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 bought 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.
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 noted, “In 2018, I became owner of the Priester’s Pecans brand as well as the pecan shelling and manufacturing business. On average, we have about100 employees in our various operations. We buy pecans directly from growers in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.”
Priester’s sells its pecan products 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.
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.” 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.
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. 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—previously an ER nurse—recently completed the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Auburn and has accepted a job as a Nurse Practitioner for a neurology group. She and Stinson have two sons who enjoy spending time in the riding arena training quarter horses for team-roping events.
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.
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 are being planted each year to promote wildlife habitat, provide shade for cattle, and help prevent soil erosion in low areas.
Ellis has seen his share of challenges over the years, 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, “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 consistently supported.”
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.
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.
On the rewards of farming, Ellis commented, “Besides seeing what’s planted in the earth take root, grow, and thrive, it’s been a privilege getting to 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—Ellis and his wife have taken two mission trips to Louisiana and Guatemala. Occasionally he launches a drone to observe his cattle grazing or simply gaze at a beautiful sunset. The family also enjoys some downtime on Gulf Coast beaches. 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 generously shares his time and resources to improve agriculture at the local, county, and state levels. And he enjoys it all.”
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Thomas Ellis, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, the week of August 10–14. The judges include John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; David Wildy, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016; and Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, the overall winner of the award in 2009.