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December 12, 2006   Email to Friend 

Farming In The Wildest Way
Debra Davis

Pam and Trey Montgomery, owners of Leavellwood, have transformed their traditional farm into a sportsman's paradise.
Clad in camouflage and leaning against a tree, Trey Montgomery, a fifth-generation farmer in Greene County, looks across a field where his father and grandfather once worked 12-hour days to earn a living farming cotton, corn, soybeans and cattle. Trey and his wife, Pam, are among a new breed of farmers who manage wildlife and natural resources on their family farm.

The Montgomerys live in West Greene, about 45 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, where they've turned their once traditional farm into a sportsman paradise named Leavellwood. It not only provides a good living for their family, but also allows others to share their love of nature and wildlife.

Much of the land on the Montgomerys' farm was cleared for row crops in the mid-1900s - land that Trey says never should have been put into production agriculture. In 1985, he began planting much of the poor cropland in pine trees through USDA's Conservation Reserve Program. Those trees helped secure eroding soil and provide habitat for wildlife.

Now, the 1,250 acres the Montgomerys own, plus another 3,000 acres they lease, is home to some of the best hunting and fishing in the United States. Six years ago, the Montgomerys introduced wildlife management on their farm as a way to diversify and earn money that allowed them to stay on their land.

In addition to turkey, deer and dove hunting, they also have five lakes with more than 100 acres of water stocked with largemouth bass, bream, catfish and hybrid striped bass. The Montgomerys have three children: Heath, 27, Trey, 30, and Mary Caitlyn, 14.

"We have guests who still can't believe we have something like this in west Alabama," Trey said. "A lot of people think of the Black Belt as a poor, depressed area.What we've done is take the natural resources of our land, and put them to their best and most profitable use. Managing wildlife is like managing any other asset you have.

"I was fortunate enough to go out to Colorado to hunt elk in 1984 and see what a big business it was there. That's when the bug bit me. I knew we had the land base to run a hunting lodge and the natural resources were here to make it work."

The transition from traditional farming wasn't without challenges, and it was expensive, the Montgomerys said. It wasn't long ago that both worked other jobs off the farm. They owned two car wash facilities and a convenience store, and Pam was an auditor for an insurance company. Until this year, they also had a successful beef cattle operation, which was primarily Pam's responsibility. But increased demands from the hunting lodge, combined with good cattle prices, helped them decide to disperse their cattle herd and focus more on their new whitetail deer breeding operation.

"The biggest challenge of changing our farm into a hunting business came when we arrived at the point where we thought we could give up our outside jobs and live strictly off the land," Pam said. "That was a really big step for us."

Trey said he found out quickly that building a first-class lodge and having abundant wildlife wasn't enough to make them successful. He had to learn how to market his farm.

"I knew how to plant food plots and manage wildlife, but that wasn't getting the folks here," Trey said. "Our big break came after one of our customers came turkey hunting. He got me on ESPN, then a show called "Mossy Oak Hunting the Country" came here and filmed a program. That's when the phone started ringing and our book started filling up."

While they've had customers from as far as California, most of the Montgomerys' customers live in Alabama. Many are customers or employees of corporations that offer the hunting or fishing trips as rewards or incentives.

The Montgomerys' website, www.Leavellwood.com, proclaims that they offer "more than just a hunting and fishing experience."

"I've learned a lot since we started this business," Trey said. "I used to think it was about killing a trophy buck or catching a lunker bass. It's really about the overall experience of being here. We can't control the weather. We can't make the fish bite or the deer come into the open for a perfect shot. But, the things we can control, we work awfully hard on to make sure they're done right. There's no excuse for not having plenty of good food and a good place to stay."

Pam, who Trey describes as "the detail person," is known for delicious meals served with plenty of warm, Southern hospitality. The lodge, with its rustic look, is decorated with massive deer antlers on the walls as well as large bass and other wildlife. On the patio outside the lodge, sportsmen enjoy time around an outdoor fireplace as they watch deer and other wildlife wander about.

"People find peace here," Pam said. "There are no sirens, traffic jams or people rushing about. Most of the time you don't even have cell phone reception. We offer them a real chance to get away from a busy life. I think it helps them become grounded again."

Trey said while the farm isn't what his forefathers envisioned, he thinks they would be pleased.

"I wish my grandfather was alive to see what has transpired here," he said. "I think he would be happy to know that this land has been seen by millions of people on TV, and that we are able to still make a living off our land."

And while Leavellwood has gained a reputation for having some of the best deer and turkey hunting anywhere, the Montgomerys are striving to make things even better. They recently began raising whitetail deer in breeding pens on their farm to help improve the genetics of their wild game.

The Montgomerys say they are thankful for their association with the Alabama Farmers Federation where Trey serves as vice chairman of the State Wildlife Committee.

Trey cited a recently thwarted attempt by the Alabama Department of Revenue to charge amusement tax and lodging tax on hunting establishments as one of many ways the Federation helps farmers and landowners.

"The Alabama Farmers Federation led the charge to stop this tax increase that could have placed a hardship on businesses like ours and others that are just getting started," Trey said.

Alfa and Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry A. Newby said wildlife and hunting are among the few economic bright spots for rural Alabama, and it was important for the organization to take a stand against the increase.

"Hunting provides jobs and revenue for some of our state's poorest rural areas," Newby said. "Income generated from hunting allows farmers and other landowners to supplement their farm income, and it allows them to stay on the farm. We appreciate Attorney General Troy King and the work he did to address this issue."

King issued an opinion that stopped plans by officials with the Alabama Department of Revenue to increase taxes.

"Of all the groups out there that promote wildlife and conservation, the Alabama Farmers Federation has done more than any to protect the farmers and landowners," Trey said. "This most recent tax issue is a good example of the kind of benefits you get with your membership."

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