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Diversity Fuels the Farm
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 non-farming 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.”
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-developed at the Lazenbys’ farm.
Creative thinking has been the driver behind the creation of each of their enterprises, all of which serve to spread risk. Especially on the cropping side of their operation, the Lazenbys have imagined ways to reduce risk further.
To safeguard against drought stealing their crops, they developed a pond-based irrigation system. “We’ve built water-storage reservoirs on the farm,” says Lazenby. “We pull the water out of creeks and streams that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Focusing on building health in their soils further reduces risk in crop production. Crops grown in healthy soils tend to be more resilient and thus better able to withstand either wet or dry conditions. “We try to give soil organisms a diverse diet of living roots,” says Lazenby. “We plant legumes and cover crops. We also use no-till and strip-till to minimize soil disturbance.”
Their concentration on building soil quality adds another chapter in their farm story that they’re able to share with visitors to the farm. “We’re trying to teach people about soil health,” he says.
While there’s no question the multiple farm enterprises increase management and labor, the Lazenbys manage the hefty work load themselves, along with the help of one full-time employee, farm manager Andrew Sparks. They also have a part-time helper. Dawn manages the hosting of the weddings and drives a school bus in addition to caring for their three children, ages 10, 9, and 8.
“We work some crazy hours, but I really don’t think about how busy we are,” says Lazenby. “Like a lot of other farmers, we’ve always had a can-do attitude. It’s our faith in God’s care and my wife’s sacrifices that really make the diversification of our farm successful.”
In his view, finding ways to diversify a farm makes a natural fit for most farmers. “Farmers are always looking to try something new,” he says. “Farmers are entrepreneurial at heart. We’re the most self-motivated individuals on the planet.”
INSIGHTS FROM AN INSIDER
After nearly three decades of building increasing diversity into a farming operation to reduce production and marketing risks, Lazenby has learned a thing or two about the process. He offers these suggestions to others looking to diversify.
• Focus on enterprises that make a natural fit. “Do a personality assessment and find enterprises that are a natural fit for your personality,” he says.
• Start small. Stick to just one or two new enterprises or management changes to begin with.
• Commit to a time line. “Though things always happen that you can’t foresee, set a time line and work extra hard to meet it,” he says. “It’s important to see something through to the end before you decide whether or not to continue with an enterprise.”
• Overcome fear. “Many people are fearful of change,” he says. “Remember that diversity is all about managing risk.”
• Push the boundaries. Finding the right path for a new enterprise begins with having the courage to step outside a comfort zone. Imagining and working toward new goals may lead to an outcome that’s either right or wrong for you. “The only way to find that out is to push the boundaries,” says Lazenby.