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How to Make Money Growing Food

Growing food for a living is still one of the toughest businesses around. Dallas County’s Sam Givhan is one of the best at it in Alabama, from beating back predators to keeping ahead of the commodities markets.

Sam Givhan stands in a patch of the 1,000 acres of soybeans he harvested this year, a good year. He says market research shows 2013 is also looking good for soybeans.

Sam Givhan stands in a patch of the 1,000 acres of soybeans he harvested this year, a good year. He says market research shows 2013 is also looking good for soybeans.

Photos by David Bundy

With a .22 rifle, in a 1989 jeep, Sam Givhan transcends a bumpy path through amber waves of grain toward his 250 acres of catfish ponds. Halting to inspect the “aqua-crop,” Givhan loads his weapon for pest control. “Cormorants,” he says, pointing a gun barrel at the catfish bird of prey. Ready, aim, “Boom!”

He missed this time, but sent startled waterfowl soaring for greener pastures. It’s another day on the family farm.

Like most farms, no day is typical for Givhan Land & Cattle Co., near Stafford, 20 miles from Selma. “Generally my work hours run from when I can see outside to when I can’t see outside,” he laughs. “There is always something to do.”

Included with the ponds, the Dallas County farmer has 4,200 acres of crops, 400 head of cattle and perhaps a million head of catfish. 

Drive down Highway 5 near Stafford, look on either side of the road. If fields are planted, it’s probably the work of Givhan, his brother Walter or another relative. He rents 2,323 acres and owns 1,877. The Givhan family has tilled this land for generations. He and wife, Lynne, live in the house he was raised in, an 1830s plantation home adjacent to the farm of generations. If only his ancestors could see him now.

A Vietnam War veteran, Givhan returned home from military service in the late 1960s. Though working other jobs, he continued tending the family crops. In 1972, he, his father and his brother founded Givhan Land & Cattle Co., and farming officially became Givhan’s trade. In 1973, Givhan started working full-time managing the family farm business.

Fast forward 40 years. In April of this year, Givhan’s company was named by the Alabama Farmers Federation as Alabama’s 2012 Farm of Distinction. In addition, Givhan has served 26 years as president of the Dallas County Farmers Federation and is a former board member of the Alabama Farmer’s Co-op. He knows agriculture and has seen many changes.

“When I was a kid, we used mules to manage the farm; today it is computers,” he says, checking one of three in his office, logged into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “Two things every farmer monitors daily, the weather and commodity prices.”

You also monitor the competition—not so much the farmers down the road or even across the county, but the ones in Vietnam. “Last spring, my catfish were selling for $1.20 a pound,” he says. “This year, it’s about 65 cents a pound.” China, Vietnam and other Asian markets put a dent in sales. But he saw it coming. For a farmer, forecasting market futures is as important as forecasting the weather.

Sam Givhan uses a device to measure the moisture content of the soil in one of his soybean fields. 

In the corporate world, analysis teams predict marketing trends. On Givhan Farms—the informal company handle—product R&D is conducted in the field, from an Internet-wired farm building-turned office. “I am presently making a deal to sell next year’s soybean crop,” he says, with a click of a mouse button. “Based on these trends,” tapping a monitor’s ticker tape, “2013 will be a good year for soybeans.” The price is set, the deal made, almost a year before seeds meet earth.

“Farming requires business skills,” Givhan says. “And farm workers are skilled workers. Some people think you can just hire someone off the street, show them a field of cotton and say ‘Pick it.’ Not true.  They must know what they’re doing, and finding and keeping employees who know what they are doing is not easy.”

Team Givhan staffs four to five full-time workers. In addition, son David manages hay and cattle production. His other son, Sam, is a Huntsville attorney who also is the farm’s legal counsel. Many temporary workers are hired during summer harvest time.

“You must constantly strive to keep costs down. Debt adds up fast,” Givhan says. “We try to maintain and repair our equipment in-house as much as possible.” Machinery is a two-edged sword. High tech combines separate the full-time business from the gardener. That’s the good news. The bad news is farm implement manufacturers are proud of their machines.

“Many companies make excellent combines,” says Givhan. “They will happily show what they’ve got. Go down and talk to a dealer, but be sure you have about $300,000 with you.” Of course, a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art model is in the $600 grand neighborhood. Givhan’s advice? Stay out of that neighborhood.

“The key is to buy used and do your own repairs,” he adds. “I try not to buy anything I can’t write a check for.”

Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, hay, cattle and catfish are his livelihood. Diversity in the workplace means rotating crops. “Some farmers are successful in growing a single crop, or just having a catfish farm. I’ve never been comfortable with that,” he notes. If the bottom falls out of the market for the sole crop planted or raised — that is, catfish — you’re out of luck. For Givhan, the key to success is having the ability to change and adapt.

Like many full-time independent farmers, he does not do retail. The harvest is sold to cooperatives and distributors who supply retail grocery chains and other food markets. His grains are sold to the Alabama Farmers Cooperative. His million-plus pounds of annual catfish harvest are sent to processing and distribution centers.

Cattle are sold through market auction in Uniontown. Givhan rarely sees his final customers. But, like any good businessman, he knows what customers want and how to deliver.

Driving through oceans of green fields, he outlines the state of the business.

Corn — “We had a slow start due to dry early season weather. But once corn is started, given enough rain, it will grow.”
Soybeans — “This is a very good year for soybeans,” Givhan says, noting that he has about 1,100 acres planted with it. “There’s plenty of moisture in the ground. See those little wasps flying around the plants? They are very beneficial. Little wasps eat the little worms that eat my soybeans.”
The weather — “Had a dry early summer this year, but the rain really took off in late July and August. It’s been great, especially for pasture grass, maybe the best year ever.”

But there are bad years, too. Like last year’s drought, foreign competitors and unwelcome “help” from the government. “We’re still recovering from when President Carter slapped grain embargos on us,” Givhan recalls. It is frustrating for farmers having their vocations dictated by bureaucrats whose experience with grain derives from pouring it from a cereal box. But like his vintage jeep, Sam Givhan moves on.

“I’ve been doing this for so long, cannot imagine doing anything else,” he says. “I plan to keep at it as long as I’m able.”

Tomorrow morning, at dawn’s first light, Alabama’s “farmer of the year” will walk around catfish ponds, checking water quality, ensuring stocks are healthy, and perhaps shooting cormorants. He will drive through rows of soybeans, inspect ears of corn and tend cattle, like his forefathers did. Then he monitors Internet agriculture, like his forefathers did not.

Some things never change; some things do, in life, family traditions, and business, down on the farm.

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.

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