Drive through Nashville or Birmingham and see the upscale offices and residential complexes. Chances are, the trees landscaping these properties came from the farm of Phillip Hunter.
He grew up as a city boy and now lives in Birmingham. He raises shade, evergreen and ornamental trees at the Hunter Trees, LLC nursery in Talladega County.
As a result of his success as a nursery operator, Hunter has been selected as the Alabama state winner of the 2014 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Hunter joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
Hunter started out in the landscape business as a 12-year-old when he opened his own business mowing grass for others. He operated this business until he went to college. He grew up in Jackson, Miss., and studied landscape contracting at Mississippi State University.
After graduation, he worked 12 years for a leading Birmingham landscaping firm. There, he supervised high-end residential landscaping. He was also responsible for buying trees and learned what contractors need in the way of quality trees to plant.
His dad’s accounting career brought him to Birmingham. “My dad and brother and I decided to start this business, so in 1999 we bought this 300-acre farm, and began planting trees,” he recalls.
It takes at least three years from the time trees are planted until they are ready to be dug and replanted in new landscapes. At the nursery, they plant trees in five-acre blocks, start harvesting at three years and continue harvesting through six years or until the stand is exhausted.
Hunter raises the trees with his younger brother Will who attended Auburn University and majored in horticulture. Will is primarily responsible for tree production on the farm. Of their 300 acres, 225 acres are in landscape trees and the rest of the land grows longleaf pines for timber.
Phillip worked part time on the farm for three or four years before he was able to leave his previous employer to run the farm full time. “We had a big investment in the land and the farm before we saw a dime of income,” says Phillip.
Phillip’s wife Robin is a certified public accountant and works as the farm’s comptroller. Phillip oversees the entire operation. Tim Braswell assists Phillip by handling sales. Tatum Denson helps in marketing, especially in using social media to promote the farm’s trees to potential customers.
Phillip says the website, www.huntertrees.com, is a front door to customers. The website features photos of each tree the farm grows. Customers can also receive online quotes on tree prices, and the availability of specific tree species.
The firm sells to customers in about 12 states, most of them in the Southeast. Most of the trees are grown in the ground and are later dug for replanting, but the farm has recently added several acres of trees container production.
Subsurface drip irrigation is an important tool. In addition to providing water, the drip lines also furnish fertilizer to the roots where the trees need it.
Raising the trees also involves pest control, primarily for flat-headed apple borers and ambrosia beetles. “We use scouts for diseases and insects, so we don’t waste chemicals,” adds Phillip. Tree shipments also comply with quarantine regulations for pests such as fire ants and Japanese beetles. “We have to treat the roots of these trees before shipping out of here,” he explains.
The trees are planted in rows, with grass strips planted between the rows to help control soil erosion. Herbicides are used in the tree rows to keep weeds and competing vegetation under control. “We mow the grass strips and maintain the rows with herbicides,” adds Phillip.
“Once we began operating the farm full time, our sales grew rapidly,” recalls Phillip. Their production and sales peaked during 2007. Drought hit in 2008, followed by a collapse of the overall economy. “Our business is largely dependent on the pace of housing, office and retail construction,” says Phillip. “We bottomed out in 2009, and our business has been on the increase during the past four years.”
He believes his industry is now entering a time when tree supplies are going down while demand for the trees is going up.
The farm has overcome other challenges. These include developing a suitable source of water for irrigation, obtaining financing and establishing a banking relationship, identifying and helping to develop suppliers of the young trees planted on the farm and developing a network of freight specialists for transporting trees to their customers.
At any one time, there will be 125 varieties and some 65,000 landscape trees growing on the farm. Nuttall oak is the farm’s best selling tree. “Our business is based on delivering a high quality product,” says Phillip. “We have a reputation for providing vigorous, viable trees.”
Phillip says, “We do not offer retail sales. We primarily sell to landscape contractors who do high-end work. Typically, a landscape architect is involved in these projects.”
His plans call for refining the mix of tree varieties and sizes on the farm. He wants to build a new office, maintenance facility, a lunchroom and restrooms. He also wants to build a pond to provide an alternate source of irrigation water.
Phillip and Robin are active in Asbury United Methodist Church. He also chairs the Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Committee for the Alabama Farmers Federation. Phillip is also secretary-treasurer of the Shelby County Farmers Federation. Phillip also serves on the state board of the Dept. of Agriculture and Industries. He has served as a director and president of the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association. He was president of the Gulf States Horticulture Expo, held annually in Mobile. He has also received awards from the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association and the Southern Nursery Association.
Robin is a school volunteer and Phillip has coached youth flag football.
Their children include a daughter Carolyn and a son Patton. Carolyn is a horseback riding enthusiast. Patton enjoys team sports, flag football and lacrosse.
“It is easy to grow a tree,” says Phillip. “It takes a lot of effort to grow a good quality tree.”
Jeff Helms with the Alabama Farmers Federation is the state coordinator for the Farmer of the Year awards. Hunter was nominated for the award by David Farnsworth, area organization director with the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“Hunter Trees, LLC is rooted in excellence,” says Farnsworth. “They do things right. Their commitment to quality, cleanliness, conservation and their state of the art custom designed marketing ideas are proof their farm is one of distinction. Phillip is a humble leader with a wonderful staff that excels in providing superior products.”
As the Alabama state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Hunter 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, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, 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, a Heritage gun safe and another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, the choice of another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 25th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $964,000 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; and Annie Dee of Aliceville, 2013.
Alabama has had one overall winner. Raymond Jones of Huntsville was selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 1996.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Hunter’s nursery, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 4-8. The judges for this year include farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008; John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; and Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.