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September 23, 2010   Email to Friend 

OYFF/POULTRY: Ex-Ag Teacher Took Young Turner Under His Wing
By Darryal Ray

Josh and Jessica Turner enjoy raising their children -- Griffin, Harlee and Jake -- in the country.
Josh Turner says he "started from scratch," as a 17-year-old "first-generation poultry farmer" who would slip away from school during lunch to check on his two houses of chickens.

"My mama was a secretary at the school. So if my principal ever caught me, I would just call and tell Mama to check me out real quick," he says with a laugh. "But the principal understood. He knew what I was doing -- I wasn't just off playing hooky."

Those two broiler houses, leased from his grandfather and his greatuncle, were only the start for Turner, who today has six houses and is the Poultry Division winner in the Alabama Farmers Federation's Outstanding Young Farm Family contest, along with wife Jessica, daughter Harlee (6) and sons Griffin (4) and Jake (2).

"My daddy worked hard and gave me all he could when I was a kid, but I always wanted to farm," Josh said. "While a lot of kids wanted toys and four-wheelers, I wanted land and cows."

Today, he has 30 head of brood cows and helps his father-in-law with another 200 head in addition to cutting about 1,300 round bales of hay a year. "From the end of April until the first of June, we're wide open in the hay field, getting out fertilizer and spraying weeds. I haven't seen the end of spring, but the good Lord has blessed me on what I've been able to do here," he said.

Farming, however, wasn't exactly what his grandfather and great uncle had in mind when they made Josh the offer to lease their two poultry houses. "When I was a senior in high school, they came to me and wanted to know if I'd be interested in leasing the houses to help pay my way through college," Josh recalled. "I'd been in those houses all my life, working around them. So I said, 'Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good deal.'

"My daddy raised me that as soon as I was able to have chores, I worked," Josh added. "I fussed about it when I was a kid, but I can see in life that it meant a lot now ... Daddy always raised me to be hard-working -- anything worth doing is worth doing right."

Within two years, however, his work ethic drew the attention of Jerry Holcomb, a retired Section High School agriscience teacher who wanted to hire the young man as fulltime manager of his eight poultry houses.

"I wouldn't take any less money than I was making. For 18 years old, I was doing pretty good with two houses, and my uncle and granddad weren't charging hardly anything on the lease," said Josh. "So, I figured up what I'd have to have, and he paid me $20 over, and he did it just as a salary."

Perhaps, more important, were the lessons Turner learned from Holcomb, who has since passed away. "Every day was a day in ag class with him," Josh recalled with a smile. "If you could remember your old ag teacher back in school ... picky -- 'Don't hammer with that! That's not what it's made for!' -- that's what it was like. It would drive me nuts sometimes, but I really enjoyed working with him because he gave me the mentality that if somebody else can fix it, I can fix it myself. I owe a lot to him."

Holcomb's poultry houses were a classroom in another way, too. It was there that Holcomb's wife, Joan, taught young Turner how to operate the houses' computerized controls and monitor everything from heating to ventilation and water usage -- a far cry from the older houses he had leased.

After three years, though, Josh figured it was time to build poultry houses of his own -- and Holcomb was there to help. With a bit of help from Holcomb's father-in-law who was on the board at the bank, he was able to build four 42-by-500-foot houses in 2003. Four years later, they added two 43-foot by 510-foot houses.

"When I built my houses, I put in the same controllers that Jerry and Joan had because we were always on top, always had good chickens," said Josh. "I was able to just walk right in -- it was just like stepping from one house into another. I didn't have to learn all new controllers."

Still, he says, the older houses were also a training ground.

"In those old conventional houses, you had to do a lot of judging on looks," he said. "I had one thermometer hanging in the middle of the house that told me the temperature, but I could look at those chickens and tell you if they were too hot, if they were cold, if they were comfortable. I catch myself doing that now. Even if I walked in and didn't look at my controllers, I could tell you if they were too hot or if they were getting too much air. In those old houses, you learned to diagnose chickens by looks instead of going by the controller. It really helped me."

Another help is Jessica. While her parents raised chickens when she was too young to help, she didn't flinch at spending many dates with Josh working in the Holcombs' houses.

"She's one of a kind," said Josh with a big smile, adding that she is his "farm manager."

"I've pretty much done it all," said Jessica. "I put out feed lids, rake hay, put out feed, pick up chickens when he needs to go deer hunting. Plus, I'm the Roundup girl - I love spraying Roundup around the place."

"She can put out 50 gallons of Roundup in an hour," Josh said jokingly. "I'm telling you: If you want something dead, she can kill it!"

"Even the flowers," she added. "I'm not much of a green thumb."

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