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Elbert County Success Stories

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Elberton Couple Named Farm Family of the Year

Running an all-natural beef cattle operation is far from easy but Charlotte and Ron Ward thrive on a challenge. “Tough for him is fun,” Charlotte Ward said about her husband Ron.

The couple, originally from Dacula, Georgia, have been farming in Northeast Georgia for the last 13 years. The Wards bought land a few acres at a time in Elberton and now R/C Farms comprises about 108 total acres.

Soil erosion and water quality concerns made the transition into farm life even harder for the Wards. Through his involvement with the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association, Ron Ward heard about the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Ward learned that the agency offers both technical and financial assistance to landowners who want to make improvements on their land.

NRCS employees Forrest Ferguson, Katrina White and Rita Harper assisted the Wards in putting in place several treatments through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract.

The treatments addressed both water quality and soil erosion. “Mainly, it was the pastures. They were in bad shape when we moved here. There were a lot of weeds but there wasn’t any grass,” Ron

Ward described. Heavy use areas were built in feeding areas and around water tanks to cut down on erosion. Before a heavy use area was installed in a cattle holding area on the farm, Ron said that any amount of rain would wreak havoc on getting anything accomplished. “The mud was so thick that it would pull your boots off,” Ward explained.

Cross-fencing was also built to separate pastures for rotational grazing purposes. Streams were also fenced out around the farm to protect water quality by keeping the cattle out of the streams. “I think they’ve done a very good job fulfilling their contracts.

You can see it whenever you come out to the farm,” Harper said. The Wards loved that EQIP helped them add nutritional value to their pastures by cutting down on soil erosion and improving their rotational grazing plan.

They said EQIP also encouraged them to use best management practices to accomplish goals in a timely manner. “It helps on the cost and forces you to get it done because it’s on a timeline,” Ron said. “You also learn about things you wouldn’t know otherwise. It’s real educational,” Charlotte Ward added.

Because of their continued commitment to conservation, the Wards were named the Broad River Soil and Water Conservation District’s Farm Family of the Year 2010. The couple said that they will strive to do even more to improve their land because “The better stewards you are, the more productivity and use you get out of the land,” Ron explained. The Wards hope to pass their legacy of conservation and cattle operation on to their three grandchildren.

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Community Nutrient Management Facility helps Farmer start New Business

Located outside of Elberton, Bailey Farms consists of 944.6 acres. In addition to cotton and hay, Bailey Farms also raises cattle, operates several farm equipment dealerships and has recently entered the poultry litter business.

Using a Community Nutrient Management Facility grant from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Bailey started the Bailey Farms Poultry Litter business.

Bailey collects poultry litter from surrounding counties and stacks it in one of his two nutrient management facilities until the litter is needed on his farm or by other farmers.

Because of the escalating price of fertilizer, James Lee Bailey, owner of Bailey Farms, looked into the feasibility of using poultry litter instead of commercial fertilizer and discovered that he could get just as much growth from poultry litter as regular fertilizer. He bought a spreader truck for the poultry litter and started using the litter on his fields whenever he could get it.

“We had to go to litter because you can’t afford fertilizer any more. We had been using litter a year or two and we bought the spreader truck. We tried it, it worked well. I don’t think there are any problems on the crop production. If it rains, it would make two bales just like it would if it had fertilizer,’ said Chad Bailey.

“The stack houses were the only way I was going to be able to keep on farming because of the cost of fertilizer,” said James Bailey.

Now Bailey not only uses the litter on his own farm, he also supplies litter to other farmers in the area and hauls the excess litter to farms in South Georgia.

Bailey started farming over 39 years ago with his father Robert Lee Bailey. Today Chad, his son and partner, helps with the equipment dealership, cotton, cattle, poultry litter and he serves as the mechanic for the farm. Cheri, Bailey’s wife, does the bookkeeping insuring that the farm stays in the black.

“Chad is a 4th generation farmer. He is farming land that my grandfather farmed,” said James Lee. Other programs used on the farm are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). Heavy Use Areas were installed around watering tanks and for a cattle working area. Fencing was installed to split up large fields for better rotation of cattle and to protect riparian areas. The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) was used to improve wildlife habit and control erosion with Grassed Waterways in his cotton fields.

In everything that Bailey does, his first consideration is whether it is economically practical or not.

