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Change of heart

Carroll County native credits Divine guidance as he returned to his farming roots and built a family business with his brother and son
Story and photos by: Sarah Geyer 3/25/2020

 

Huntingdon’s Bobby Smith raises row crops and cattle on nearly 3,000 acres with son, Brad, and brother, Donnie. Donnie’s son, Trevor, also helps with the family farming operation.
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Bobby Smith, a 70-year-old Carroll County row crop and livestock producer, made up his mind about a future in farming at an early age — it wasn’t for him.

Bobby’s father, J.D., who worked full time in construction, bought a farm in Westport in the 1940s with his wife, Georgia, where they raised cattle, row crops, and five children.

“One of our main jobs as kids was to chop and pick the cotton,” says Bobby. “I absolutely hated it and decided that I was definitely not going to farm when I grew up because I never wanted to see another stalk of cotton.”

When Bobby entered adulthood, he didn’t have a choice about his first job. He was drafted into the military in April 1969, serving 18 months in Hanau, Germany, and six months in Chu Lai, Vietnam.

“They took a backwards boy from a small, country town who didn’t know much of anything and threw me into something like that – I was devastated,” says Bobby. “But I wouldn’t take anything for that experience. I saw a lot, and I learned a lot.”

He returned from active duty in 1971 and took a job at a factory in Lexington but resigned after a year.

“I saw that wasn’t for me,” he says. “I had a choice through the GI bill to go to school, and I chose masonry school. I worked as a bricklayer for the next 20 years.”

In 1972, Bobby married a local girl, Phyllis Hilliard, and the two began building a life together on her family’s farmland in Huntingdon. In a few years, they completed their family with the arrival of son Brad in 1975.

There’s another reason that year is notable for the Smith family – that’s when Bobby embraced his calling to be a farmer.

“I think the idea was always buried in the back of my mind,” he says. “It took me a few years, but I can see that God was working in my life to show me that farming was part of my life’s purpose.”

His older brother, Jerry, also served during the Vietnam War. He returned to Westport after his discharge and began cultivating the family farm as well as working full time. In 1977, Bobby and his younger brother, Donnie, purchased equipment and joined Jerry in the farming operation.

After a few years, Jerry stopped farming, but Bobby and Donnie continued the family business while both worked full-time jobs. They gradually expanded over the next decade. By the early 1990s, they were farming more than 600 acres, raising row crops, cattle, and hogs at one point.

Unlike his father and uncle, Brad embraced the farming life at a young age. As a toddler, he “farmed” the living room carpet with his toy tractors. When he started school, he spent his spare time helping in the field and his classroom time planning his own farming operation.

After graduating from Huntingdon High School in 1993, Brad worked for Carroll Farmers Cooperative for six months before deciding to farm full time.

“There was some farmland that came up for rent,” he says. “I figured if I was ever going to farm, this was my time to do it.”

The three men have expanded their farming business to nearly 3,000 acres, raising corn for Tosh Farms, soybeans that go to Gavilon Grain in New Johnsonville, and running a cow/calf operation. The family has been loyal customers of Carroll Farmers Co-op since the 1970s, and Brad is the president of the board of directors.

In the past few years, Bobby has scaled back his involvement with the business, as Brad took on the primary management role. In 2015, he hired Carroll County native Daniel Hilliard as full-time help.

The Smith Farms headquarters and shop is located in Buena Vista on farmland purchased on a whim by the brothers in 1985. The family owns and rents farmland in surrounding communities. Bobby and Phyllis reside on her family’s Huntingdon farm, Donnie and his son, Trevor, a regional agronomist with Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, both own farms in Buena Vista, and Brad and his wife, Rebecca, purchased land in Yuma next to her family’s farm, where they live with their two children.

 “It’s special because a lot of what we’re farming is family land,” says Brad. “We farm the land where both of my parents were raised, and we also farm land owned by uncles, aunts, cousins, and my wife’s family.”

Bobby and his family, who are long-time members of First Baptist Church in Huntington, decided early on that they would not farm on Sundays unless absolutely necessary.

“I often quote a saying by Billy Graham,” says Bobby. “‘If your ox is in the ditch every Sunday, you need to do one of two things. Sell the ox, or fill the ditch up.’ There are times when farming on Sunday would make good business sense, but we look at it as a choosing between farming to live and living to farm.”

 
 
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