In 2007, Ernst Cebert, Ph.D., a research scientist at Alabama A&M University, visited Bridgeforth Farms in Tanner. He wanted to share his recent research on canola as an alternative crop in north Alabama. Bill Bridgeforth, an A&M alum and fourth-generation farmer in Limestone County, was receptive.
That year, Bridgeforth planted 500 acres of canola, a tall green plant with bright yellow flowers that always draws the attention of motorists passing by the fields. Today, his farm grows between 10, 000 and 15, 000 acres of the plant in several Alabama counties and southern Tennessee and sells it to a variety of customers that use it to make canola oil, feed for livestock and other uses.
“Bridgeforths have farmed in North Alabama for over 100 years, ” says Bill Bridgeforth, who continues to farm with the help of four brothers, three sisters, two sons and a nephew. “Our primary crop has been cotton, but we’ve always grown corn, wheat and soybeans, too. In the late ’90s, we started to put more emphasis on grain, because the demand and price of cotton was at a 50-year low. We believe diversification is very important.”
Branching into canola, a new crop to the region, was part of that ongoing process of diversification and a rewarding venture for Bridgeforth.
“Canola is a fun crop to grow, ” he says. “When it starts to flower, it’s really pretty. And it makes the healthiest vegetable oil there is, as well as other applications, like chocolate, perfumes, jet fuel and diesel fuel.”
Bringing Canola to North Alabama
Although canola — so named for the oil that is pressed from the plant — has long been used by American consumers and companies, it is mostly imported from Canada. The name of the oil is actually an acronym for “Canada Oil, Low Acid, ” Bridgeforth says. While canola is part of the rapeseed family, the variety grown at Bridgeforth Farms is specifically bred for human consumption.
In the mid-1990s, when Cebert and other A&M researchers began studying the plant, it was growing in North Dakota and Minnesota but nowhere else in the United States. Their research showed that the plant could grow well in the North Alabama climate and that it was a profitable crop.
“Bill has always been receptive of us asking him for help, ” says Cebert, so he went first to Bridgeforth Farms with his new findings.
When Cebert met with Bridgeforth to share his research, Bridgeforth was interested in the new crop, but there was one problem. He needed to know that somebody would buy canola if he grew it. Cebert connected him with AgStrong, a small company in Georgia that crushes and refines oilseed like canola. The owner of AgStrong came to Tanner and met with Bridgeforth in late 2007, the two agreed to work together, and Bridgeforth planted his first canola crop.
In the spring of 2008, with the canola flowers brightening the horizon, Bridgeforth Farms hosted a field day on the farm to introduce the crop to the community. Canola turned out not only to be a profitable crop but also a winter alternative crop that can be double-cropped with the usual summer crops like soybeans, cotton, peanuts or sunflowers.
Bridgeforth not only has been a longtime collaborator with his alma mater, he has always worked to promote agriculture as a career and a lifestyle.
“I think agriculture is the best career, ” he says. “I enjoy it every day and face new challenges every day.”
In 2011, Bridgeforth and a group of farmers across the country organized the National Black Growers Council, and Bridgeforth serves as chairman of the group, which works to give black farmers a voice and to train future talent. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, black farmers account for 1.3 percent of the U.S. farming community.
“There are very few black row crop farmers left, ” Bridgeforth says. It’s in part the result of the USDA’s discriminatory administration of farm loans — a practice that was acknowledged by the agency in settlements of civil rights lawsuits over USDA practices in the ’80s and ’90s.
“But we are not trying to look back and change things. Our intent is to look forward. We try to affect policy and prevent negative practices from happening again, and we try to get the word out that agriculture is a viable profession and a good way of life.”
Last year, Bridgeforth traveled to the White House to receive an award from President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Along with 14 other agricultural leaders from across the country, he was recognized as an agricultural “Champion of Change.” The Champion of Change award is given to those serving as advocates for the agricultural profession and making efforts to encourage the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
“I accept this award on the behalf of the entire Bridgeforth family, ” Bridgeforth said upon receiving the award. “I think this award is a testament to our Christian faith. We put God first and then family. We work hard, give back to our community and just try to do the right thing.”
Bridgeforth hopes that the Growers Council can continue to help get young people interested in farming as a career. He admits there are usually two paths to a career in farming: “You’re born into it or you marry into it, ” he says. However, Bridgeforth believes there are other avenues into an agricultural career for those who are interested.
A future farmer “could start working for a farmer who’s looking to retire, ” he says. “A lot of people work a full-time job and farm part time. If you are committed to farming, dedicate yourself to it and opportunities will come.”
For Bridgeforth Farms, the future looks bright. On a recent visit, the farm’s workers, mostly members of the Bridgeforth family, took a break from the fields and gathered for a lunch of hot dogs and fruit salad. Brothers Milton Bridgeforth, William Bridgeforth and John Henry Bridgeforth, all of whom describe themselves as “retired farmers” but continue to come to work, sat down among next-generation farmers Carlton Bridgeforth, Kyle Bridgeforth and Lamont Bridgeforth. Around the tables, the weathered faces and the fresh faces all revealed a mutual love of the land, pride in the history of the family and its farm, and hope for its continued legacy.
Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
text by nancy mann jackson • photos by dennis keim