“Consideration of the economics is number one with James Lee,” said Katrina White, Soil Conservationist for the NRCS. “He researches every aspect of a program before getting into it. He runs a farm and he has to make money to keep farming.”

“By keeping the land from washing away we increased our crop yields and with the stack houses we started a new business,” said James Lee.

He went on to say, “The stack houses have been a real asset to us. As for the economics of it, it’s the best thing we could have gotten into.”

James Lee’s conservation philosophy for future generations is simple. “Take care of the land if you’re going to make a living off of it.”

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Conversion of Cotton Fields to pastures using Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

In 1994 Rick and Gina Thomas bought 190 acres of land located at 1965 Ed Mills Road, in Elbert County. The land was planted in cotton, layered with terraces and had an erosion problem. It took them eight years to put in a driveway, build a workshop/tractor barn, build a hay barn, turn the cotton fields into pastures, put up fences, and build a home. Today this ex-cotton field is the Granite City Donkey and Cattle Ranch.

The Thomas’s had many conservation concerns with the land itself, their woods – which has a creek running through it, and their ponds. “This was a cotton field when we bought it. We had erosion problems, there was the runoff; the land was in terraces – that’s why the pond would stay full because of the runoff from the cotton fields. There is another pond on the other side that caught the runoff from that cotton field; we said we needed to do something with all the erosion, to have good pastures and fencing to keep animals out of the woods,” said Gina.

To help solve their problems using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service recommended the Thomas’s “plant permanent cover – crop to grassland – Laredo Bermuda grass in the front pastures and Max Q fescue grass in the back pastures, install fencing to better utilize the pastures, fence the animals out of the pond and creek, put in water lines, tanks and water ramps,” said Katrina White, soil conservationist for the NRCS in Elberton.

“It has been a work in progress,’ said Gina Thomas, “but when we bought it, we knew we were going to live here.”

Many of the forage and grazing practices used on the farm are due to Gina’s past work. She worked for 30-years in the agriculture department at the University of Georgia. “I would read about the research projects when the reports would come across my desk and when we bought the land I put what I learned to use,” said Gina. “I retired from UGA and came to the country to be a country farmer.”

Rick is not new to farming nor is he new to the NRCS. His grandfather, father and five uncles farmed. His father was a supervisor with the Oconee River Soil and Water Conservation District. Rick grew up not only with farming, he regularly attended field days at the UGA Watkinsville Experiment Station and caught bumble bees for them at 5 cents a bee. “They used them to study pollination,” said Rick.

They also discovered that their ponds were being polluted by their livestock. “We did have animals going around the ponds to drink when it would get hot and dry like this. We discovered that it was ruining the water so NRCS helped us put the water ramps in so the animals could have a better water way to get to the pond without messing up the water, then we put drinkers in all the pastures so all the animals would have good clean water to drink,” said Gina.

They took the time and effort to fence off their woods creating wildlife areas & restoring the riparian buffers. “That wooded area there, we have completely fenced off - it’s a wildlife area. It’s a place so the wildlife will have a place to live and flourish. The woods over here are fenced off also for wildlife,” said Gina.

Rick stated he likes EQIP because it helps him keep his land up. “EQIP gives you the opportunity to keep the land up once you’ve got it in shape and the NRCS does a good job getting these programs out to the farmers.”

The Granite City Donkey and Cattle Ranch has benefited from the services provided by the NRCS. “By the fact that you have better grasses, your animals are healthier, cleaner water helps keep the animals healthier with fewer diseases and less problems,” said Gina. “I think the NRCS does a good job of helping people as long as you have somebody like Katrina White to come out and tell you about conservation practices.”

Gina’s conservation philosophy is more about the world we live in than just Elberton. “People take our natural resources for granted. They think that we are always going to have clean water and they think that we are going to have plenty of good soil to farm in so we have lots of food. I don’t think they take it seriously. People throw trash in the rivers, they throw trash in the lakes, and we want to dump our sewage in all that. If we don’t take care of our natural resources we are not going to have any. The water will be contaminated, the land will be contaminated.”

“The Thomas’s have done and are willing to do anything to improve the operation – if its economically sound,” said White.

The Thomas’s have plans for the future. Under the Conservation Security Program (CSP) they plan on doing some energy management, grazing management level 2 with some grazing support software, manage their riparian areas and do some wildlife friendly hay management.

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