Feb. 24—TANNER — The Bridgeforth Farms office sits on the southern edge of Limestone County on a road that carries the family name. As far as you can see in every direction stretches the row-crop farm that covers, in all, 10,000 acres in four counties, producing wheat, corn, cotton and soybeans.
The farm, operated by fourth and fifth generations of the Bridgeforth family, includes some of the 600 acres where George Bridgeforth, a freed slave, grew cotton, corn and hay, starting in the 1870s.
"I wanted to farm here since I was 12 years old," said Bill Bridgeforth, 62, who's a partner in the operation with his brother, Greg, 65; Bill's sons, Kyle, 32, and Carlton, 36; and Greg's son, Lamont, 44. "This is my 47th crop. There's always something new."
Greg, who has worked full time on the family farm since 1974, also had a passion for working the land. From the time he was a kid, "I always loved farming. My grandfather did it, my daddy (Darden Bridgeforth) did it. That was my path, I guess you'd say."
And for the families Greg knew growing up here, "farming was just a way of life."
Greg and Bill are among 13 children raised on the family farm, including eight boys. "At one time, all of us farmed with Daddy," said Bill. "Greg and I were the youngest so we're the two still here on the farm." Two of his brothers have died and the others have retired.
The family members realize the importance of agriculture, and their role in the industry.
"The product we produce goes directly to people's nutrition, which is noble work and essential," said Kyle, 35, who received a degree in international studies: business and economics from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Before returning to the farm, he was a special assistant with the U.S. trade representative working with an agricultural team.
"I think it's important to have some diversity in the ag community," said Bill. "Black farmers are few and far between."
Bill is chairman emeritus of the National Black Growers Council, which advocates for Black row-crop producers and encourages diversity, hosting model farm tours.
At the peak in 1920, there were 925,708 U.S. farms with Black producers, with the total number of farms at 6.45 million, according to Census of Agriculture data. In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 35,470 farms with Black producers out of the U.S. total of 2.04 million farms.
"When I was growing up, I can remember 15 Black farmers who grew cotton and soybeans and corn (in Limestone County), but now, just two," he said. — Winter work
It's February, and there's plenty of work to keep the family and six other employees busy this time of the year.
"We're spreading lime, doing some necessary tillage work, getting ruts out of the fields, running our dozer and excavator doing farm maintenance," said Bill, who received a degree in soil science from Alabama A&M University. "At the shop we're working on equipment we'll be using this summer." They're also moving grain from grain bins on the farm to market.
At this point of the year, work includes fertilizing and weed control on the 2,500 acres of wheat in the ground, with harvest expected the beginning of June.
"We take two weeks off at Christmas," said Bill. "That's the only time we can expect to be off." Otherwise, "we work six days a week year round."
Asked the reasons behind the operation's longevity and success, Bill said: "The good Lord created some opportunities for us, and we've all enjoyed working. We don't mind sacrificing. None of us have any unsustainable lifestyles."
"It's a testament to the good Lord a lot more than it is us," he said. "Daddy used to say, 'I know there are folks out there that are smarter than we are and I know there are folks out there that work a lot harder than we do, but the Lord hasn't blessed them to achieve some of the things we have.'"
Greg agreed and said, "Any success we have I attribute to the Lord." — Competing for workers
Like other farm families, the Bridgeforths face challenges from finding labor to increasing production costs.
"We've had some terrible droughts to come through," Bill said, and with other job opportunities available, "labor has been a challenge, labor is a challenge. We're competing for labor."
In June, when wheat is being harvested and moved to market, soybeans are planted and corn is irrigated, "we'll have 20 people working," including family members, he said.
"Probably 25 or 30 years ago, you could find anybody locally to work," some with farm experience, said Lamont. "Now that's not the case."
"The cost of production is out the roof," said Bill, with farmers facing rising costs for equipment, insurance, labor, fertilizer, seeds, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. "Still, farmers have to continue to operate on a very thin margin," he said.
However, Bill and Greg's sons didn't have to be convinced to continue the family's legacy in agriculture.
"That was my interest," Kyle said. "The plan was always to come back at some point, but the opportunity presented itself to come back sooner than I expected. And also it was a good point for (Carlton) to come back, too. The opportunity presented itself so we pursued it."
Carlton, also a Morehouse College graduate, had worked with Bank of America in New York before he and Kyle returned to the farm operation in 2012. Carlton is now a staff member with the House Agricultural Committee in Washington, D.C.
Lamont, an Auburn University graduate, enjoys the process of planting the seeds, watching them grow and harvesting in the fall, and operating the heavy equipment.
"I just can't explain it really, but I just love it," he said. "It's like it's in my blood."
Lamont has worked with the family farm for about 20 years, and at one time when he was younger thought he might want to be an architect.
That changed when he was an 18-year-old high school senior and his father spoke to students during Career Day at his school. "I changed my mind," he said. "He told a really compelling story."
— firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.