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Posted: May 16, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Farm tour shows county’s riches

By Gabriel Khouli /

Several county officials went on a tour of some of Newton County’s most successful farms Saturday, learning about some of the intricacies of fruit, cattle and hay farms.

The Newton County Farm Bureau and Green Enterprise Group hosted the farm tour in order to spread awareness about agriculture in Newton County with an emphasis on conservation and green farming techniques.

Strawberry Fields

The Mitcham family’s strawberry fields, located in Oxford, were the first stop, where officials saw the more than 18,000 strawberry plants located on a little more than one acre. Keith Mitcham said the family uses plants from Canada because they are more disease resistant. While the strawberries aren’t technically organic, the Mitchams don’t use any pesticides, only fungicides.

Keith said too much rain can be an enemy of strawberries, because it can lead to disease, whereas the drip system delivers the appropriate amount of water. Tommy Mitcham said strawberry farming is expensive — about $5,000 an acre. He said the trick to a sweet berry is to not put fertilizer on the plants.

He hopes to expand the farm to more than 30,000 plants next year. The farm also produces eggplant, squash and sweet corn and is home to an annual corn maze.

The Cattle Middleman

The next stop was northwest, near Lake Varner where Keith leases land from the Williams family to raise 1,000 heads of beef cattle. Keith is the middle man in the cattle operation. He buys young cattle, raises them and adds weight to them, then he often ships them to Western farms, which add further weight to the cattle and eventually sell them to be butchered.

One of the most difficult part about raising young cattle is that they get sick just like human children. Keith showed the tour group a special dart which he uses to medicate the calves. Using a dart gun is more effective then sticking the cattle with needles.

The group watched the cows feeding, and Keith shared that in the past he has received waste candy from candy manufacturing companies to feed to the cows in small quantities.

"The cows loved chocolate," he said. He said they also used to love wet grain, which he got from Budweiser.

Abundance of Farming

Newton County used to have several dairy farmers, but today there is only one dairy farm left in the county. There are still several cattle farms.

The group passed by Little Springs Farm, the largest contiguous farm in Newton County at more than 3,000 acres. The land contains about 900 head of cattle and nine different lakes on the property, including an 80-acre lake. The group also passed by farmland owned by funeral home owner Lester Lackey, and Alcovy Berry Farm which grows blackberries and blueberries, located off Lackey Road.

The third stop was Fred Greer’s large farm, which is a combination timber farm, cattle farm, orchard and wildlife habitat. Greer’s farm was recently profiled in a special Covington News agriculture series. Search for "The Mighty Oak" on covnews.com.

Hay Baling

The final stop was the Hodges family hay farm. Grady Hodges and his family have grown oat, ryegrass, soybeans, wheat and wheatgrass for decades. The three workers actually rent close to 1,000 acres of land, composed of about 10 to 12 farms.

Not only do they work seven days a week for several hours a day, but Grady Hodges said they also do about 95 percent of their own mechanical repairs. That work is extensive for the threshers and other machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Hodges produce nearly 60,000 combined bales of different kinds of hay every year.

"There are a lot of horses here, so we sell a lot of hay and wheat straw," Hodges said. He said they also sell some of their products to Pennington Seed in Madison, which produces bird seed.

Hodges brought out some wheat kernels to show to the crowd. District 1 County Commissioner Mort Ewing said the difference between wheat and white bread, is that wheat bread uses the whole kernel, while white bread only contains the part inside the kernel.

A Newton County Meal

The final stop was Burge Plantation, where officials were treated to a meal that was made entirely of local products. Grilled hamburgers, roasted vegetables, salad, deviled eggs, spicy dill pickles, blackberry cobbler, strawberry ice cream and iced tea were all provided by local farmers and residents.

The meal was followed by a hay ride around Burge, where owner Sandy Morehouse has hired organic farmer Corey Mosser to start a large organic farm and orchard. They plan to grow and sell heirloom or specialty vegetables to high-end stores and restaurants in Atlanta.

Blueberries, eggplants, kiwis, peppers and tomatoes are just some of the foods Mosser is growing. He said one key to organic farming is the particularly rich compost waste used, which increase microbial matter, and therefore, the health of the soil, which leads to plants that are more disease resistant.

In 2009, more than $14 million worth of agricultural products left Newton County, including more than $8 million worth of cattle, said Brent Galloway, local farm bureau president. He said the Green Enterprise Group will continue to look for ways to increase sustainable agriculture, industry and an overall lifestyle in Newton County.

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