, wheat, triticale, and pine trees.  For the past decade, however, he has shifted his focus to be a quality hay producer for horse, goat, beef, and dairy farms.  One thing that sets Bill apart from his competitors is that he sends in hay samples for quality testing from each cutting.  He is able to market his hay on more than just reputation but can show the unbiased lab test results to prove the excellent quality of his hay.

Bill, with the help of his son Joe and daughter Heidi, produce perennial peanut and alfalfa for square bale hay to sell to horse, cattle, and goat farms. Their alfalfa hay is in high demand, as he is the only source available in our area.  The challenge for Bill is finding a variety that is better adapted to Bascom fine sand soil and the blistering summer heat in the Panhandle.  This year Bill worked with the Drs. Estabon Rios and Jose Dubeux, from the University of Florida, to compare a potential new experimental cultivar of alfalfa to two commercially available varieties to see if it would provide a better alternative. The new cultivar, currently called UF_AlfPers_2015, performed well compared to the commercial varieties in 2023.  The main test will come in 2024 to see how these varieties survive.  That is the primary issue with growing alfalfa in our region.  Varieties do well the first year but succumb to disease pressure in the second summer of growth.

Bill Conrad submitted 15 hay samples into the Southeast Hay Contest this year, four of which were alfalfa, and the other 11 were perennial peanut.  This alfalfa hay was blend of three varieties that included the experimental line from the University of Florida.  The best sample came from his April 2023 cutting.  This hay had a Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) index of 249.  Think of RFQ as a single index number that represents overall hay quality by combining fiber digestibility, protein, and energy content.  Anything over 100 is considered quality hay.  This hay sample was preserved with 14.4% moisture or 85.6% dry matter (DM), 24.6% crude protein (CP), 18.9% crude fiber, and 71.1% total digestible nutrients (TDN).  The lab test results estimated that, if fed free choice, animals would consume more than 4% of their body weight in dry matter intake (DMI), which is double what is traditionally estimated for average quality hay.  In essence these numbers prove that this was PRIME QUALITY hay.  Bill’s hay won 3rd place out of 20 entries in the Alfalfa Division of the Southeast Hay Contest.  Bill also had a perennial peanut entry with an RFQ index of 228 that placed 3rd in the Other Legume Hay division.

While Bill’s prime quality alfalfa hay took 3rd in the regional contest, it was the highest quality hay produced Jackson County in 2023.  Conrad Farms has been recognized as the Hay Farmer of the Year for ten straight years. For an entire decade the Conrad family have produced the highest quality hay produced in Jackson County.

The Hay Farmer of the Year award is sponsored by SunSouth John Deere.  This award is based on the county grown hay with the highest Relative Forage Quality or RFQ score.  Entries into this annual contest are now accepted year-round, so contact the Jackson County Extension Office to have your best hay cuttings sampled and submitted into next year’s competition.

Specialty Crop Farmer of the Year – Spanish Trail Farms

Spanish Trail Farms is a family managed farm located in the Grand Ridge community of Jackson County. The Spanish Trail name was established in 2014, but comes from multiple generations in Jackson County. Spanish Trail Farms was originally founded in 1976 as Childs Farms by Eddie and Sharon Childs. Eddie had a vision of growing large acre produce and that vision was then passed down to his son, Allen Childs.

After Eddie’s death in 2001, at the young age of 24, Allen was determined top cary on his father’s dream. Allen kept the farm tradition alive of growing and transporting their produce to Birmingham, Alabama to be sold for many years after his father’s death. Then in 2013, Allen was able to obtain a contract to sell Childs Farms produce in Publix supermarkets. A year after the big break into Publix, Allen’s oldest son, Trent, graduated high school and the farm name then changed to Spanish Trail Farms. Trent had a greater ambition of selling the farm’s produce straight to the consumer and had a dream himself of finding a way to give back to their community. That is when the Spanish Trail Farms produce stand was started, so the family could sell fresh peas, corn, squash, and tomatoes, and other produce direct to consumers in the local to community. Today, Spanish Trail Farms has grown to specialize in squash, zucchini, peas, watermelons, cantaloupes, and tomatoes.

As the farm grew, Allen felt there was an important piece of their puzzle missing. The farm needed a good bookkeeper and a labor coordinator. That is when Baylee, Allen’s oldest daughter, decided to join the team on the farm full-time. Baylee graduated high school in 2017 and went on to work for the farm operation managing the office and assumed all the clerical roles to ensure the future success of the farm.

