By Grace Smith
||Mike Blackburn has been a dedicated employee of Talladega County Exchange for thirty years.
August 1977 – United States launched the Voyager 2 space craft, entertainment legend Elvis Presley died, gas was $.62 a gallon and Talladega County Exchange found one exceptionally dedicated employee.
It was August 31 when Mike Blackburn first stepped through the front doors of the Co-op as an employee and with those first steps he embarked upon what so far has been an impressive 30-year career at Talladega County Exchange.
From working the grain elevator, to spreading fertilizer, to greeting customers at the front counter, there’s not much Blackburn hasn’t done at the Co-op. And while work at any farm supply store includes long hours and back-breaking tasks, he appreciates the work he’s done at the store.
"I’ve always enjoyed the job," Blackburn said. "It’s been really good to me."
He was born in Ironaton, a community just outside of the Talladega city limits which he explained was an iron ore town in the early 1900s where commerce was alive and well. The community boasted a train depot, hotels, a foundry and stores, but as time progressed the bustling little town turned into more of a ghost town. Blackburn said his family moved to Talladega in 1978. But before he and his family made the move, Blackburn’s dad found him a job at the local farmer’s Co-op.
"Daddy went by there to pick up some feed and he asked [the manager] if he needed any help and he said yes. I went to work the next morning," he said.
Thus began the 16-year-old’s career with the Co-op. Earning only $2.15 an hour, Blackburn began by working in the warehouse loading feed and performing any other necessary task. To meet the demands of area farmers, he started driving trucks for fertilizer and chemical application, a skill he basically taught himself.
"Nobody showed me a thing. I learned myself. There were so many people farming back then, they were lucky if their fields got sprayed within two weeks after they asked for it. They were patient with me while I was learning; they knew I was young," he said.
Blackburn must have been a pretty good teacher for himself because he explained that on one particular occasion he sprayed an impressive 345 acres in one day.
Now, Blackburn said he enjoys dry fertilizer application more that any other task he performs at the Co-op.
"I don’t mind liquid [application] when everything’s going right," he said. "But when that truck goes to messing up, it seems like I get more on me than on the field."
After 30 years of work and 8 management changes, you can only imagine the changes he’s seen at the Co-op. But Blackburn said one of the biggest changes he’s noticed is the decrease in full-time farming operations and therefore a new type of clientele.
"One of the biggest changes was the amount of farmers who went out of business. I don’t know if there are 10 full-time farmers we service now. There are more, like me, who hobby farm. I was just a kid when I first came to work, but it seemed like there were about 100 farmers back then," Blackburn said.
Like many of his customers, he enjoys farming as a side operation. Blackburn bought his first cow when he was just 12-years-old, a purchase he amusingly recalls since he paid $40 for the cow and then sold it shortly after for $120. Since his initial purchase, Blackburn said he’s bought and sold cattle and has a hay production operation, hobbies that have directly contributed to his work at the Co-op.
"You’ve got to enjoy what you do. I’ve always enjoyed farming, so working at the Co-op fits me to a T," he said.
Blackburn’s 30 years of service has helped him develop camaraderie with the clientele of Talladega County Exchange. He described the store’s patrons as "some of the best customers you could ask for." Talladega veterinarian, Dr. Dale Lowry, agreed that the respect is mutual.
"Mike is one of the finest people I’ve ever met," Lowry said. "He’s always willing to help folks."
Thirty years may be a long time, but Blackburn doesn’t plan on hanging his hat up just yet. He said he plans on working there "as long as he can and as long as they’ll have me."
Presently he is recuperating from an operation, but he’s anxious to get out of the house and back to the store.
"You think about sitting in this house seven days a week. It gets mighty boring sitting around here and there’s only so much T.V. you can watch," he said.
One thing is certain, the customers and employees of Talladega County Exchange are just as ready for him to be back.
Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.