by Alvin Benn
||Ned Ellis inspects his herd of Chiangus cattle at his farm in Lowndes County. Behind him is “No. 17,” his prized bull.
Ned Ellis has spent most of his life raising cattle, selling pecans and running a bank, but he may be happiest behind the wheel of his pickup truck as he bounces through a pasture where "No. 17" rules the roost.
That’s the name given to one of his prize Chiangus bulls and Ellis is careful not to get too close to scratch the big animal or his big pickup truck.
"Just look at him," he said, during a recent visit to his Circle E Farms in this Lowndes County community. "He’s really something."
"No. 17" seemed to know he could do pretty much whatever he wanted to do as he walked slowly through the pasture, sizing up mother cows and enjoying the warm late December weather.
For Ellis, it was a nice diversion to the banking business and helped him remember what it was like when he helped his father run the family farm so many years ago.
At the age of 74, Ellis is thoroughly enjoying his golden years and it’s not in a rocking chair, either.
Unlike some who do not veer from their chosen paths in life, Ellis isn’t afraid to take a chance on something new, something different. In his mind, it isn’t as much a gamble as a good opportunity.
|Ned Ellis, president of the First Lowndes Bank, chats with vice President Janet Heartsill.
That’s the way he viewed it three decades ago when he decided to raise Chiangus cattle.
Developed by blending the genetics of Chianina and Angus to produce a black composite breed, it is gaining in popularity across the U.S. The breed combines lean beef cattle from Italy with American Angus stock.
Mixing Chi, as they are called, with Angus, has allowed breeders to develop a female that is ideal in all aspects of production. Chiangus females are tolerant to environmental extremes. They are also fertile, functional and practical.
The Ellis family owns and operates about 3,000 acres of prime farmland in Lowndes County. Chiangus cattle represent a major investment and Ned didn’t hesitate to begin raising them after studying their potential.
"We bought our first Chiangus cattle in 1972," he said. "We’re crazy about ’em, too. They are a good breed. They grow fast and produce good meat. They grow to an average of about 1,200 pounds."
Keeping tabs on beef prices is part of his daily practices at the bank when he’s not out on the farm. He keeps a tiny text message device with him to see if meat prices are up or down.
With about 500 mother cows and 200 registered Chiangus cattle, the Ellis operation is one of the most successful in the state. The breed hasn’t completely caught on with the majority of Alabama cattlemen, but Ellis is happy with his operation that today is run by his daughter and son-in-law.
As a pioneer in developing the Chiangus breed in America, Ellis has gained quite a reputation around the country.
Glen Klippenstein, chief executive officer of the American Chianina Association, not only praises Ellis’ ability to raise cattle, he also admires Ellis’ personal attributes.
"(Ellis’s) Circle E cattle are consistently among the most profitable in feed yards because of their rapid efficient growth, high percentage grades, higher dressing percent and heavier carcasses," he said.
Klippenstein said Ellis has an "innate ability to see things the way they really are and what they should and could be.
"His patience, energy, passion and good will have been a real boost to the cattle industry, to the land and rural America and to superior Chiangus cattle," Klippenstein said.
Noting Ellis’s commitment to his county, state and nation, Klippenstein said America is fortunate to have a man with so many leadership skills.
"We have many good men, intelligent men, humble men, influential men, talented men, caring men, futuristic men, courageous men, patriotic men and family men," the ACA leader said. "In the case of Ned Ellis, we have a man that has it all."
"Futuristic" is a good word to describe Ellis, a man who expanded Priester’s Pecans from a small town operation into something with a national name.
The basis for the Priester’s project was Interstate 65 that extends from Mobile Bay to the Great Lakes. Back in the 1960s, nobody was quite sure what impact it might have on farming and industry, especially in rural states such as Alabama.
By the mid-1960s the interstate had begun to take shape in the state. By that time, Ellis already had a degree in agricultural science from Auburn University, finished a stint as an Army officer and was helping his father, Hense, on the family farm in Lowndes County.
Dairy cattle and cotton had been the Ellis family’s major sources of agricultural revenue in that era, but, when Hense Ellis and L.C. Priester launched a pecan business in 1935, it was the first step toward something that would have an impact far beyond the borders of Alabama.
After the deaths of his dad and the man whose name graces the company’s signs, Ellis—who had joined the company in 1965—became president and began moving toward the future.
Priester’s Pecans had a shelling operation and a candy shop in Fort Deposit, but U.S. 31 soon bypassed the town of 1,240. It wasn’t long before the candy shop was closed and the company bought a building along the interstate that, by that time, had bypassed U.S. 31.
"The building had been used as part of a modular home business," Ellis recalled. "I just had a feel that it would be a good opportunity for our company to open a retail shop in that location."
The retail business quickly prospered until 1996 when an electrical fire destroyed it. Ellis’s son, Thomas, and daughter, Ellen Burkett, who had assumed operation of the business from their father, quickly built a modern facility.
Today, Priester’s Pecans is one of America’s most popular confectionary businesses with a wide variety of items mailed throughout the country. It has a flourishing catalog business and is a "must-stop" spot for thousands of people heading to or from the Gulf Coast.
Valentine’s Day is one of February’s most popular days and Priester’s Pecans sells plenty of candy to satisfy folks with sweet teeth. It may not rank with the last month of the year, but it provides a boost for Priester’s business during the second month of every new year.
With the pecan business in good hands, Ellis had even more time to focus on the First Lowndes Bank which he helped to create in 1984.
He and other community leaders pitched in help raise $1.5 million to launch the bank. Today, assets top $150 million.
Ellis became president and chief executive officer a few years ago and now spends much of his time at the bank—when he’s not bouncing around in his Dodge Ram pickup to check on his cattle.
In addition to approving loans to local families and businesses, the bank also played a part in luring a Hyundai Motor Co. first tier supplier to Lowndes County. The plant makes exhaust systems for Hyundai.
Competition was keen among small towns that border Montgomery County where Hyundai opened its $1 billion facility a year ago. First Lowndes Bank was an important cog in the drive to land a plant which local leaders hope will have a positive economic impact in the area.
"We’re a customer-friendly community bank with branches in Hayneville, Highland Home and Greenville as well as Fort Deposit," said Ellis, as he stopped for a second to field a phone call from a customer. "I think that is what has made us so successful."
Like all small community banks, First Lowndes focuses on the small picture and doesn’t worry about huge banking operations in bigger towns.
One of its newspaper ads proclaims that it is "owned and operated by local people that do business with you, go to church with you and whose kids play with your kids."
That’s been Ellis’s guiding business principle—whether it involves cattle, cotton, pecans or banking.
"Our father taught us to be honest and give an honest day’s work," his son, Thomas, said. "We learned not to be afraid to try something new. His view on things is to ‘do your best and
take what comes.’"
One of four children of Ned and May Ellis, he is the only boy and proud to say his dad didn’t hold back when it came to life’s lessons, especially how they can help in the future.
"My dad taught me to drive an 18-wheeler when I was 16," he said. "He’s a hands-on man and I’d see him pour concrete for foundation work in the hot summer months."
Ned Ellis’s concrete pouring days ended a long time ago, but he isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and pitch in whenever family or community projects are involved.
That includes checking out "No. 17" to see how he’s doing.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.