As the three worked together, the farm grew to 65 emplyees. They continued to grow their produce and were able to also establish a pumpkin patch for the community in 2020. Growing the farm into what it is today has been nothing short of a family effort to say the least. Keesha Childs, Allen’s wife, and Ella-Ann and Nate, his youngest two children, have also been heavily involved in the success of the farm through the years too.

With any operation, there will always be challenges and strife but none like the family thought they would face. In 2021, Allen Childs sadly and unexpectedly passed away. This left Trent and Baylee, along with the rest of the family to continue to run the multi-million dollar growing family farm. They were able to finish the 2021 growing season while also grieving the loss of the backbone of their family.  They not only survived but thrived in the 2022 season. In 2023, the family has expanded the farm into row cropping peanuts and have planted over 400 acres of squash and zucchini to end the year strong.

Since 1976, there have been 3 generations of Childs that have successfully built a 500-acre farm and have been able to do what they love day in and day out. If you asked Trent about his thoughts becoming the successful farm they are today, he would tell you, “Don’t let anyone tell you can’t.” The story of the Childs family is a story of success, family, and passion for what they do. They look forward to many more years of providing the nation and local community with Jackson County grown produce.

The Specialty Crop Farmer of the Year is Sponsored by Helena Agri Enterprises.  Nominees are selected annually by the Jackson County Extension Service Staff with assistance from the local farming industry.

Tree Farmers of the Year – Cherokee Ranch – Glass Family

The Cherokee Ranch North Florida Limited Partnership is a multi-generational ag diversified operation.  The nucleus of the property was purchased in 1916 and has been added to through the years. The majority of the land has been in woodlands.  There are currently three generations of the family working on the farm.

Pine timber production has been an integral part of the overall plan for the farm. During the 1950’s additional marginal crop land was planted and placed in the Federal Land Bank Program.

By 1980 the forests had reached maturity and were marketed and harvested. After the harvest the lands were site prepped and replanted using primarily improved slash and loblolly seedlings.  These were thinned at the appropriate times and managed for saw timber production.

In 2018, Cherokee Ranch was in the direct path of Hurricane Michael. As a result, there was a 95°/o loss of the mature forests.  The biggest challenge was to determine how to get rid of the estimated 120 tons per acre of debris left on the ground.  This was an unprecedented event and the clean-up had to occur before replanting could take place.

Mack is a true leader in Florida Agriculture.  When he saw the level of devastation, he and so many of his close friends and neighbors suffered, he knew something major had to be done.  Never before had disaster programs provided support for forestry operations after a hurricane.  Mack mobilized the ag organizations he was affiliated with including Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Cattlemens Association, and the Florida Department of Agriculture to understand the full scale of the economic loss to farms in the Panhandle.  He was one of a handful of farmers that testified before a Florida Senate Committee to seek disaster assistance from USDA.  An 800-million-dollar Block Grant was created to provide disaster relief to farmers and ranchers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia affected by hurricanes Michael and Florence. Of this total effort, over 375 million dollars were devoted to helping timber farms clean up and replant trees.  Without this support the timber region in this area would not have been able to recover from an estimated 1.3 billion dollars in total losses. Without producers like Mack Glass leading the charge, this assistance would not have been available.

Site prep on Cherokee Ranch began in 2019, and the family was able to plant their first trees in 2021. The clean-up continued, and in 2022 and 2023 more acreage was re­established.  The land is prepared for the 2024 planting with the hope of being completely reforested in 2025, seven years after total devastation.  The Glass family greatly appreciates this recognition, but is most grateful for all of the organizations that assisted timber operations after the storm, including our local Florida Forest Service team.

The Tree Farmer of the Year is sponsored by American Forest Management.  Nominees are selected each year by the Florida Forest Service’s County Forester, Barry Stafford.

Conservationist of the YearWalter Bell

Walter “Johnnie” Bell is a steward of a family farming legacy.  Johnnie Bell a true son of the soil, was born on the very property he now calls home. His journey has taken him from the bustling halls of General Motors to the serene landscapes of his ancestral farmlands, all in the pursuit of a lifelong dream.

Johnnie’s story unfolds as a testament to his unwavering dedication to the land, his family, and his community. After dedicating 25 years of his life to General Motors, he decided to retire at the age of 52, marking the beginning of a new chapter. Instead of settling for a quiet retirement, Johnnie chose to embark on a path less traveled – contract work for General Motors that extended for another six years.

