February 2006
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Holding On to a True Family Farm

 
  Gary Weatherly, standing against an upping block, which was used by his grandmother to get on her horse.
by Susie Sims

Life on the Weatherly family farm sure has changed. A century ago, it took many mules, horses, and five sharecroppers to produce 50 acres of corn. Now, it takes one farmer, one employee, and a shed full of equipment to work 800 row-crop acres.

Gary Weatherly’s farm is a good example of how adapting to modern ways can mean profit, stability, and keeping the family farm.

"We’ve had to change," said Weatherly. "It’s either change or get left behind."

Adapting to the times is nothing new for this farmer, age 67, or his farm. His father and grandfather had to make changes to survive, and change is ever present.

One major change occurred when the family purchased four John Deere Model L tractors in the early 1940s.

"Three of our sharecroppers used the tractors, and it made a big difference," recalled Weatherly. "Those tractors may not seem like much today, but they sure beat a mule."

Another turning point in the farm’s existence occurred around the middle of last century.

"Around 1950 or so, the sharecroppers left the farm to find other work that was becoming available in the area," recalled Weatherly. "Daddy began farming more himself about that time."

Weatherly’s father, Glover Weatherly, had primarily taken care of the family’s other businesses, including a saw mill, grist mill, mechanic shop and gas station.

 
Gary Weatherly, standing with his newly restored John Deere Model L tractor. Weatherly’s grandfather bought the tractor in the early 1940s. He said he kept the tractor because he and it are the same model—1938.  
Weatherly’s grandfather, David Weatherly, ran a general store and oversaw the sharecropping.
The farm became a part of the Weatherly family in 1898, when David Weatherly married Emma-line Howell, who, at the time, lived on the property with her two sisters. David and Emmaline purchased the sisters’ shares of the farm and the Weatherlys have been there ever since.

During its past 100 years, the farm has produced corn, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, cotton, and hay. In addition, hogs, sheep and beef cattle have been raised there.

New ventures for Weatherly include timber and changing the way he markets some of his grain.

He now has 225 acres of timber standing, including some recent replantings.

A New Way Of Doing Things

A few years ago, as Weatherly realized his trucks were aging, he concluded that he would have to invest in new grain trucks, pay to have the grain hauled, or find another way to sell his grain. The solution has proved to be beneficial to the farm and the community.

 
  Weatherly, taking a morning count of his herd.
Weatherly began selling corn directly from the farm—one barrel at a time.

"Selling corn here, at the farm, has really made it easy on us," Weatherly said. "We just have to keep the bins full so the customers can help themselves."

He uses feeder bins to dispense corn into customers’ 55-gallon drums. Rarely does a day go by without any customers.

Weatherly has streamlined the process by adding more bins and setting up the area as self serviceable.

Starting Small

One of Weatherly’s main sources of income over the years was from selling hogs. He typically had 75 sows, which means there were 800 or so hogs on the farm on any given day.

"I got my first pig from the Future Farmers of America’s Pig Chain in 1953," said Weatherly. "I received one gilt and paid them back with two."

 
Gary Weatherly (left) and Edward Sartin, working on the farm’s combine.  
Getting out of the hog business was not something Weatherly was looking to do. In the mid 1990s the trend for selling hogs was moving to the contract market, he said. Weatherly was left with the choice of building new facilities to comply with the contract requirements or quit the business.

His start-to-finish hog operation closed during Thanksgiving week in 1996.

In addition to hogs, Weatherly has had beef cattle for most of his life. He bought his first cow from his grandfather for $100.

"I repaid my grandfather a dollar at a time," Weatherly recalled. "I sold loads of slabs from our saw mill for firewood at a dollar a load. Every time I sold a load, I paid him a dollar."

Weatherly kept a notebook that contained his payments. He marked off each dollar until he paid off the debt.

Now he runs 50 Charlois cross-bred cows. He plans his calving season for late-fall to winter so he has time to handle the calves.

He raises his own hay on 50 acres of coastal Bermuda fields. He supplements the cows’ feed with Crystalyx barrels from the Co-op.

A Good Education And Then Some

 
  Edward Sartin (left) and Gary Weatherly during planting last spring, setting the seed depth on the planter.
After graduating from Phillips High School in Bear Creek in 1955, Weatherly enrolled in Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn. He was in the first graduating class from Auburn University.

"The name of the school changed from Alabama Polytechnic Institute to Auburn University on Jan. 1, 1960," said Weatherly. "I graduated in March of 1960. I was in the College of Agriculture, so we got our diplomas first. I was tenth in line."

While in college, he married the former Carolyn Self of Brilliant.

Classmates of Weatherly include Allen Bragg of Toney, Clinton Hardin of Moulton, and AFC’s Bill Carroll.

After college, Weatherly began working with his cousin Fat Lawrence in Selma. Lawrence is known for patenting the Bush Hog brand mower.

"We used to work under the cover of night testing out new prototypes for mowers," remembered Weatherly. "It was very secretive."

Weatherly also worked on the farm with Lawrence. He stayed in Selma for just over a year before enlisting in the United States Air Force.

He served from 1961 to 1965, when his father was killed in a tractor accident. Weatherly then came home and resumed his work on the farm.
Current Operation

Weatherly currently splits his 800 acres equally between corn and soybeans, rotating each year. He switched to a complete no-till practice several years ago and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once the necessary equipment changes were made, the rest was easy.

Comparing his old tillage methods and hauling of grain to the way things are done today, Weatherly said, "This can make a lazy man out of any man."
The Co-op Experience

Weatherly began trading at the Marion County Co-op in Hamilton close to 30 years ago.

"I had been trading with the Gold Kist FMX in Haleyville, but it went out of business," said Weatherly. "Steve Hodges was the manager of the Marion County Co-op at the time and asked me to trade at Hamilton. I’ve been there ever since."

Weatherly knows that neighbor and fellow hog-farmer Bug Gregg was at least partly responsible for getting his business at the Co-op. Gregg has been on the local board of directors for many years.

Weatherly depends on the Co-op for all of his farming needs, including seed, fertilizer, tires, chemicals, animal health products, minerals, and even his trademark overalls.

He jokes that it’s really his wife’s garden seed bill in the spring that keeps the Co-op in business.

Know What You’ve Done

Weatherly is an avid record keeper, a habit that he learned early on. He keeps accurate records of rain, soil samples, fertilizer and lime applications, plantings and yields.

"Keeping good records is the only way to know what is really working for you," advised Weatherly. "Otherwise, you’re just guessing, and that gets expensive."

Besides keeping accurate records, Weatherly spends much of his "down time" doing preventative maintenance.

"It’s out of necessity that we work on things when we have time," said Weatherly. "We can’t  afford to have a major breakdown during planting or harvesting."

Weatherly has one employee, Edward Sartin, who has worked for him since 1986.

Weatherly is an elder at the Whitehouse Church of Christ. He also leads singing and teaches a Bible class.

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.