Wade McElveen and his son, Matt, have quite the farming operation out in Stilson at the far end of Bulloch County. They’re tough to track down unless their hands are tied because of the rain. But Stilson Farms, Inc. wouldn’t be the machine it is if Wade and Matt spent their time waiting for everything to happen.
Wade McElveen attended both the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern, where he graduated with a teaching degree. After spending some time at Southeast Bulloch High School and farming part-time, his family began acquiring more land. What began with just 240 acres expanded into something much more and in 1976, Wade left the teaching job to farm full-time.
Back then, his family had a hog operation and grew corn, peanuts, and soybeans. That market began to dwindle and eventually, in 1993, he left the hog industry and made the switch to the heat tolerant cotton crops and left corn and soybeans behind.
These days, Wade has 300 acres of his own and rents an additional 950 acres. He also has about 300 acres of timber land. He still considers his farm relatively small and their products go to local production facilities. The McElveen’s take their cotton to Southern States Gin outside of Statesboro and peanuts go to Ogeechee Peanut and Tillman & Deal, all of whom they have great working relationships with, which they say is so important because farming isn’t just with the farmer. It’s the process from start to finish: seed production to processing, that makes a good product.
Matt’s been full-time on the family farm for about four years now, but he spent his time testing the waters elsewhere in construction and other industries before digging his feet into the family business. The pieces fell into place for Matt to work side by side with his dad and just this year, he became a partner in the family operation. Wade’s wife, Debbie, is an integral part of the entity, and both Debbie and their daughter Leeanna Deal are partners in the family operation. Wade attributes everyone’s commitment to the success over the years.
Wade and Matt are always thinking about other ways to expand the enterprise, mostly because neither of them can sit still. Options of produce or onions or flowers all have an appeal, but also a cost of entering the market and a risk associated with the investment, so they haven’t made any moves in another direction. The market in Bulloch County and the region is also inundated with cotton and peanuts, but the surrounding farmers aren’t competing against each other. Luckily, it’s a very supportive community.
The McElveen’s have made an effort to embrace the new technologies as they come – even with the cost is high. One of the more valuable resources they have is a piece of equipment that tracks the nutrients in different tracts of land by taking samples. The McElveen’s can use that to scale how to fertilize the tracts instead of applying the same amount everywhere and possibly over or under-fertilizing various acreage. Little things like that have led to a more efficient use of input and have changed the overall yield.
When asked if he felt like he had mastered his peanut and cotton crops, Wade quickly interrupted to say ‘no,’ but Matt says he’s just being modest. Wade’s been farming for four decades and while ‘mastered’ may not be a term Wade likes to use, he definitely knows what he’s doing. Matt says it’s his dad’s diligence and timeliness that determines how they’re able to yield the crops they do.
It does worry Wade that the average farmer is in his sixties. It leaves two options: land will be acquired by other farmers and the average size ‘small farm’ will continue to increase, or some farming operations will cease to exist altogether. Around the country, he says farmers are planning on how to pass their farms on when children of farmers aren’t necessarily sticking around to carry on the legacy. It doesn’t help that farm land is being lost at an alarming rate, whether it be to development or people just choosing not to farm anymore. Farming is an endangered industry.
For many, the risk of the investment in the rent, fertilizer, equipment, and seed is a deterrent. It’s all a gamble. The lack of control over almost every input, circumstance, and then what is earned doesn’t help either, but the pride of what he grows outweighs the risk for Wade.
What’s important to Wade is leaving the land better than he left it. He feels he is a steward of the land because it needs to be productive for Matt and future generations. The lifestyle, he says, will never grow old. To be out in God’s nature and putting a seed in the ground is a blessing.
There’s a strong sense of humble pride at Stilson Farms, Inc, but Wade says faith, endurance with patience, and a good business sense are the building blocks of good farming. And he’ll do it as long as he is able.
Wade and Matt McElveen nominated Reid and Will Anderson for All On Georgia – Bulloch’s December ‘Farm of the Month.’ To see the October ‘Farm of the Month,’ click here.