It was in 2011 that Johnnie finally made the triumphant return to his roots, where he would breathe life back into the family farm. His tenure with General Motors had seen him and his wife, alongside their four daughters, traverse the southeastern parts of the country, living a nomadic life, but Johnnie always held the dream of returning to the countryside.

The road Johnnie resides on today is rich with family history. His great-granddad and granddad’s farms are nestled along the same path. He has also been actively involved in helping his aunt manage her property, continuing a tradition of stewardship and community support.

Johnnie’s father had also tried his hand at farming in the area, but the venture did not pan out, leading them to relocate further south to Miami. Despite the change in scenery, Johnnie’s connection to the family farm remained unbroken, as he continued to return each summer to lend a hand in the fields – an enduring tradition that would shape his destiny.

In his plan to return to Jackson County, Johnnie initially intended to work alongside his uncles, Henry and Charlie Bell, to learn the intricacies of farming. Tragically, Uncle Henry passed away the year before their return, leaving Johnnie to glean what he could from the remaining mentor, Uncle Charlie, who would also pass away three years later. Their knowledge would become Johnnie’s inheritance, carrying forward the family’s sugar cane syrup tradition.

Since 2015, Johnnie has been actively engaged with various organizations, including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District (JSWCD), to harness the resources and knowledge required to rejuvenate the long-dormant family farm. Conservation contracts for grass planting, cross-fencing, pipelines, water tanks, well installation, prescribed grazing, and plans for participation in the Conservation Stewardship (CSP) program have all played integral roles in this revitalization.

Reflecting on his early challenges, Johnnie highlighted the importance of understanding the FSA and establishing a business entity before embarking on the land-clearing process. His experience in 2011 taught him that having a farm number and business structure in place would have significantly eased the financial burden. It wasn’t until 2014 that Johnnie discovered FSA and USDA resources, thanks to a timely conversation with his uncle, although the latter had no time to delve into such matters.

Johnnie’s journey has been shaped by the support and mentorship of helpful neighbors and experienced farmers willing to guide the “new kid on the block.” Randall, from the NRCS office, has been phenomenal in providing the resources required for Johnnie’s pastures and livestock.

When asked, “Why do you farm?” Johnnie’s response was simple yet profound: “I have always loved the country and it is peaceful working the land.” His dedication to preserving his family’s farming legacy, being a good neighbor, and living as a Godly man embodies the spirit of community and heritage that has thrived for generations.

In recognition of his tireless efforts and commitment to the land, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to Walter “Johnnie” Bell. Thank you for all that you do to ensure the enduring legacy of your family’s farming tradition.

The Conservationist of the Year is sponsored by the Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District.  Nominees are selected each year by the staff of the Jackson District of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Ed Jowers Future of Agriculture Farm City ScholarshipAndy Franklin

John Andy Franklin is the son of Chris and Cindy Franklin of Graceville, Florida. He is a 2022 Graduate of Graceville High School, and a 2023 Graduate of the Digital Video Technology Program at Florida Panhandle Technical School.  Andy is currently enrolled at Chipola College where he is working on his Associate of Arts (AA) Degree with plans to transfer to the University of Florida to major in Agricultural Communications.

Andy comes from a strong agricultural background.  His grandfather farms, and both parents have served as agriculture teachers and FFA Advisors.  The chapters where they have served as advisors have been recognized for excellence on the State and National through FFA. While at Graceville High School, Andy was an officer all 4 years including serving as Chapter President his Senior Year. He was recognized as a State FFA Proficiency Finalist for Supervised Agricultural Experience in Fruit/Vegetable Production and was the State Champion for Agriscience Academic Test for Division 1 Senior Beta.

The Farm-City Scholarship is sponsored by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.  Nominees are selected by a committee that evaluates each application based on exemplary scholastic, extracurricular, and agriculturally centered achievements.

County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship (CARES) Presentation…………Jeb Smith, President, Florida Farm Bureau

CARES RecognitionMichael Thompson

On behalf of Florida Farm Bureau Federation, I am honored to recognize a local Jackson County farm family who has gone the extra mile in preserving, improving and caring for our state’s natural resources.

