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They reclaimed a farm and turned pine trees into high-yield cotton

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It was a locally renowned farm, but for 23 years it was planted in pine. The land needed work. The plan was ambitious.

A bend in the Coosa River nestles the 1,400-acre tract of land between Gadsden and Centre in northeast Alabama not far from the Georgia line. The land was part of what was the Kershaw Quarters Farm, a well-known farm still remembered as such by locals today even after the land was bought in 1993 by an international paper company as a place to grow pine trees.

More than two decades later, the paper company let it be known it wanted to sell off a large part of its land holdings, including Kershaw Quarters, and it got some folk’s attention.

“Around here you just don’t have a tract of land often become available which is that large and in one location with the river making a bend around good deep bottom soil, or ever. We knew the potential was there because it was known for growing good crops at one time,” said Nick McMichen, a fifth-generation farmer who is well known in the area and is based in Centre.

After expressing interest and initial negotiations, the company priced the Kershaw Quarters land right ‘to get out from under it.’ McMichen and his partners Richard Lindsey and Brent Tidwell ran the numbers on the timber and land values and what it would cost to reclaim the farm, Lindsey worked to secure the financing and together the group purchased the land on March 31, 2016.

It was an once-in-a-lifetime chance, McMichen said, and they took it. It was just the beginning of the challenge, though. McMichen wanted to turn those pine trees into cotton for the next growing season, which meant they had to get to it in order to plant cotton by May 2017.

The timber sale went a long way to help finance the venture. By mid-June 2016 they were the proud owners of land filled with stumps and weeds and a long way from being suitable to plant a crop. But the group had a few aces in its hand to get the job done: Family cooperation and weather suited to converting woods back to farmland.

On the McMichen side of the equation, there is Nick’s wife, Freida, teenage son, Matt, and their daughter, Mindy, who is engaged to Tyler Bruce, and there is McMichen’s father, Randall. The men worked to get the land ready, and McMichen admits ‘work’ doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. There were times they wanted to kill each other, but the family was on a mission and enjoyed ‘playing’ with some large-scale equipment along the way. And Alabama, especially its northeast region, in the summer of 2016 experienced a record-setting drought, which aided the family in cleaning up the land.

After the timber harvest, they aerially applied about a half a gallon of glyphosate per acre to knock down the weeds, and then ‘had a fire of spectacular fashion,’ he said. “And that was the hottest I have ever been in my life. And when we burned that thing off, it cleansed the ground and you could see the stumps.”

They leased a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer and used it to pull a 15,000-pound disc harrow with 36-inch discs made by Rome Plow Company, an international equipment manufacture located in Cedartown, Ga., only about 40 miles away from the newly bought land.

They cut the land twice with the bulldozer and massive disc harrow, then leased an articulated tractor to cut through it twice more to work the soil down and to separate the soil from the roots.

They bought a Harrell Rock n’ Root Rake, made by Harrell Ag Products located in Leesburg, Ga. Working in a circle around the land, they used the rake to windrow the debris. They then took a Bobcat loader and used a rock bucket to load the debris, separating the soil from it, and loaded dump trucks to haul the debris away, or they did more burning. (McMichen admits they like to set big fires.)

“Things began to take shape then,” McMichen said. “It was a methodical process and we learned a lot as we went with each cut (of the land).”

Some things didn’t work out during the process. For example, they hired a worker to come with a K/G blade, “and it worked well but wasn’t as fast and too expensive for what we were doing,” he said.

“We also hired a mulching head on a 500-horsepower Tigercat, which worked really well but there again was expensive. And because of the drought and the dryness of the ground it would emit a cloud of dust and the operator couldn’t see anything. At $400 an hour, he’s sitting there waiting on the dust to clear, and that did not work for the conditions we were in. … We ended up doing most of the work ourselves.”

During the process, they put 320 hours on the D8 dozer in one month, at one point running it 24 hours a day. By mid-August they had cleared 350 acres with their dozer work, and about 50 acres using the other ‘less-workable’ methods.

The soils pH was a 4.9. Tidwell put out and worked in about two tons of lime per acre to start bringing the soil back to life. In the spring of 2017 they did more disc harrow work on the land, ditching and leveling as needed and applied four tons of chicken litter per acre “because the fertility of the soil was just completely gone,” he said.

They installed a center pivot, and the McMichens planted Deltapine cotton at the site on May 2017.

And they made a tremendous cotton crop. Though some areas of the new field were washed out due to heavy rains in June 2017, the field yielded 2.5 bales overall, hitting three bales in some places.

Some people told them that reclaiming the land back into good, workable farmland couldn’t be done. But also during that long, hot droughty summer in north Alabama in 2016, when the McMichen crew broke for lunch as they worked to reclaim that land, the people eating at the Beans and Greens, the local restaurant in nearby Ballplay, wanted to know how things were going on the old Kershaw Quarters farmland and were happy to see what was going on. The older folks remembered how it used to be before the timber.

“We don’t feel vindicated or anything but we accepted the challenge and the opportunity to reclaim a historic farm,” McMichen said.

The McMichen family and partners continued during the fall of 2017 to reclaim another 400 acres of the old Kershaw Quarters and hope to have it planted for 2018 if all goes well.

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