John DeLoach

John DeLoach of Vincent, Ala., is successfully raising row crops on a farm that has been in his family since 1820. He grows corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and hay on his 1,325-acre farm. He owns 710 acres and rents 615 acres.

DeLoach’s yields have been good. His per acre yields last year were 1,150 pounds of lint per acre from 375 acres of cotton and 65 bushels of soybeans per acre from 250 acres. He notes that 200 of his soybean acres were doublecropped after wheat which yielded 60 bushels per acre. He hopes to boost wheat yields to by using plant growth regulators and fungicides.

His corn produced 180 bushels per acre from 240 acres. He also produced 2.5 tons of hay per acre from 150 acres. He also maintains 50 acres of improved pastures, 20 acres of wetlands and 340 acres of managed timberland.

As a result of his farming success, DeLoach has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Farming is all DeLoach has ever done. As a child, he remembers driving a Massey Ferguson tractor. “I had to stand on the clutch to stop it,” he recalls. As a young teen, he sold vegetables from the a pickup bed.

When he was 13, his grandfather died. He persuaded his grandmother not to sell the family farm. He helped his grandmother keep the farm by working there after school. “Before he died, my grandfather gave me a deep appreciation for the land,” DeLoach recalls. When he graduated from high school at age 16, DeLoach started working on the farm and has farmed full time ever since.

He got married in 1997, and recalls, “We were broke, and didn’t have much equipment.” He started farming with an old tractor, planted his first crops with a two-row planter and hired a friend to combine his crops. “We have grown from there,” he says.

One 300-acre parcel he rents produced grass sod since the 1960’s. “When we started farming that land, the topsoil was gone and it was as hard as asphalt,” says DeLoach. He used a chisel plow for land preparation and planted wheat and soybeans to build organic matter. “And we harvested 40 bushels of soybeans per acre from that land,” he explains.

His cotton crops have been successful, but he says cotton doesn’t leave much organic matter in the soil. He has added poultry litter as a soil amendment to build fertility and organic matter. He says he is cutting back on his cotton production for the 2018 growing season.

DeLoach’s row crop marketing is aided by a generally strong basis. Basis is the difference between local cash prices and futures prices. He sells corn for about a 20-cent per bushel premium due to strong demand from Alabama’s poultry industry. He sells soybeans to a Cargill facility in Guntersville, Ala. He has about 15,000 bushels of grain storage and that helps a bit in marketing.

Earlier in his farming career, marketing was a hurdle he had to overcome. Now, he uses forward contracting on at least 50% of his anticipated production. “I don’t plant a crop unless I’ve got some sold. I want my costs covered when I plant,” he says.

He also markets his crops through individuals and firms he can trust. For instance, he has stayed with a buyer who has been faithful in providing reliable trucking to haul his crops to market. DeLoach also sells small amounts of grain to local buyers who feed chickens on a small scale, and to hunters who need deer corn.

His appreciation for the land continues today. If land needs to be cleared, DeLoach does it himself to make sure that topsoil stays in place. He also maintains a 20-acre wetland on the farm as a habitat for migratory birds. “It’s not unusual to see 200 ducks on the farm,” he adds. He also maintains a weir system of low dams to manage water flow through the wetland.

He keeps rescued horses in his pastures. Currently, he has three donkeys and four horses in his pastures. His other livestock includes a small commercial beef cattle herd

His farm is located near Birmingham in Shelby County, Ala., one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. DeLoach says it will be a challenge to continue farming traditional row crops in this environment.

So he is looking at new farming enterprises that he hopes will maintain the farm in his family for generations to come. One of these includes grapes for wine production. He’s also looking at establishing a venue for weddings and other social events. By establishing these new enterprises, he hopes to achieve other goals—to teach city people about farming and to sustain agriculture in Shelby County.

His wife Kate grew up in town, and works off the farm as a sales executive with AT&T. She loves living on the farm. “It’s like living at a summer camp, and it’s just an honor for me to live here.” she says. She is active in the Women of AT&T, a nonprofit employee resource organization, and she has been recognized by presidents Obama and Trump for her community volunteer work.

“Early in our marriage, we worked round the clock on the farm,” recalls Kate. “We also believe it is important to invest in our community.”

John has taught farm mechanics to Boy Scouts, and has hosted their campouts on his farm. He is taking part in a statewide agricultural leadership development program, and he has mentored Young Farmers in the Alabama Farmers Federation. John also serves as vice president of the Shelby County Farmers Federation.

John is an expert self-taught welder and occasionally completes high-end welding and metal-working projects. DeLoach says welding is a word-of-mouth business. He could keep busy with welding projects full time, but then he wouldn’t have time to farm.

John and Kate have one son, Jess, who attends high school at Coosa Valley Academy in Harpersville, Ala. Two years ago, Jess received a beehive as a birthday gift. He hopes to expand his production of tupelo honey. He expects honey production of 60-80 pounds per hive, and he hopes to see beekeeping become a profitable enterprise for the farm. Jess is also working to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. He helps manage the cattle and is building his own beef herd.

Jeff Helms, director of the Department of Public Relations and Communications with the Alabama Farmers Federation, is the state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award. DeLoach was nominated for the award by David Farnsworth, recently retired area organization director with the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Farnsworth admires DeLoach’s passion for farming. “His love for farming motivates him to keep learning and growing, and also attracts others to get involved in agriculture,” says Farnsworth. “John is truly an advocate for the American farmer.”

As the Alabama state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, DeLoach will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 29th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Alabama include: Ricky Wiggins of Anderson, 1990; George Kiser, Sr. of Foley, 1991; Allen Bragg of Toney, 1992; Sykes Martin of Courtland, 1993; David Pearce of Browns, 1994; Glenn Jones of Blountsville, 1995; Raymond Jones of Huntsville, 1996; Dan Miller of Greensboro, 1997; Homer Tate of Meridianville, 1998; Eugene Glenn of Hillsboro, 1999; George T. Hamilton of Hillsboro, 2000; Bert Driskell of Grand Bay, 2001; Charles Burton of Lafayette, 2002; Bruce Bush of Eufaula, 2003; John B. East of Leesburg, 2004; James A. Wise of Samson, 2005; Glenn Forrester of Columbia, 2006; Billy Gilley of Holly Pond, 2007; Lamar Dewberry of Lineville, 2008; David Wright of Plantersville, 2009; Shep Morris of Shorter, 2010; Andy Wendland of Autaugaville, 2011; Sam Givhan of Safford, 2012; Annie Dee of Aliceville, 2013; Phillip Hunter of Birmingham, 2014; Ricky Cornutt of Boaz, 2015; Wendell Gibbs of Ranburne, 2016; and Chris Langley of Camp Hill, 2017.

Alabama has had one overall winner, Raymond Jones of Huntsville in 1996.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit DeLoach’s farm along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 6-10. The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., the overall winner in 2009; and John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia ag economist from Athens, Ga.