PIKE COUNTY COUPLE FINDS GOOD LIFE ON THE FARM
By Debra Davis
Quiet country living and a love of farming were instilled in Chris and Angie Thomas at a young age. Even though they grew up in the same small town of Goshen in rural Pike County, it wasn't until after high school that they began dating and eventually planned a life together.
Now, they are one of the top farm families in the county, and their hard work resulted in them being named the 2000 Outstanding Young Farm Family in the Poultry Division.
The Thomases' broiler operation consists of six poultry houses--four that were built in 1994 and two that were built three years later. The Thomases also have 175 brood cows, 245 acres of peanuts, 170 acres of cotton, 20 acres of corn and 100 acres of hay. Chris, 29, said this year's drought has made them especially appreciate the poultry business.
"The dry weather has really hurt our crops," he said. "It's been really dry everywhere. We have a rough stand of peanuts, and our cotton is fair. We had plans to plant more cotton this year, but the dry weather wouldn't let us get it in the ground. Our corn crop was a complete loss. So far this year, we've only cut about 15 acres out of nearly 100 acres of hay, and we probably got about half the normal yield on that."
But the steady income from the poultry houses has helped smooth out the economic bumps that many farmers have experienced, including the Thomases.
"We really love and appreciate the chicken business," Chris said. "It's kept us here on the farm."
And the poultry business compliments the rest of the farm operation where Chris is a partner with his father, Mike Thomas, who also is the manager of the Goshen Farmers Co-op.
"We use the chicken litter for fertilizer on our cotton, peanuts and hay, and we even feed a little of it to our calves," Chris said. "It works real well with our operation."
The two newer houses in the Thomases' operation are fully automatic. Chris said it's hard to believe how much has changed since his first houses were built.
"That's one bad thing about the poultry business--it changes so fast, and you have to keep re-investing to stay in it," he said. "My new houses are fully automatic and cost more, but it saves me a lot of time."
Chris and Angie are determined to be good conservationists, something that prompted them to change the way they disposed of dead birds from the poultry houses.
"When I built my first houses, we used pits and simply buried the dead birds," Chris said. "But as we became more aware of the environment, we changed to composting. That worked well for a while because it allowed us to recycle them back into fertilizer."
When the Thomases expanded the operation, the compost system wasn't large enough to handle the additional load of the new houses, so they changed disposal methods again.
"We have a contract with a company that brings freezers to our farm to store the dead chickens," Chris said. "When the freezers are full, the company picks them up. There is a cost involved, but we think it's the best way to handle them, and it relieves me of the responsibility."
The company, called Alabama Protein Recycling Co. of Troy, uses a sophisticated composting method that recycles the birds into a milled feed product.
The Thomases are contract growers for Wayne Farms. Just over 100,000 chicks are delivered to the farm when they are a day old and remain there for about eight weeks or until they reach a weight of about seven pounds.
Taking care of the farm, being active members of the Fleetwood Baptist Church and keeping up with their 22-month-old son, Trent, keeps Chris and Angie busy, but they both admit they are living the life they always dreamed of.
"I grew up on a farm and I always wanted to marry a farmer," said
Angie, 26. "My daddy had row crops and cows, and I grew up around farming. I've just always loved it, and I'm proud that Trent is getting to grow up in the same environment. The country is a lot quieter, and I think he'll learn more family values on the farm. He already enjoys the outdoors, being around the chickens and the cows. He really loves the tractor. In fact, that was the first word he ever said."
Angie, who earned her B.S. in education from Troy State University, now teaches kindergarten at Goshen Elementary School. She and Chris like to share their love of the farm with her students. So each year, they sponsor a farm tour that includes a hayride to the farm, a variety of farm animals and visits to the fields.
"You'd be surprised at the number of kids who grow up in the country and don't really know much about farm life," Chris said. "We love having the kids come to visit. They especially like the baby chickens."
Chris said the face of agriculture in Pike County is changing. Acres of row crops are being replaced by pine trees. He said it's disturbing to see the farmland go out of production.
"It disappoints me, but I know it's an economic decision," Chris said. "Row crops just have a hard time making it in our area. That's one reason that chicken houses are so popular here. I know we'll stay in the chicken business. I feel good about it. But I'm not sure about the row crops."
The Thomases only recently became active in the Farmers Federation, adding that they were shocked when they were chosen as the Poultry Division winners.
"We really love the Farmers Federation and the Young Farmers program," Chris said. "We're proud to be a part of it and proud that somebody's out there looking out for us and encouraging young farmers because it does get tough at times."