CALS alumnus named 2015 Mississippi Farmer of the Year
Author: Vanessa Beeson
Fourth generation farmer Allen Eubanks of Lucedale, Miss., specializes in farm-fresh, hand-picked vegetable crops. Eubanks is a 1992 Agricultural Economics graduate.
He has been buying land throughout his career and his farm is now one of the largest vegetable farms in Mississippi. Eubanks Produce encompasses about 2,800 acres. He farms in six counties, including in nearby Alabama.
As a result of his vegetable farming success, Eubanks has been selected as the 2015 Mississippi winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Eubanks joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
His per acre yields are about 7,500 cantaloupe, 45,000 pounds of watermelons, 1,800 boxes of bell peppers, 1,750 boxes of tomatoes, 800 boxes of cucumbers, 850 boxes of squash, 475 boxes of sweet corn, and 55 bushels of soybeans.
Last year's crops included 136 acres of cantaloupes, 850 acres of watermelons, 150 acres bell pepper, 92 acres of tomatoes, 100 acres of cucumbers, 120 acres of squash, 240 acres of sweet corn and 600 acres of soybeans. This year, he's planting his first sweet potatoes on 175 acres.
A farmer for 23 years, Eubanks owns three major enterprises. These include Eubanks Produce, Inc., his main vegetable farming business; Charlie's U-Pik, a pick-your-own venture; and Farm Fresh Gourmet, a startup company specializing in creative recipes and value-added canning and preserving.
He relies on about 300 H-2A foreign guest workers for harvesting his crops. The time for profitable harvesting is short for each crop, so a reliable, legal workforce is a high priority for Eubanks.
Global positioning systems help him establish crop rows and allow for precision spraying, land leveling and drain tile installation. He anticipates using unmanned aircraft or drones for daily crop monitoring.
Eubanks relies water-saving drip irrigation. He also reports having fewer plant diseases by using drip irrigation.
He also plants into plastic mulch. He often uses black plastic for spring crops and paints the black plastic white for the fall season.
Eubanks samples plant tissue to pinpoint nutrient needs. He also samples his soil for nutrients twice yearly. He analyzes his well water once per year. He conducts pesticide residue tests on each crop at least once per season. “All produce can be traced to the production field, the harvester and harvest time,” he says.
Facilities on the farm include coolers and air conditioning to keep the crops chilled and quality high before they are shipped out to customers.
Eubanks is different from most large growers in that he markets his crops himself rather than relying on industry brokers. "I do have one individual who helps me with sales," adds Eubanks. He ships much of the produce in returnable plastic containers.
"We have also used our watermelon shed to serve a Farm-To-Table dinner for our community," says Eubanks. "We planned the menu based on what we grew on the farm, and raised $3,000 to benefit St. Jude’s Children's Hospital." Local culinary students did the cooking and FFA students served the meal.
"We're also involved in the Farm to School program," says Eubanks. This program furnishes fresh local produce for school meals. "We try to appeal to a diverse customer base in a variety of ways to encourage consumption of fresh and healthy produce," adds Eubanks.
Charlie's U-Pik is a 120-acre enterprise managed by Charlie Eubanks, Allen's father. Consumers pay $10 for a 5-gallon bucket of tomatoes. "Charlie's U-Pik gives customers direct access to locally grown produce," says Allen. "It also capitalizes on the agritourism movement by introducing youth to agricultural crops and production methods."
Eubanks started his Farm Fresh Gourmet business to bring value-added returns for his crops. He built a commercial kitchen to develop new recipes and assemble the food creations. Successful products so far include green tomato relish, pickles and strawberry pepper jelly. Sales have been good at local farmers markets, and Eubanks looks to expand distribution. Produce that doesn’t meet quality standards demanded by fresh market retailers may find uses in the Farm Fresh kitchen.
"I was born into farming," says Eubanks. One of his first jobs was making sure the truck carrying soybean seed stayed up with the planter. His dad paid him with a four-acre block of soybeans. He grew watermelons as a teenager. After graduating from Mississippi State University, he returned to the farm and began the transition from agronomic crops to vegetables. He still grows soybeans, mainly as a rotation crop.
He has coached youth baseball. He has served on the boards of the George County Co-op and Southern Ag Credit, and on the USDA Farm Service Agency state committee. He has been recognized by the Mississippi Public Health Association and as one of the state's top entrepreneurs. He's a member of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and a state agritourism organization. He has also been a member of the National Watermelon Association, Produce Marketing Association and the United Produce Association.
His wife Janice has a background in computer science and business. She oversees accounting and manages the farm's office. She introduced hand-held computers for use in the fields to keep track of the piece-rate harvests. This helped reduce payroll-processing times. She also helped the farm install a wireless network so U-Pik customers can make credit card purchases.
"Janice makes sure we comply with the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)," adds Allen. Janice is a member of the Ivy League Garden Club, and the board of United Way for Jackson & George Counties. She is a George County 4-H volunteer. She is also a Mississippi real estate agent.
Allen and Janice are active in Watermark Congregational Methodist Church. The Eubanks are also hosting a Chinese exchange student.
They have four children, sons Andrew, Joshua and Jacob, and daughter Allison. Their older children Andrew and Allison enjoy working on the U-Pik farm. Andrew seems interested in agricultural engineering, according to Janice. Allison uses social media to promote the farm. She also has taken an interest in the Farm Fresh Gourmet business. Its Allison’s Own brand is named after her.
"We want to give our children the opportunity to come back to the farm if they are interested in doing so," says Allen.
The entire family stays in shape by running in long distance races. "It all ties in with our healthy crops, eating healthy meals and staying active," says Janice.
Steve Martin, Mississippi Extension interim associate director for agriculture and natural resources, is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award.
Eubanks was nominated for the honor by Patricia Knight from Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. Knight is impressed that Extension agents from different counties recommended Eubanks for the award.
As the Mississippi state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Eubanks will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia vest from Ivey's Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, the choice of another $1,000 in cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey's Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Mississippi include: Hugh Arant, Sr. of Ruleville, 1990; Bill Hawks of Hernando, 1991; Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, 1992; Tol Thomas of Cruger, 1993; Rick Parsons of Vance, 1994; Ed Hester of Benoit, 1995; Bill Harris of Benton, 1996; Robert Miller of Greenwood, 1997; Ted Kendall, III of Bolton, 1998; Wayne Bush of Schlater, 1999; William Tackett of Schlater, 2000; Willard Jack of Belzoni, 2001; Hugh Arant, Jr. of Ruleville, 2002; Rick Parsons of Vance, 2003; Sledge Taylor of Como, 2004; Laurance Carter of Rollins Fork, 2005; Brooks Aycock of Belzoni, 2006; Tom Robertson of Indianola, 2007; Gibb Steele III of Hollandale, 2008; Donald Gant of Merigold, 2009; Dan Batson of Perkinston, 2010; Scott Cannada of Edwards, 2011; Bill Spain of Booneville, 2012; Abbott Myers of Dundee, 2013; and Danny Murphy of Canton, 2014.
Mississippi has had three overall winners, Kenneth Hood of Gunnison in 1993, Ed Hester of Benoit in 1995 and Willard Jack of Belzoni in 2001.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Eubanks farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 10-14. The judges for this year include John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; and farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., the overall winner in 2011.