Successful Farming - - FARM MANAGEMENT - By Ray­lene Nickel

When Mitch and Dawn Lazenby took over their fam­ily’s cot­ton farm in 1990, the price of cot­ton was poor. In their com­mu­nity near Auburn, Alabama, farms are small and crop di­ver­sity is of­ten limited. The Lazen­bys knew they needed to broaden their hori­zons in or­der to stay on the farm.

“In our part of the state, our weather can be very wet or it can be very dry,” says Mitch Lazenby. “We needed a di­verse crop ro­ta­tion in or­der to spread our risk.”

They ex­per­i­mented first by adding win­ter wheat and peanuts to their cot­ton farm. They had enough suc­cess with a three-crop ro­ta­tion to add more crops. To­day, the Lazen­bys’ ro­ta­tion on 2,000 acres in­cludes cot­ton, win­ter wheat, soy­beans, corn, peanuts, and se­same seeds. They grow cover crops be­sides.

Their ef­forts to diver­sify didn’t stop with crops. Imag­i­na­tion com­bined with a watch­ful eye took over, and the Lazen­bys opened the doors of op­por­tu­ni­ties as they ap­peared.

In ad­di­tion to their di­verse crop­ping op­er­a­tion, they run a cowherd of 150 head, and with a part­ner, they op­er­ate a bull-devel­op­ment cen­ter. Be­sides these en­ter­prises, their farm fea­tures agri­tourism ac­tiv­i­ties of­fer­ing re­cre­ation, on-farm wed­dings, and ed­u­ca­tional events.

“We’ve al­ways had an open mind-set right from the start,” says Lazenby. “We’ve tried never to say no to op­por­tu­ni­ties as they have come along. Di­ver­si­fy­ing has helped us con­tinue farm­ing and liv­ing a life­style that has much in­trin­sic value.”

Be­yond reap­ing the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of di­ver­si­fy­ing into agri­tourism, the Lazen­bys be­lieve this en­ter­prise of­fers a way to model to a non­farm­ing pop­u­la­tion the core val­ues ide­ally in­her­ent in fam­ily farms; namely, in­tegrity, a work ethic, and re­spect for oth­ers.

“Our agri­tourism events give us a nice tool to tell our story and to ad­vo­cate for agri­cul­ture,” says Lazenby. “It also gives us a way to se­cure a place – a pres­ence – in the life of our com­mu­nity.”

start­ing out

The Lazen­bys started their agri­tourism en­ter­prise by of­fer­ing a pump­kin patch for visi­tors to pick their own pump­kins dur­ing the month of Oc­to­ber. The patch also fea­tures a chil­dren’s play­set, which Lazenby crafted from an old cot­ton picker.

Build­ing an on-farm event cen­ter broad­ened the Lazen­bys’ agri­tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties. The heated build­ing of­fers 9,000 square feet of space, a kitchen, bath­rooms, and a large rock fire­place. To keep con­struc­tion costs af­ford­able, the Lazen­bys did most of the work them­selves.

The cen­ter, com­bined with a man­i­cured pe­can or­chard backed by a sea­son­ally pic­turesque cot­ton field, gives the Lazen­bys the re­sources needed to host 50-some wed­dings an­nu­ally. They have de­pended only on word of mouth to grow this par­tic­u­lar busi­ness ac­tiv­ity.

“We also work with Auburn Univer­sity, which books our event cen­ter for some of its train­ing sem­i­nars,” says Lazenby. The univer­sity is only about a 15-minute drive from their farm.

The Lazen­bys have fur­ther diver­si­fied the use of their event cen­ter by hold­ing a live­stock auc­tion that serves to add value to their bull-devel­op­ment en­ter­prise.

“In­side the event cen­ter, we held a video sale for bulls,” says Lazenby. “Be­fore the sale, we sent out DVDs and sale cat­a­logs telling about the cat­tle. We got a huge re­sponse. A lot of prospec­tive cus­tomers at­tended, and the sale went well.”

The black An­gus bulls come from the Lazen­bys’ herd and the herds of the breeder-co­op­er­a­tors who have their bulls cus­tom-

Mitch Lazenby be­lieves a range of en­ter­prises, in­clud­ing peanuts (far left), cot­ton (left), wheat, soy­beans, corn, cover crops, se­same seeds, cat­tle, and agri­tourism, cuts risk for his farm.

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