December 2008
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Co-op Manager Returns to Farming Roots

 

Farmer Chris Gary grows more than 850 acres of cotton, soybean and corn. He is shown turning on the fan to the silo currently storing about 20,000 bushels of this year’s corn crop.

Gary Living His Dream

When you talk to folks in the South the subject always turns to people you know. You reminisce about people you once knew but have lost contact with over the years.

In Northwest Alabama, specifically Marion and Fayette counties, the one person folks seem to wonder about most is Chris Gary.

Gary was the manager of the Marion County Co-op in Hamilton for seven years in the 1990s. While working there, he got the opportunity to put in four chicken houses for Peco.

Many people believe Gary fell off the face of the planet in 1998. Contrary to belief, Gary is alive and well in his native North Fayette County.

Chris Gary uses a rainy morning to catch up on his farm’s bookwork.

 
   

"I enjoyed my time at the Co-op but I got the chance to put in some chicken houses," said Gary. "I built four chicken houses."

Gary now has a total of six chicken houses. In addition he farms more than 850 acres of cotton, corn and soybeans. Gary also tends to about 40 crossbred cows and grows about 30 acres of coastal Bermuda hay each year.

Gary employs three full-time farm hands to help with the chickens and the crops. He also has two truck drivers who haul for a local logger.

To say he has a few irons in the fire is an understatement.

Where’s the Beef? In the Freezer

One more iron for Gary is feeding calves to be sold locally for slaughter.

"Folks still like to eat home-grown meat," he said.

Like many rural folks, Gary grew up eating meat raised on the farm and slaughtered locally. He remembered when the good food was abundant and learned to appreciate it more after a shortage.

"One time when I was a kid, we ran out of hamburger meat because I used to eat lots and lots," said Gary. "Mama had to buy hamburger meat until the next calf was ready to slaughter, and I couldn’t eat it—wouldn’t eat it."

For those of you who have ever had to make the switch from home-grown to store-bought beef, you know what Gary is talking about.

Gary said his mother never told him about the store-bought substitute meat, but he knew anyway.

"I could smell it," he remembered.

While at Auburn his mom would send vegetables and meat for him to cook.

"For the most part, I ate at school just like I ate at home," recalled Gary. "I ate well."

Gary admitted by the time he left Auburn he had succumbed to the fast food temptations befalling all college students.

Back to His Roots

Gary is living his dream right now and he will tell you so. He had the opportunity to return to his home place and raise his family there.

Gary and his wife, Liza, have been married for 15 years. They have two boys—Clay, 9, and Walt, 7.

Gary said both boys love farm life and are quite active with the operation. Liza works for Peco.

In order to find work, many kids who grow up in Northwest Alabama have to move elsewhere to find work. Gary is proud to make his living where he grew up.

He knows he was fortunate to return to his rural roots after spending a few years away getting his education.

After he graduated from Fayette County High School in 1984, Gary went to Auburn University to study Animal and Dairy Science. He graduated in 1989.

Following graduation, Gary worked for a group of investors managing a stocker operation. He went to work managing the Co-op in Hamilton in 1991.

Gary said there weren’t many Co-op employees at that time so he learned to do everything, including the books.

"Doing all the jobs at the Co-op helped me be a better manager," said Gary. "When something went wrong, I knew what would fix it because I had done it before myself."

Although he said the Co-op was good for him and good to him, he is awfully proud to be working on his farm.

"This is what I’ve always dreamed of," said Gary. "And now, I’m living it."

Waiting on Work

It took a little doing to catch up to Gary just for an interview. Such nonsense had to wait until it rained enough to keep him out of the fields. Fortunately, Gary was also waiting on chickens to be delivered the afternoon of the interview.

Of course he wasn’t just sitting around. When this writer arrived, Gary was elbow-deep in temporarily neglected bookwork.

The self-proclaimed cross between a perfectionist and a slob was horrified to have his picture taken at his desk, which was covered with statements, invoices and checks.

"After harvest I’ll catch up," promised Gary. "But only until planting time."

Gary said he likes it when things are neat and orderly, but keeping it that way isn’t always possible.

"I use my downtime to get caught up," said Gary. "It’ll look better in a few weeks."

Still a Co-op Man

Even though he hung up his manager’s cap a long time ago, Gary still considers himself a Co-op man.

He trades at the store he used to run and at the Fayette Branch of AFC.

Gary noted he likes to feed his cattle Co-op feeds. He also depends on the stores for most of his farm supplies.

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.