Rickey Cornutt of Boaz, Ala., raises crops and cattle on small fields. He’s a successful farmer on Sand Mountain in North Alabama.
A farmer for 33 years, Cornutt’s farm consists of 2,000 acres, including 1,600 acres of rented land and 400 acres of owned land.
As a result of his success as a row crop and beef cattle farmer, Cornutt has been selected as the Alabama 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. 20 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
His per acre crop yields have been impressive, about 150 bushels of corn from 600 acres, 50 bushels of soybeans from 600 acres and 70 bushels of wheat from 270 acres.
Sand Mountain is really a plateau known for sandy soils. Cornutt’s fields average about 25 acres in size. Sand Mountain is also home to Alabama’s poultry industry.
Cornutt doesn’t raise chickens, but he uses litter from chicken houses as fertilizer for his fields. Cornutt contracts to clean out about 25 poultry houses each year. “Chicken litter is just a great source of nutrients for our crops,” he adds.
His beef operation consists of about 250 brood cows weighing an average of 1,000 pounds each, 70 replacement heifers weighing about 750 pounds each, 11 herd bulls weighing 1,800 pounds each and calves weighing up to 400 pounds each. His hay and pasture land covers about 600 acres. “We use Angus bulls on commercial cows, and we background our calves,” says Cornutt. “We save about 60 replacement heifers each year, and we graze our cattle on about 13 pastures.”
Cornutt’s cattle are spread out just as his crop fields are spread out. “We have anywhere from 10 to 50 cows on each farm, in 13 different pastures,” he adds.
With cattle in so many pastures, Cornutt finds it easier to keep bulls with the cows yearround. In marketing calves, he says, “We have the numbers, but not the uniformity for truckload lots.” He is able to sell and ship uniform groups of calves by joining with neighboring beef producers.
He can sell calves at one of four auction markets within 40 miles of his farm. “We often sell calves using a video at the local stockyard,” he says. “That way, the calves don’t have to go to the stockyard, and they never leave the farm until they are purchased.”
Selling grain is helped by his close proximity to poultry farms. “These poultry feed mills pay premium prices for our corn and soybeans,” he says. Typically, he receives 25- to 50-cent-per bushel premiums for his corn. He has been able to contract grain and receive a dollar per bushel higher than the national cash price.
Cornutt uses no-till planting and Roundup Ready technology for his corn and soybeans. He also alternates classes of herbicides to prevent resistant weeds from cropping up. “We save on chemical costs with our sprayer equipped with a global positioning system and automated steering,” he adds.
He also relies on an Alabama Farmers Co-op agronomist for crop advice. The agronomist also conducts corn, soybean and wheat variety yield tests on his farm.
“We also do some custom hay bailing, spraying and harvesting for some of our neighbors,” says Cornutt.
“I was raised on this farm,” says Cornutt. “We farm land that has been in our family since the late 1800’s. Our family bought land from the original families who homesteaded on Sand Mountain.” One of his earliest farm memories was driving an old Ford tractor and pulling a two-row plow.
“My grandfather and father were farmers, and as a child, I loved to help them,” says Cornutt. “I always wanted to be a farmer. I went to college for a year and decided to come back and farm. In 1981, I started full time farming on a small scale. As we grew, we tried to stay out of debt. God has blessed us and we were able to expand our operation.”
During the past five years, he has been able to buy land and has increased his cattle herd by adding about 100 head. He upgraded older equipment by buying newer sprayers, tractors and combines.
He has 42 landlords, a number that changes each year. Finding land to farm has been a challenge, but Cornutt keeps on good terms with his neighbors, and when they retire from farming, he has been able to lease their land.
Future plans call for expanding his grain storage facilities and investing in irrigation.
A brother, Chris, partners with Rickey in the farming operation. The brothers make farming decisions together. Chris normally operates the combine during harvesting season and pulls the planter during the planting season. Rickey typically operates the sprayer and hauls grain. Another brother, Jeff, works full time off the farm, but helps out on the farm when he can. The Cornutts also hire two full time employees.
Conservation is important for Rickey. He serves on the board of the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District. He farms highly erodible land and says that no-till planting is one of his best practices.
Cornutt also serves on the board of the local Alabama Farmers Cooperative. He is president of the Marshall County Farmers Federation. He is on the board of DeKalb County Farmers Co-op. He also is on the board of the Marshall County Leadership Challenge. He also sits on a state soybean committee that allocates research and promotion funds. In addition, he serves as an advisor for a Tennessee Valley Authority committee that funds community projects such as volunteer fire departments.
He serves as president of the Whitesville Neighborhood Watch. Rickey serves Gum Springs Baptist Church in music ministry and in teaching Sunday school classes. Rickey’s brother Chris is the church’s pastor.
His wife Connie works off the farm for Paragon, a firm based in Albertville, Ala. Paragon products include wall décor, primarily framed artwork.
Their older daughter Leslie is a registered nurse who is married and works in Guntersville, Ala. Their younger daughter Cara has taken an interest returning to the farm. She attends Snead State Community College and plans to attend Auburn University next fall.
“We have had some lean years in farming, but overall God has blessed our family and our farming business,” says Rickey. “We give Him the glory.”
Jeff Helms with the Alabama Farmers Federation is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award. Cornutt was nominated for the honor by Kyle Hayes, area organization director with the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“I have known Rickey and Connie for 25 years or more,” says Hayes. “They represent values you look for in family farming. Rickey is passionate about his faith, his family and his farm. He’ll do a great job representing Alabama agriculture.”
As the Alabama state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Cornutt 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 cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, 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, the choice of another $1,000 in cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, 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 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million 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; and Phillip Hunter of Birmingham, 2014.
Alabama has had one overall winner, Raymond Jones of Huntsville in 1996.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Cornutt’s farm along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 10-14. The judges for this year include John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; and farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C. who was the overall winner in 2011.