HAMILTONS REPRESENT ALABAMA AS STATE FARM OF DISTINCTION
Standing outside a concrete block house in Colbert County, Ala., Kathleen Hamilton felt like she was moving into a mansion. The year was 1958, and she and her husband, G.T., had just suffered through a crop disaster that had forced many north Alabama farmers out of business.
So, for Kathleen, the humble little home was a welcomed refuge.
Just two years earlier, she had married the young farmer from Lawrence County, and now she and G.T. were starting over--tired, broke and expecting their first child.
Looking back, G.T. said 1957 and 1958 were pivotal years in his farming career. A third-generation farmer, G.T. had worked the fields with his father throughout high school, and by 1954 they were farming 200-300 acres with two small tractors.
But in 1957, G.T. was farming about 2,000 acres near the Courtland community and hoping to harvest 2 1/2 bales of cotton per acre when torrential late-season rains ruined his crop. Fortunately, he had diversified earlier that year into cattle and hogs.
"I bought the pigs for about $2 each and the sows for about $30. When we lost the cotton crop, I had to sell them, but I got $10-$20 a piece for the pigs and $60 for the sows," said G.T., now 66.
The disaster also forced the Hamiltons to sell their 100 brood cows, but not before G.T. raised 99 calves, which he sold for $175 each. His investment in the cows had been $95, and the windfall from the livestock just about paid the bills when his cotton crop failed.
Ironically, the very disaster that wiped the Hamiltons out in 1957 helped them begin building one of Alabama's most successful row crop operations.
"We were able to rent a lot of land after 1957, because many farmers in the area had gone out of business," G.T. said. "We had good landlords and made good crops for the next couple of years. By 1959, we were farming 2,000 acres with five tractors."
In the years since, the Hamiltons have continued to expand their farming operation, even buying a cotton gin in 1961. Today, G.T and Kathleen farm about 5,000 acres of cotton and 1,000 acres of corn with their son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Rhonella Hamilton, and their daughter and son-in-law, Lisha and Roger Felkins. They also own and operate Hillsboro Gin.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Farm-City Committee honored the Hamiltons by naming their operation the 2000 Farm of Distinction. As this year's winners, G.T. and Kathleen received a $1,500 cash award and a chance to compete with outstanding farmers from seven other Southeastern states for the title of 2000 Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. The winner, who will receive an additional $12,500, will be announced Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in Moultrie, Ga.
Mark, 42, who now oversees the day-to-day operation of the farm, attributes the family's success to his parents' good stewardship.
"None of this would be possible without their determination and hard work," Mark said. "Every penny they ever made they put back into this operation. They did that so we'd have better lives than they had."
The Hamiltons' wise management, however, extends beyond financial matters, Mark said. The couple also instilled in their children a love of the land and the desire to conserve its resources.
"We believe that if you don't protect the soil, you won't have anything to farm," Mark said. "Many of the things we've done on the farm are not required, but we do them to protect the soil and water. Several years ago, when the federal law mandated that farmers implement conservation plans, we didn't have to change much because we had always used terraces to prevent erosion.
"You can't just let your soil wash away; you've got to protect your investment," Mark added. "To be able to make good crops and run equipment efficiently, you've got to protect the soil."
The Hamiltons have adopted that same environment-friendly philosophy when it comes to protecting the water.
Mark has designed and built containment basins around his fuel tanks at the farm and gin to protect the groundwater in the event of a spill. He also is working on a way to recycle the water used for washing the farm's equipment, and pesticide tanks are rinsed in the field where the rinse water is then sprayed on the crops.
The Hamiltons also are increasing their use of conservation tillage, but Mark admits labor has as much to do with that decision as the environment.
Last year, the Hamiltons planted a cover crop on 2,200 acres of their cotton land. Mark predicts they will eventually use conservation tillage on the entire farm because it lets them use bigger equipment and fewer employees.
G.T. explained the labor challenges facing today's farmers.
"In 1955, we could hire all the help we wanted for $1.50 or $2.00 a day. Now, we can hardly find anybody who wants to work on the farm. We just can't compete with the factories in town," he said.
The Hamiltons, however, have been fortunate to find good managers to help them in their operation. That's important, considering the farm has 14 full-time employees plus five more during harvest season, and the gin and warehouse have a workforce of nine that jumps to about 30 during the fall.
Employees who are critical to the smooth operation of the farm and gin include the farm manager, Butch Spears; the ginner, Richard Kirby; the warehouse manager, Mike Gould; and the office manager, Robert Wigington. And, of course, each member of the Hamilton family has a job on the farm.
Besides Mark, who has a degree in ag economics from Auburn University, Rhonella, 40, puts her marketing degree from the University of North Alabama (UNA) to work by helping with the pesticide records. She also manages the trucking companies Mark and Roger recently started, and she makes several trips to Decatur each day to run errands and to participate in school activities with daughter Kristen, 15.
Meanwhile, Lisha, 40, who earned her degree in business administration from Athens State University, helps with record keeping at the gin and takes care of her and Roger's daughter, Haley, 3. Roger, 41, who also is a UNA graduate, oversees the operation of the gin and warehouse.
But when it comes to making major decisions, Mark and Roger say they always consult the president of Hamilton Farms, G.T., and the chief financial officer, Kathleen.
Some of their biggest decisions lately have involved the family's Hillsboro Gin. Roger said the gin is one of the most technologically advanced in the state. It also is one of the last family-owned gins in Alabama.
According to Roger, the Continental Three-Stand Double Eagle system can gin up to 30 bales an hour. It also is capable of handling stripper (or ultra-narrow-row cotton) because it was purchased from a ginner in west Texas.
In addition to their own crop, the Hamiltons gin cotton for 22 other farms in north Alabama. But Roger is not resting on his laurels, he is constantly thinking of ways to improve the ginning process.
He has patented a "mini-centrifugal" cleaner to remove large debris from cotton before the trash is ground into the fiber. The device is so ingenious that Continental has approved it for use with their gins. So far, 18 of the cleaners have been installed at gins across the country.
The Hamiltons also are finding ways to make the ginning process more efficient. For example, they can now operate the gin from computerized touch screens, and they are salvaging the dirty fiber from their gin trash and selling it overseas as "mote" cotton. The remaining waste is composted and sold to landscapers for use in flowerbeds.
Another marketing idea being tried by the Hamiltons involves both the farm and gin. Earlier this year, Mark planted 1,800 acres of Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL) cotton, which he will harvest for seed.
Although D&PL requires the seed cotton to be ginned and stored separately, Mark hopes the added value will help offset the low prices he's getting for the rest of his crop.
Innovative ideas, however, are nothing new to the Hamiltons. In fact, Roger said G.T. and Kathleen were making wise investments and experimenting with new farming methods long before he and Mark got involved in the management of the farm.
"G.T. and Kathleen have done a remarkable job of managing their resources so that the rest of us could come in and take a seat behind the driver," Roger said. "What they started won't easily be put away."
Indeed, the growth of Hamilton Farms over the past four decades is nothing less than amazing. When G.T. and Kathleen started, they had two small tractors. Now, their shop houses 14 (160- to 200-horsepower) tractors, five (six-row) cotton pickers, one (12-row combine) and two Terra Gators. And across the road from that shop, the farm partners have built three beautiful brick homes in the past five years. The kids say the house is the only luxury G.T. and Kathleen have ever had.
Ironically, Kathleen said she was just as proud of that little concrete house in Colbert County.