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.
It's not a call a 23-year-old wants to get. The barn owned by Gary J. Coleman's partner was on fire. Before the flames were extinguished, the blaze would claim 550 heifers and bull calves. The FBI would examine the suspicious nature of the February 2003 fire, but investigators concluded hay caught fire after coming into contact with a hot pipe from a wood stove.
The fire laid a $90,000 loss at Gary's feet. The destruction of the herd brought to a sickening end a promising breeding program. They were hard hits for a first-generation farmer who, with no farming background and limited resources, was trying to find his way in a competitive business.
But Gary, from Anderson, S.C., and a native of Ward, about an hour and a half south, began to rebuild. To raise cash in those first days and weeks, he bought calves, added weight and sold them.
"That situation cost me a lot of heartache over the years," he says over a late lunch at a local Huddle House restaurant. "But with determination, drive and self preservation, I can truly say I have risen to a higher level in the farming industry."
Gary's cattle enterprise began when he was in the ninth grade. An adult acquaintance, Milo Stevenson, now deceased, located a job for him at a local dairy. While working there, Gary bought a few steer calves and grazed them on Stevenson's two-acre property.
"I would have told you they were the best cattle ever," Gary says, smiling. By the time he entered college, his business included 70 brood cows. "Now, they weren't the best, but I had 70 cows," he says.
Also in 2003–recall the February fire that year–Gary closed his first loan with the Farm Credit System. He had no land, no cosigner, "but I finally convinced them," he says.
Today, the graduate of Clemson University, father to daughter, Jer'Nasia, 12, also has plans to enter veterinary school. He will do that while running what is now a 275-head cow/calf operation specializing in Angus, Angus-influenced and Brangus cattle.
The farm Gary works includes 2,298 acres. Most of the ground is rented from the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church's Beulah Land Farms at Calhoun Falls, S.C. That farm, more than 4,000 acres in all, was purchased to serve as both a rural retreat for members of the Detroit-based African American church and to supply food to the church's urban members. But the church's plans never came to fruition. Gary first rented a few acres from the church in 2005. Today, in return for maintenance and management input, Gary uses large portions of the property for his cattle operation.
Conservation is an important part of his management efforts. Gary has fenced his cattle out of the creeks and many of the ponds on the property. When spreading fertilizers and herbicides, he keeps a 100-foot buffer between the treated areas and natural water sources.
"Many of our ponds are fenced off to prevent cattle from eroding the banks and to keep waste from seeping into the ground," he says. "Our ponds are spring fed."
Gary works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He has applied for cost-share funding to fence off the remaining ponds, to install crossfencing and to build graveled watering stations.
"We believe in watering our animals at watering stations," he says. It's a practice that gives him better control over the quality of the water.
"One of the biggest marketing and management decisions we incorporated into our farm is controlled and AI [artificial insemination] breeding," Gary says. "With controlled breeding, we are able to [deliver] all our calves at about the same time." The program gives Gary options when it's time to group and sell the calves. "Being able to AI our cows allows us the ability to increase the genetics in our herd without having to purchase multiple bulls."
Gary's operation includes a 1,200-head capacity backgrounding facility (turning out 800 calves per year), hay sales (cattle and horses), a pay-and-fish operation, feed mixing and sales, and a mobile meat store.
He plans to put the backgrounding facility to fuller use. "We plan to increase our cow/calf herd by 75 head of replacement heifers yearly until we are up to about 800 head of brood cows," he says. He'll get to that number by retaining and breeding his own heifers.
"This is an easy way for us to keep accurate data on the type of genetics we are packing into our program. This allows us to produce cattle that perform year after year," he says, adding, "I can grow a better heifer and know what I have than if I went out to buy them."
Gary's meat store opened in 2006. Coleman 3 Meats is a "Certified SC Grown" business making deliveries direct to consumers. "SC" stands for South Carolina. Coleman 3 Meats sells hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, pork and goat meat–about 800 to 1,500 pounds per month. He buys the hogs and goats from independent suppliers. The goat meat creates an opportunity for Gary to target ethnic groups, especially Hispanics. Gary's cull heifers and bulls supply all the beef for his retail meat business. It's a growing business and "it's been a successful operation," Gary says.
Coleman 3 Meats does not sell meat inexpensively. "If you're looking for $1.99 ground beef, that's not us," he says. "I set the standards, and I set the fees." He grinds his own feed and knows its origins. His 80/20 ground beef sells for $4.99 a pound; porterhouse steaks are $10.99 a pound.
A member of the South Carolina Cattlemen's Association, American Angus Association and National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Gary participates in leadership development events.
He represented South Carolina in 2010 at the American Angus Beef Leaders Institute program. He represented the United States at the 2011 Five Nations Beef Alliance conference as a member of NCBA's Young Producers' Council. The conference included discussions about beef health, welfare and trade issues. The five nations were Australia, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Mexico.
Gary brings his experiences within the larger beef industry back to his community. "My experiences allow me to network with cattlemen from multiple states and different walks of life," he says. "I bring back this information to my community, and we are still sharing and learning from them today."
You won't talk to Gary long without detecting the pride in his achievements. "It has been said, 'It takes hard work to get to the top, but it takes a leader to stay there,' '' he says. "As a first-generation farmer, putting myself through college, raising a daughter, relying on farming for income and dealing with the obstacles that come with the farming industry are all tasks that took dedication and passion. I have watched myself grow as a young farmer, [gaining] the ability to learn, lead and teach."