I am proud to recognize Michael Thompson of Thompson Brothers Angus Farms in Marianna, Florida with a This Farm CARES designation. The County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship (CARES) publicly recognizes farmers and ranchers who have voluntarily implemented Best Management Practices to promote environmentally-sound and economically viable farming practices on our state’s farms.  Public benefits of these conservation practices include open spaces, fresh air, wildlife habitat and water recharge for our aquifers.

Mr. Thompson now joins more than 900 land stewards across the state who proudly display a This Farm CARES sign at their farm gate. Thompson Brothers Angus Farms has been in business for more than 30 years and produces beef cattle, hay, peanuts and corn.  They have been implementing Best Management Practices since 2018 to reduce overall costs on the farm. They implement rotational grazing and cover crops to control erosion, improve soil health and protect water quality. Mr. Thompson says that “being an environmental steward simply means leaving the land in even better condition than when we found it.”

Florida Farm Bureau annually recognizes farms with the “This Farm CARES” recognition.  Recipients are selected with the help of the Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District, and the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Office of Ag Water Policy.

The AgVocator Program annually recognizes one business and one volunteer that has gone above and beyond expectations to support agricultural organizations in Jackson County.  One winner from each category was selected based on their contributions to agricultural orgaizations and the nominee’s qualities of leadership, selflessness and compassion through volunteer work or financial support.

Business AgVocators of the Year – Town & Country Feed, Seed, & Fertilizer – David and Katherine Slay    

This year’s Business AgVocator of the year award is unique in that the recipient is a former business owner. Why would you select a business that is no longer in operation you ask? The answer is simple. This business’s influence continues today.

David and Kathryn Slay have been pillars of the agricultural community since they purchased Town and Country Feed store in January of 1990 from A.J. and Ellie Green. They were in business in Marianna for over 31 years. They often commented that their success in business was because of their great customers. They had a fantastic relationship with the agricultural community in this county.

David and Kathryn considered it an honor to support the various agricultural events and activities across Jackson County. They were annual supporters of the Fed Cattle Show and the Panhandle Youth Expo (formerly the Jackson County Fair). They were a true friend to Ag teachers and 4H leaeders. When advisors would share with David and Kathryn about a project, they would find a way to give them the materials needed or deliver them at cost. They would provide plants for school gardens and raised beds. They were annual sponsors for FFA banquets across the county and would donate items for auctions for FFA fundraisers.

They were especially helpful to youth with agricultural projects. They would help students with feed and supplies for their Supervised Agricultural Experience programs as well as share knowledge and wisdom with the students. One FFA Advisor commented, “They always made our students feel welcome and important. They were patient in answering their questions and sharing advise, and they always provided some level of financial support too.

Even though David has passed, and the Slays are no longer in business, their impact on the agricultural community can still be felt by the generation of leaders they helped shape.

Volunteer AgVocator of the Year – Ed Jowers

Ed Jowers served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War and then had a 40-year career in Extension with the University of Florida. Ed is an emeritus Jackson County Extension Director, avid agriculturalist, and mentor for all.  He spent decades exemplifying what an AGvocate should be. He was selected as the 2008 FACAA Hall of Fame inductee for his dedicated service to the agricultural producers of Florida, University of Florida Extension, and the Florida Association of County Agricultural Agents (FACAA). He was known for his expertise in peanuts and was a significant leader in FACAA, including revising Bylaws, establishing the Young Professional Award, and being inducted into the FACAA Hall of Fame. He worked in various communities and served as a County Agent, demonstrating the value of nematode and disease-resistant soybean varieties and introducing conservation tillage.

In Jackson County, he transformed the Extension Office, improving facilities and creating a space for agricultural support agencies. Ed’s volunteerism has continued long after his retirement. He has served on the Farm Bureau board since his retirement in 2008 and maintained an instrumental role in the Junior Cattlemen’s Association.  He has been an active member of the Rotary Club, supporting agricultural pursuits and endeavors. He has remained active in helping young people attaining scholarships, jobs, and housing who were pursuing an education at the University of Florida. He has continued to be an advocate and champion for the advancement of our young people in agriculture in Jackson County. His legacy continues as an opinion leader and mentor for those in leadership roles.

The AgVocator awards are sponsored by Farm Credit of Northwest Florida.  Nominations of award recipients were received from Ag Coalition organizations. 


Posted: November 13, 2023

Category: Agribusiness, Agriculture, Crops, Farm Management, Horticulture, Livestock, UF/IFAS Extension

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