For thirty-nine years Thomas Ellis has practiced agricultural diversification through his cattle, poultry, and pecan processing and manufacturing enterprises at Triple E. Farm and Priester’s Pecans, Inc. A third-generation Lowndes County farmer, Ellis grew up on a dairy farm and studied marketing and agriculture at Auburn University. He purchased part of a commercial beef herd from the widow of a local cattleman in 1981 and began to rent pasture until he purchased his farmland in the fall of that year. Two years later, he and his wife, Melissa, built their first broiler houses.
Today their operation spans 1000 acres of owned and rented land and includes annual production units of forty-five cows and calves, six-to-twelve bulls, 1000 head of stocker calves, and three poultry houses that produce approximately 400,000 chickens. Additional crops include 450 acres of grazing, 400 acres of mixed summer grasses, and 60 acres of rye grass and winter peas for baleage.
Back in the 1970s, Ellis’s father was instrumental in developing a vibrant crossbreed of Italian Chianina and English Angus called Chiangus. He’s also introduced a crossbreed of Indian Brahman and Angus cattle called Brangus and explained, “We’re having good luck with their impressive growth potential, their ability to withstand heat, humidity, and cold, and their overall hybrid vigor.”
Calves from cows are marketed through stockyard sales, board sales, or replacement heifer and bull sales. Bulls are sold primarily in conjunction with Meadow Creek Farm’s annual “It’s All Black and White Bull Sale” on the first Friday in December. Stocker calves are primarily contract-grazed for son Taber Ellis or sold through board sales if owned. The poultry are contract-grown with Koch Foods in Montgomery.
Thomas Ellis also owns Priester’s Pecans, Inc., a pecan processing and manufacturing business begun in 1935 by Thomas’s grandfather, Hense Ellis, and L.C. Priester. The company cracks, shells, and processes more than 1.5 million lbs. of improved gift-quality varieties of pecans per year. Samples of their products include gourmet candy, baked goods, and savory snacks, with such delicious specialty items as pralines, divinity, pecan pies, pecan cheese straws, blackberry pecan preserves, roasted pecan syrups, and honey-glazed and roasted pecans in small or bulk quantities.
Ellis recalled, “After my Grandfather Hense passed in 1965, my father, Ned Ellis, and his brother, John, shared 50 percent ownership in the company until 1978 when my father bought his brother’s interest and became the sole owner. I began working with Priester’s full-time in 1985 and served as vice president until 2002, when my sister and I purchased the business from our dad. On average, we have about100 employees in our various operations.”
He added, “In 2018, I became owner of the brand Priester’s Pecans as well as the pecan shelling and manufacturing business. We buy pecans directly from growers in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. For 85 years, we’ve been able to provide a stable market for their commodity and therefore add value to their product through our processing and production capabilities.”
Priester’s sells its pecan products in a variety of ways: directly to consumers through catalog and website sales, through organized group fundraising programs, and through wholesale agreements to a broad range of companies that resell them. Thomas Ellis’s sister and her family operate Priester’s Retail, Inc. that manages a brick and mortar store as well. Annual sales for Priester’s Pecans, Inc. currently top $10 million.
Thomas Ellis’s wife, Melissa, is the fulcrum of the agribusiness, the one who, as Thomas put it, “pulls us all together by taking care of our home and supporting all our efforts.” She is from a cattle and forestry business family, and the two met in high school. They’ve been married since July 1979. She maintains the books and helps in multiple other ways, including serving as Priester’s corporate secretary/treasurer and supervising its product development and catalog design. Melissa has been an active member of the Lowndes County Cattlewomen’s Association in the past, serving as president, vice president and secretary. She is also an active member of Hope Hull United Methodist Church where she is on the Board of Trustees.
Thomas Ellis is deeply involved in industry-related service organizations that include membership in the Lowndes County Economic Development Commission; Lowndes County Farmers Federation board member and current president; South Central Alabama United Appeal Fund chairman; Southeastern Livestock Exposition executive committee member; Alabama Cattleman’s Association board member; Alabama Agricultural Development Authority member; Pintlala Water board member and Alabama Rural Water Association member; Economic Development Association of Alabama member; past board member of the National Pecan Sellers Association, and board member of Dixie Electric Cooperative.
The Ellis’s have three sons: Tyler, Stinson, and Taber. They, along with their wives, are all involved in the family farm. Ellis noted, “Tyler has always been a cattleman at heart who helps out with our livestock. He’s currently an Alabama representative for Superior Livestock, where he sells all types of cattle. Last year he also began working with us in the Priester’s candy and bakery operation and this year became Operations Manager in charge of all value-added production in the candy, chocolate, and bakery operation.”
Ellis added, “His wife, Sarah, works full-time at Priester’s as Marketing and Sales Manager and leads our overall marketing and sales effort in an ever-changing world. Her efforts to improve and expand our website and catalog have proven invaluable. She and Tyler also have three sons.”
Son Stinson earned a BS in Ag-Business and Economics from Auburn University and became directly involved in Priester’s pecan shelling operation after graduation. He now serves as its corporate vice president. Stinson’s wife, Alison, recently completed the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Auburn. She has accepted a job as a Nurse Practitioner for a neurology group. She is busy preparing for her boards and is looking forward to applying her knowledge and experience gained over fifteen years in the ER.
Ellis commented, “She has little spare time right now, but we count on her to keep the team healthy. She and Stinson have two sons who enjoy spending time at our riding arena training quarter horses for team-roping events. It’s located on property homesteaded by the Ellis family.”
