MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Lots of things go good with chicken — mac and cheese, French fries, mashed potatoes, green beans — the usual southern sides. For poultry farmers, though, sides may look a little different.
Ask Covington County farmer Tommy Thompson why he raises cattle and row crops along with his breeder hens, and he’ll say, “Because it all works together.”
“Raising chickens is a plus to us,” said Thompson, an Andalusia native. “You only get paid once a year with the row crops, but with the chickens, we get paid every two weeks. It’s much easier to make a living for your family when you have a diversified farm operation.”
Diversified describes most chicken farmers. Along with tending his six breeder hen houses, Thompson grows 2,500 acres of row crops, raises 250 head of cattle and bales hay.
A first-generation farmer, Thompson said starting the operation back in ’74 when he was a junior in high school has been a rewarding experience.
“It got in my blood, and I enjoyed it,” he said. “To me, if you don’t look forward to waking up and going to work, you’ll have a long, hard life ahead of you. It’s also great to have my son, Russell, and family help with the farm.”
As is true on many farms, Thompson’s commodities have a symbiotic relationship. He uses the poultry litter to fertilize the row crops and rolls his own peanut hay post-harvest for the cows.
“Nothing we do here outweighs the other,” Thompson said. “It’s a 24-7 job. You don’t get much of a break, but everything we do here complements the other.”
The same is true for Walker County’s Dorman Grace, who, like Thompson, raises row crops, cows, has six broiler houses and adds timber in the mix with sons Jud and Cade in Jasper.
“Working together is a big aspect of what we do,” said Grace, who was Alabama Poultry and Egg Association president in 1996-97 and two-time Alabama Poultry Farm Family of the Year recipient in 1990 and 2009. “You learn the hierarchy of being a part of a family operation, something I learned when my dad ran the farm. Now, I’ve got my sons, and everything we produce works together just like we do.”
Cade Grace agrees.
“We feed our cows the corn we grow and use the poultry litter to fertilize that corn,” Cade said. “Having a diversified operation is more profitable than producing one commodity. You can utilize the land to its greatest ability while being good stewards.”
Dorman, a 1978 Auburn University poultry science alum, returned to his family’s farm after graduation and became heavily involved with the poultry production side. For him, having the independence of managing the farm comes full circle.
“I like being my own boss,” he said. “But we couldn’t do this without our lender and countless other state organizations who help make our farming operation possible. I’m proud of what we have and proud to have my sons here with me.”
Albertville farmer Mitchell Morgan found planting pumpkins provides a prosperous, opportunity each fall to diversify his farm. It’s a facet he added to his farm as a hobby in 2013.
Morgan, who primarily sells to local markets in Alabama and Georgia, said he knew farming was always on the table for him, but he also saw a need in his community.
“We started out to raise food for ourselves,” he said. “Folks in our community and all over were wanting locally grown products and wanted to support farmers in the area. Everything took off about five years ago.”
In addition to four broiler houses and 120 acres of pumpkins, Morgan sells a variety of vegetables. He also sells pork to restaurants and at farmers markets and has a small cow-calf operation, which his 8-year-old son, Abel, enjoys most.
Morgan said raising his family on the farm is a great teaching opportunity for his son.
“There are a lot of life lessons to learn growing up on a farm,” he said. “To be able to pass those on to him is priceless.”
Morgan credits God for having a hand in the farm and surviving the struggles that come with it.
“Farming isn’t easy,” he said. “There are a lot of ups and downs, but the Lord has been good to us. It’s a good feeling to know you planted the seed, prayed for the rain, asked the Lord to bless it, and He did. I think we all have certain things God calls us to do. I feel like mine is to farm.”