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.
The day before Thanksgiving Lamont Bridgeforth was plumbing 50 acres of drip tape. With that block completed, his family's Darden Bridgeforth & Sons operation would have 700 acres irrigated as insurance against Alabama's fierce summer when rain is as scarce as a cool breeze.
"We can grow a lot of things," Lamont says, of an area sometimes known as Alabama's Cereal Belt. "We just need to have a lot of water."
That was in short supply last fall as rain was non-existent. With no measureable precipitation in three months, much of the state's wheat crop was in jeopardy. Lamont had overseen planting half the family's 1,500 acre crop–that portion sowed on faith and a climatological history suggesting rain just might fall before wheat planting season ended in December.
"It's pretty bad," Lamont said, picking at the dirt, seed and fertilizer sitting in powder that passed for soil, as a planter rolled by cloaked in red dust. Another year was coming to a close on the Bridgeforth farm. Another, in a line of the farm's 146 years–and one more challenged by rain, heat and the state's red, but fertile soils. The Bridgeforth operation is 9,300-acres, with headquarters in the small community of Tanner, south of the Tennessee border and near Huntsville, home to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The Bridgeforths are partners too, with a Virginia farmer in a custom operation set up in the Mississippi Delta.
Lamont, and his two cousins, Kyle and Carlton, stand at the cusp of a new farming generation. They will be the fifth generation in an historic family line traced back to pre-Civil War America and slavery.
Lamont's great, great grandfather George Bridgeforth was born in 1838, a slave on the James Bridgeforth plantation in Tennessee. James Bridgeforth moved to Limestone County, Alabama, in 1855 and served in the Confederate army. George was his personal servant. After the war, and now a freedman, George Bridgeforth improbably became a landowner (likely with help of his former master who may have fronted some of his first land purchases from white owners). Less than one in 10 southern black farmers owned their own land by 1880, Nancy Anne Carden writes in her University of Tennessee master thesis, "A Study of Southern Black Landownership, 1865-1940: The Bridgeforth Family of Limestone County, Alabama." The vast majority of freed slaves became sharecroppers, many working the land of their former masters.
Through ensuing decades, George bought land individually and through black-owned land cooperatives, some he helped to create. By the time of his death in 1922, George Bridgeforth and his wife, Jennie would look out over a family farming business that had grown to hundreds of acres.
Lamont's father and uncle, Greg and Bill Bridgeforth, respectively, are the principle operators and the two youngest of eight sons born to Darden Bridgeforth. "With all the acres we farm, we still work it all together," Lamont says. "We decide what we're going to do, the crops we're going to plant." Decisions are made as a group, but Greg's and Bill's votes count for a bit more than the other three, Lamont admits.
Greg will be 62 this year. "He wants me to shadow him, to share what he knows with me," Lamont says. Formal succession planning has yet to begin.
"The biggest needs I think is that the senior partners help [develop] the readiness of the junior partners," says Lamont. "So when the time comes, Kyle and I [and Carlton] can keep moving without skipping a beat."
Lamont explains that his role in the farm is not specific. On the day of a visit, he was tackling a broken corn drier full of corn. "What we're trying to do is restructure so we have areas of specialization. In my case that would be spraying and planting," says Lamont, an Auburn University graduate with a degree in business administration.
Where cotton was once king, conservation programs and conservation tillage caused the Bridgeforth farm to add corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum into their rotation. Canola was added about 10 years ago.
"Cotton does well in the hot weather," Lamont says. "But corn does well when it rains." Demand for corn is strong in Alabama with its abundance of broiler and egg operations.
Kyle and Lamont are working to upgrade their farming systems. For example, they're digitizing the farm's recordkeeping and management systems.
"We're trying to incorporate management software that will allow us to have a bird's eye view of our farm, on one page with work orders, cost of production, those types of things," Lamont says.
Labor management has gained Lamont's attention. Finding labor is a challenge. "It used to be you could pick up someone off the street. They had some experience, and you could teach them how to drive the tractor," Lamont says. "But things have gotten so advanced that you can't just put anyone on your equipment. They need to have some computer experience; so that presents a challenge finding new employees."
Hiring Millennials is an even newer wrinkle to the equation. You've got to understand their attitude toward work, Lamont says. "Sometimes they just want time off. They'll sacrifice the money," he says. "So, we don't want to give them money when it's really time they want."
Lamont sees some of the same tensions between himself and his father regarding labor. There are value differences between the generations, he says. The Bridgeforth farm likely survived its early days because of the ability to meet its work demands exclusively with family-supplied labor.
But time is money. "The larger your farm, time becomes more critical," Lamont says. So, he asks, "How do you know when we have enough people? How do you make the tradeoffs? Do I buy a truck or hire someone? You can put a load on five or six people when you need eight or nine, but they get burned out."
And, the modern farm family may not, or perhaps is unwilling to do it all for themselves. Lamont is a farmer. He is also a father.
"If we work 14 hours one day, dad would say that's a good day. I might say eight hours is a good day. But when you get home with all that daylight left, it just kills the older generation. But I want to be home for my children."