September 2007
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"Farming Feeds Families" is a Slogan the Spates Family Knows Well

By Ashley Parkman Smith

  RV and Jerry Spates have 46 cows and 13 heifers. They plan on trading cows for more heifers in the upcoming year.
Although it was a hot summer afternoon, a nearby thundercloud pushed a cool breeze through the trees. As the limbs and leaves blew gently through the three great oak trees, the old-fashioned swings moved too, keeping their own time with the rhythm of the wind. Three Trees is what the cousins call this special shady spot – a place where all six of them spend time, share stories and stay within calling distance of the white farmhouse where their grandparents live.

South of the bustling city of Birmingham, Harpersville brings a pleasant reprieve from the blacktop and busy streets. Turn off the four-lane and wind down a couple of country roads to Spates Drive. Cotton, corn and a healthy garden line the dirt road to the white farmhouse where Roosevelt (RV) and Jackie Spates live. For 47 years this couple has farmed the land around them. Farming has always been a family business – RV’s father farmed here. Both his son and son-in-law have too. Grandkids help on the farm when extra hands are needed. Farming feeds families is a slogan the Spates family knows well.

"I was raised on a two horse cotton farm," shared RV. "We never had nothing! And I wanted more!" RV thought he could find more by not working on the farm. His first job was with Coosa River News Print. He also worked for Alabama Power, helping to survey land for the Logan Martin Dam to be built on the Coosa River. After only three months with Alabama Power, the Army drafted him into
Jackie and RV take a break on the wooden bench on the front porch of their farmhouse. The farm view from the front porch is beautiful and relaxing.  
service for the Korean War. With his commitment to his country fulfilled, complete with a 16-month stint in Korea, he returned to the United States to pursue a way of life other than the military. "I had been sending money home to my parents while I was in Korea," said RV. "I wanted to buy a car when I got home. Turns out, they had to use the money – ’54 was a tough year for farmers. To repay me, Daddy gave me 16 acres." RV was in business. Although he may not have picked farming, it seems farming picked him! RV and his father formed a partnership and farmed together for many years – they planted row crops and managed their own dairy until RV’s father died in 1978.

Jerry, RV’s son, farms with his father now. Between the two of them, they farm their own land as well as some leased land, accounting for approximately 600 acres. Although this year has been tough because of the drought, the two sound optimistic about the upcoming year. RV recently harvested approximately 40 acres of timber; he plans to convert this acreage into pastureland. He and Jerry talk about selling off some of the cows and trading for more heifers. In addition to their cows, they talk of planting soybeans, corn and cotton. They hope the rains come a little more frequently for next year’s crops and cattle. While RV proudly shares that they got more than three inches the night before, the rain came too late for much of their cotton suffering in this summer’s extreme heat. This summer, they supplemented their herd’s diet with hay and grain for the heifers. Through it all, RV and Jerry work well together and have done so for many years. RV laughs and said, "Jerry started farming young – he got on a tractor when he was only 11 and he hasn’t gotten off since!"

Both RV and Jerry enjoy farming (at least most years!) and especially appreciate getting to know the good people that help them in their business. Building relationships is smart business sense and something the Spates have accomplished with folks at the Shelby County United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office and Mid-State Farmers Cooperative in Columbiana. In recent years, Thomas McDaniel, NRCS District Conservationist, helped the Spates to enhance cattle operations through intensive grazing and by applying cross fencing, pipelines, water troughs and installing other conservation practices. As their cattle business has increased, the Spates’ relationship with the local Co-op has grown too. They depend on the Co-op in Columbiana for grass seed, cattle feed, vet supplies and more. "We appreciate the store’s manager Eddie Lockhart, as well as Mike Clelland, who is now an outside salesman for AFC," said Jerry. He is quick to share how the Co-op is helpful in getting information and updates on the latest available farm products, as well as offering demonstrations about the use of these products.

Standing on the front porch of the Spates’ farmhouse, surrounded by the cows, the cotton, the farm equipment and other farm structures, it is a beautiful, idyllic setting. While farming has its own rhythm of ups and downs, RV said, "Farming is a great way of life – no other occupation can touch it as far as a means of making a living, a way to raise your children." Looking out at Three Trees, it is easy to imagine that RV and Jackie’s grown children and grandchildren appreciate farming too.

Ashley Parkman Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.