American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
In far southwest Virginia on the Tennessee line is Washington County. Its steep hills and valleys support a thousand cattle operations–most are small, averaging 50 head. Most have owners with a full-time job other than agriculture. Most do not earn top dollar for their investment and effort.
Adam Wilson would want to see that change. He runs 300 cows outside the Washington County seat of Abingdon. Adam and a group of investors want to establish a new cattle auction centrally located in the southwest part of the state. The group envisions the effort with both marketing and educational functions.
"People get frustrated," Adam says. "They say, my calves bring this, and those cattle over there brought more. But, they look the same." Yes, but no. "Yes, your calf was good. But no, here's where that other calf is better," he explains.
"We're going to strive to educate small cattle producers on how to use the right genetics, vaccinate when they are supposed to and use other management techniques to produce a higher-quality calf," he says. "We think we can put better groups of cattle together and sell them through the auction to maximize profit for the small farmers we have here."
Adam is well-known for his work in the community.
"His leadership is evident as the respect he commands on a local basis, as well as on a statewide basis," says Gene Copenhaver, senior vice president of First Bank and Trust Co., in Abingdon. "Adam is known as a person people can count on."
Adam's Wilson Farms is one of the larger producers in the area. He manages 200 spring-calving cows and 100 fall calvers. He weans and preconditions his calves, and markets them in load lots of 700 to 800 pounds. Adam looks to add another 100 cows to his fall-calving herd. His wife, Sarah, manages her family's cattle operation, which also has 300 head.
Adam focuses on the efficient use of his farm's resource. Water is key.
"We had 200 acres, maybe 300, in back of the farm with no water," Adam says. "Cattle wouldn't graze back there." He expanded his farm's supplies of fresh water, and now there are 40 waterers, at least one in every paddock, bringing water to every part of the farm.
"With our water systems, we can make the cattle graze where we want them to graze," Adam says. "Now, we can utilize all the grass on the farm, not just the grass on the front of the farm. Better rotations with cross-fencing, the water systems and better grass. These have increased the number of animals we can run."
The numbers show the success. Adam's operation once supported one cow/calf pair for every 2.5 acres. It is one pair for every 1.75 acres today. Adam looks for his stocking rate to dip again to one pair for every 1.5 acres.
Adding a feeding barn and a pair of feeding pads also boosted the farm's efficiency. The work was completed with the help of the Holston River Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The 50- x 120-foot covered barn has space for 90 head. Nearby are the two feed pads, each measuring 30 x 90 feet.
Adam brings his younger calves into the covered feed barn. The facility, with free-choice hay rings inside and straw bedding, keeps the animals dry during weaning. The animals eat a mixed ration from a feed bunk that runs the length of the barn's open side. Nearby are two uncovered feed pads. One has feed bunks running down both sides; the other holds hay rings.
"Now, we feed on one side, and the cattle eat on the other," he says. "All the feed that goes before our calves is utilized by the calves." Adam no longer drives a tractor and mixer wagon through the cattle to feed them. That's lowered the risk of injury to his cattle. The bunks have cut feeding time by 30 minutes per day.
Where calves once stood up to their bellies in mud, the feed barn and pads offer drier and healthier places to put on weight. The result is fairly remarkable. "We have seen our weight gains per day increase by 35%," Adam says. "And, we have been able to better control waste runoff by capturing 90% of the manure on the concrete pads."
Adam is passionate about agriculture away from the farm.
After he married Sarah, Adam (but not his cattle operation) moved to his bride's family farm in nearby Russell County. He found vocational agriculture (vo-ag) programs had deteriorated there. Of Russell County's three high schools, only one had a vo-ag program.
"We need to keep our youth educated about agriculture," he says. "When you get [education and agriculture] together, it's a strong and powerful thing." Adam set out to bring vo-ag courses back into all three Russell County high schools.
The Russell County School Board and Board of Supervisors gave approval to his plans after Adam proved student support for the programs. But, he could not show the Virginia Department of Education the vo-ag programs would generate a significant level of job growth. The state initially declined to finance the programs.
But, Adam's strong advocacy, with support from the Russell County government, the county school board and from local state delegates and senators, convinced the state board to approve the courses.
The district hired three agriculture teachers in 2016. Vo-ag classes are taught again in all three high schools and in the county's Career and Technology Center. Enrollment doubled in a year.
"I have no doubt that this accomplishment is due to Adam's commitment and passion," says Scotty Fletcher, assistant superintendent of Russell County Public Schools. "Mr. Wilson demonstrates daily that he has the knowledge, determination, motivation and ability to be a successful county leader."