Taber, the youngest Ellis son, earned an accounting degree from Huntingdon College and now works as Ag Specialist for Alfa Insurance in Autauga County, where he has also started a backgrounding operation supported by his father-in-law. Dad Ellis proudly observed, “He gets out every day before daylight to care for up to 300 calves at any given time and monitors 1000 head of stockers over the course of the year, keeping them fed and healthy. And he plans all our planting and grazing efforts with our farm manager, Lucas.”
Taber’s wife, Grace, has a farming background as well and extensive cattle industry experience. She works with Taber in the stocker operation and as Development Officer for the Alabama FFA Foundation. She serves on the Autauga County Soil and Water Conservation District as supervisor, as corresponding secretary of the Autauga County Farmers Federation, and as a board member for the Alabama Council of Cooperatives. The couple has two daughters. Grace has recently taken over Priester’s social media efforts where she will use her education and experience for the benefit of the team.
Ellis believes strongly in the principle of land stewardship and said, “The proper use and maintenance of our natural resources is the key to the longevity of our operations and our economy.” Ellis and his sons have applied a number of conservation practices on Triple E. Farm and at Priester’s Pecans, Inc. Broiler litter from the poultry operation is used to build the soil in the grass and grazing land for the cattle. LED lighting has been installed through the poultry operation and other farm buildings, and the poultry houses were updated to solid-side walls with tunnel ventilation to stay current with good practices and conserve energy.
The entire farm has been converted to natural gas, creating a large savings in utility costs. They’ve also worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Program and used the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) to install additional water troughs for cattle on the home property as well as a compost barn for mortality on the poultry farm. Additional trees—cypress, Shumard oak, poplar, Nutall oak, and elm—are being planted each year to promote wildlife habitat, provide shade for cattle, and help prevent soil erosion in low areas.
Carrying this work over into Priester’s Pecans, Inc., Ellis noted, “We’ve built a storage area for pecan shells on the property that keeps any residue from the shell run-off out of drainage and streams surrounding the pecan shelling facility. The pecan shell is sold as mulch for trees and shrubbery or to saw mills that are using it for alternative fuel for boilers in making paper.”
Through so many years of working the land, Ellis has seen his share of challenges, including a major fire in 1998 in which the retail store, the candy kitchen, and the bakery were completely destroyed during the holiday sales time. Ellis recalled, “Reconstructing a bigger, better facility helped the company overcome the setback and provided a modern facility that met new food safety requirements.”
He added, “We invested in a second facility in Georgia in 2004 that didn’t generate expected sales to sustain it, and then came the recession of 2007–08 that necessitated selling the facility and moving forward. We live and hopefully learn from all our decisions and actions. The ongoing challenges are balancing the diverse aspects of our farm, instituting effective time management practices, finding trustworthy people for responsible positions, and making sure family members are supported in strong and consistent way. ”
In the future Ellis hopes to purchase more land to accommodate expansion goals for cattle production. The family unit will continue to graze stocker cattle with the intent of owning a greater percentage of those cattle. And they will keep making improvements on rented property in cooperation with the landowners such as clearing unusable acreage, fencing and pasture development, and replanting any property unsuitable for cattle with either hardwoods or pine timber.
At Priester’s Pecans, Inc. future plans include a $600,000 investment in new equipment in the shelling operation, purchase of new cooking equipment, and increasing annual sales growth by between 5 and 7.5 percent to reach a total of $17,500,000 in sales over the next ten years.
Ellis commented on one of the most rewarding aspects of farming. “Besides just seeing what’s planted in the earth take root and grow and thrive, it’s been a privilege getting to know and learn from the larger agricultural community here in Alabama. I’ve gained so much from so many people in the cattle, poultry, and pecan-growing industries.”
Over the last two years—in rare breaks from his daily farm tasks—he and his wife have taken two mission trips to Louisiana and Guatemala. He also likes to sing in the church choir, occasionally launch a drone to observe his cattle grazing or a beautiful sunset, and enjoy some downtime on Gulf Coast beaches with his family. He noted, “It sounds really basic, but I’m so happy to just spend time with my loved ones at home too. We’ve been tremendously blessed in having our sons, their wives, and children here to support, be supported by, and cherish.”
Ellis was nominated Alabama Farmer of the Year by Guy Hall, the Area 7 Director for the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Department of Organization. He commented, “What makes Thomas Ellis special is that he uses his diverse farm business and service to a number of industry organizations and local community boards to help Alabama agriculture be successful. Triple E. Farms is named in honor of his three sons who all work in the family businesses. Thomas has always generously shared his time and resources to improve agriculture at the local, county, and state levels. And what has always impressed me is that he truly enjoys doing it.”
As the Alabama winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Thomas Ellis will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States Cooperative. A Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to each state winner and nominator. Syngenta will donate $500 to the state winner’s charity of choice. Ellis is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner by Swisher. Massey Ferguson North America will provide each state winner with a gift package and the overall winner with the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year or 250 hours (whichever comes first). Southern States Cooperative will supply the overall winner with an additional $500 gift certificate. A Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to the overall winner. Syngenta will provide a $500 donation to the charity of choice for the overall winner who will also receive a Hays LTI Smoker/Grill. In addition, the overall winner will receive a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute Edition rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 31st consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,204,000 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 Kaiser, 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; Chris Langley of Camp Hill, 2017; John Deloach of Vincent, 2018; and Hank Richardson of Centre, 2019.