When Ben Bowden of Russell County took over the family farm in 1954, he looked around at the sandy loam soil and saw what it could be, not what it was.
Back then, it was a mediocre farm, at best, with a big debt and small yields, he recalled. Ten years later, he had paid off the debt, acquired more land and had surrounding farmers scratching their heads at how this greenhorn had turned the farm around.
“I remember looking at the farmers around me and seeing that they were just getting by,” said Bowden, 78. “I wanted to do better than just get by.”
Using technology, research and just plain hard work, Bowden’s farm eventually grew to include nearly 15,000 cultivated acres in Russell, Barbour and Macon counties.
Soil testing was the start of Bowden’s reputation as a successful farmer and conservationist.
“I remember the first time I read about soil testing was in the Weekly Reader in high school,” he said. “I did the tests on our farmland, and it showed we needed five tons of lime to the acre in some areas. That’s a big investment, but I thought it was worth the risk.
“I applied the lime, and yields went up on our crops. I also worked as hard as I’d ever worked. We didn’t go anywhere for a long time. All I did was work. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as everyone else did.”
But the hard work paid off, and Bowden’s success got him noticed. Various agriculture groups reached out to him, including the Alabama Farm Bureau.
“Someone talked me into joining the Farm Bureau and I liked it,” he said. “I feel like this organization has unlimited potential because it represents all the different segments of agriculture and has one voice. Not saying that we always agree on everything, but farmers do need to stick together to get things done.”
Bowden’s farm produced cotton, peanuts, soybeans, cattle and hogs and over the years was used as an example to introduce politicians to farming.
“Ben was a fixture in our organization when I started to work here in 1978, and he still is today,” said Jimmy Carlisle, director of the Federation’s Governmental and Agricultural Programs Department. “Several times over the years, we’ve taken congressmen, governors and other elected officials to Ben’s farm. His farm was used as an example of how to farm the right way.”
Bowden’s recognition continues. Later this month, the Auburn University Agricultural Alumni Association will honor Bowden by inducting him into the Agricultural Hall of Honor.
Bowden has a reputation for questioning almost everything. Sometimes because he doesn’t agree; sometimes because he doesn’t understand; and sometimes because he wants a debate before a decision is made. “But,” he said, “it’s always good to ask questions and make me and others think before they act.”
He and his wife of 59 years, Mary Ann, have been active members of the Alabama Farmers Federation for decades. She served in various county and state leadership roles for the Women’s Leadership Division, including a term as state committee chairman. He worked with three state presidents; James D. “Jimmy” Hays, Goodwin Myrick and current president Jerry Newby, and served 17 years on the Federation’s state board of directors. He also served several years on the Russell County Federation Board, including more than a decade as president.
Bowden served in leadership roles in numerous other agricultural organizations including the Soil and Water Conservation District.
Bowden has retired from the farm, which is now operated by his son-in-law Charlie Speake and his grandson Marshall. But he still looks forward to spring planting, harvest season, watching new calves hit the ground and all the things that make farm life special to him.
“Looking back on my life, I don’t know of anything I’d change,” Bowden said. “I’ve been more, seen more and gotten more than I ever deserved and dreamed. That’s a good feeling.”