Jay Minter grew up in an agricultural family steeped in Alabama history, but his future didn’t appear to center around farming.
For one thing, he went to a college that didn’t have a course in agriculture. He studied religion and philosophy instead.
When he returned home from Memphis where he had received a degree from Rhodes College, he joined his dad in operating a sprawling farm operation where cotton had been the key to a multi-generational success story.
Jay was in his mid-20s at the time and, although he had grown up at the farm, he realized he still had a lot to learn from his dad, who was his "professor" without a blackboard.
Then, it all seemed to fall apart just as he was really learning the ropes. James Anthony Minter III developed cancer and was gone within two years.
The same thing would happen to David Casey who was Jimmy Minter’s right-hand man on the farm. He succumbed to cancer within two years of his boss’ death.
That left Jay in charge of a huge farm operation when most men his age were either in graduate school or starting out at the bottom rung in corporate America.
Although the Minter family had been raising cotton and other crops in the area near the bend of the Alabama River since the founding of the state, Jay wasn’t a prototypical farmer.
What he did have was a sense of history and the importance of continuing the family operation for as long as he could.
He never had an agricultural epiphany and his father never ordered him to take over the business when he was gone. But, deep down inside, Jay knew the land, the family and he, in particular, were part of an unbreakable chain.
"I always considered myself to be a responsible person and when my dad died I knew this was where I should be," he said, as he tried to stay dry under the leaky deteriorating awning of the closed general store his family had operated for decades.
Frolicking in the rain and splashing in mud puddles near him were his children—Gilley, 10; Cink, 5; and Madge, 2. He smiled at their antics, no doubt thinking of the days when he was a boy how he had done the same thing.
Jay is the sixth generation Minter to operate the farm. His family dates back to Cahawba, which was Alabama’s first capital city. Minters were around when statehood was bestowed in 1819.
His ancestors’ longevity is well known in Dallas County. Some lived into their 90s and expressed their farming opinions long after they were too old to run it on a daily basis.
Tyler, located about 10 miles east of Selma just off U.S. Hwy 80, was named for a railroad president and not the U.S. president. It once was a hustling, bustling place with eight general stores, two cotton gins, a railroad station, a saw mill and two doctors.
On the other end of Dallas County is the community of Minter. Jay said it’s named for relatives of his ancestors.
A decade after statehood, his great-great-great grandfather—Anthony Morgan Minter—settled in the area and began growing cotton in the rich soil not far from Durant’s Bend on the Alabama River.
When Wilson’s Raiders invaded Dallas County in the first week of April, 1865, the Minters hid the family jewels in the blankets and diapers of James Anthony Minter. It worked. The Yankees never found them.
By the time the baby was old enough to take over operations of the farm, a railroad crossed over the family property and Tyler became a commercial center in that part of Dallas County.
Most of the structures built during the late 19th century, including the general store which was built in 1890, are still standing—barely.
"They serve to remind me of my place in a long continuing chain," said Jay, 36. "My family almost exclusively grew cotton on the same land for the next 110 years."
That’s one reason why the Minter operation has been recognized as an important part of the Alabama Century and Heritage Farm programs.
A Century Farm is one that has been in the same family continuously for at least 100 years and still has some agricultural activity in place. A Heritage Farm has the same criteria along with a requirement for farms to possess interesting and important historical and agricultural aspects.
The Minter operation is one of 10 Dallas County farms belonging to both exclusive clubs and its young owner has been singled out by Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks for his management abilities.
"Jay Minter is one of Alabama’s unique farmers," said Sparks. "He has an innovative approach to farming and has been willing to think outside the norm and try new things. That includes diversifying crops. Jay’s progressive thinking has made him a very successful farmer."
Diversification has been a key to Minter’s continuing success story, especially in the wake of two devastating droughts in the past decade.
The gin that once processed untold thousands of bales of cotton has been idle for several years. Changing times in agriculture have removed cotton gins from many farming communities.
"Cotton, historically, was our main crop," Jay said, after hopping into his pickup truck to conduct a tour of the huge farm for the Cooperative Farming News. "Not anymore. These droughts have been awful. You hope you only have one like it in a career, but we’ve had two in the last 10 years."
Jay never lost his sense of humor as the back-to-back droughts continued to dry up the land and put the Minter farm into an agricultural vise.
He couldn’t do much more than hope for the best and even joke about college courses that didn’t exactly prepare him for prolonged dry spells.
"With my religion and philosophy courses, I’d tell people that I could pray for rain and if I didn’t get it, I could justify why," he said, breaking into a smile.
Jay admitted that his affinity for staying on the cutting edge of agriculture may have been costly, especially when a lot of money was spent to upgrade his cotton gin.
"I was committed to cotton to a fault and didn’t step back far enough to analyze how it had changed with the times," he said. "I think I may have stayed too long with it."
The Minter operation today focuses on row crops, including a burgeoning peanut business, cattle, sorghum and timber. A big part of the farm today is in trees.
Robin Sanderson, a consulting forester who lives in Monroeville, was effusive in his praise of the Minter family.
"I have worked with them for 30 years and I know all about the big impact they have had on this area," said Sanderson, who dropped by to chat with Jay for a few minutes. "I know many people who praise the character and reputation of the Minter family, especially Jay as he carries on a tradition started nearly 200 years ago."
Good character and responsibility have always been impressed upon Minter children then and now. Jay and his wife, Julia Anne, make sure their children know what those words mean.
Jay’s mother, Ann Minter High, couldn’t be prouder of her son for what he has accomplished virtually by himself for the past decade.
"His dad always called him ‘professor’ and I don’t have any doubts Jay would have made an excellent teacher," said Ann, who continues to live on the farm—high on a hill overlooking the closed gin and general store.
She said if Jay had not taken over management of the farm, the land most likely would have been leased to other farmers or someone else would have been hired to supervise operations.
As it turned out, Jay was the man and he had his own plan. Instead of ending a long line of Minters plowing the fields in and around Tyler, he kept the line going strong.
That leads to James Anthony Minter V, or "Cink," as he’s better know for obvious reasons to anyone familiar with Spanish.
Right now, he’s enjoying life as any 5-year-old boy would. He has the run of the place as well as the love that envelopes him by Minters near and far.
"Cink is all boy and loves country living," said his dad. "I don’t want to force him into anything when he’s of age. That’s something he’ll have to decide for himself."
Jay’s dad, who died at the age of 54, didn’t force his son into continuing the family operation, but, in the back of his mind before he died, he just knew it would happen.
"I guess it was a natural evolution that I’d come back and take over the family business," said Jay. "After college, I basically had my fill of big city life."
Tyler can hardly compare with Memphis, of course, but it does have something Beale Street lacks. There isn’t a traffic light in sight in "downtown" Tyler where an occasional train rumbles through town, past the closed buildings and cattle grazing not far from the tracks.
Jay Minter wouldn’t have it any other way.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.