Credit union executive finds relaxation at his pecan farm

Redstone Federal Credit Union President and CEO Joe Newberry owns Newberry Pecans, his family farm in Ardmore

Joe and Marie Newberry pose in the pecan orchard with farm employees Angie and Ted Brooks. Photo by Jeff White.

Redstone Federal Credit Union President and CEO Joe Newberry says he was a little nervous back in August when he was told an Army general had called from Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know what they wanted,” he recalls.

As it turned out, the call was to inform him that he had been awarded the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) John W. Dixon Award for outstanding contributions to national defense.

The AUSA award is the latest of many achievements in his nearly 45-year career in financial services. Since Newberry took the helm at Redstone in 2008, the credit union has grown from $2 billion in assets, 19 branches and 729 employees to $8 billion in assets, 28 branches and 1,200 employees and is the state’s largest member-owned financial institution.

In recognition of Newberry’s ongoing work to protect consumers from abusive lending practices, Gov. Kay Ivey appointed him to the Alabama Consumer Credit Task Force and the Payday Reform Advisory Committee. In 2018, he received the Outstanding Chief Executive Award from the Credit Union Executives Society in recognition of his professional achievement, support for Redstone employees and dedication to his community.

Newberry accepted the AUSA Award on behalf of Redstone’s work in support of the Armed Forces at the association’s annual meeting and exposition in October. “It’s funny how life throws you a great surprise sometimes,” he says.

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Newberry Pecans harvests 2,000 pounds of nuts a year from the orchard that began with trees planted as a hobby for Newberry’s dad. Photo by Jeff White.

Newberry had another pleasant surprise in August when the Alabama Pecan Growers Association (APGA) kicked off its annual summer tour with a visit to Newberry Pecans, his family farm in Ardmore. APGA was formed in 1960 by a small group of pecan growers in Baldwin and Mobile counties, where the state’s pecan industry took root in the early 1900s.

The association’s visit to Newberry’s orchard centered on a unique irrigation system that he has adopted to keep his pecan trees properly hydrated during extreme heat using a specially designed sprinkler head that wobbles as it releases water, allowing it to reach a broader area. Newberry remembers researching irrigation in his early days as a pecan grower. “The first thing I learned is pecan trees need lots and lots of water.”

A spirit of collaboration was also at the core of the APGA visit. The association is committed to making sure pecan growers in the state have access to the most up-to-date farming resources and methods and encourages its members to learn from each other. It reminds Newberry a lot of what he’s witnessed in his financial career. “It’s kind of like what credit unions do; we share what we’re doing with each other.”

Newberry’s pecan orchard is a living tribute to his father, Howard Newberry, who worked as an electronics engineer for NASA from 1957 to 1981, but, as his son recalls, always wanted to buy a farm. Newberry’s mother, a school teacher raising four children, wasn’t too keen on the idea. “She said, ‘No; we’ve got kids to put through college.’”

When some stock Howard Newberry had forgotten about turned up after his retirement, his son encouraged him to put it towards the purchase of a plot of land in Ardmore. “And my mother didn’t speak to me for six months after that,” he adds, laughing.

In 1989, Newberry Pecans, then Newberry Nurseries, began as a field-grown nursery that sold ornamental trees wholesale. “The problem with running a nursery,” says Newberry, “is you’re harvesting in almost the worst part of winter. And you have to plan what you’re going to plant for three to five years in the future, and you don’t even know if that’s going to be in demand in your area. I have a good appreciation for people in the nursery business.”

The addition of pecan trees to the property came naturally: Howard Newberry, who grew up in south Alabama, ate pecans all the time. “I can remember when we planted those first 40 trees out there,” says Newberry. The farm became a regular weekend destination for Newberry and his family. “That’s where we’d bonded; it was [my father’s] passion.”

When Howard Newberry passed away in 2015, the land had become densely overgrown and his son’s plan was to bulldoze it all and start over. But a neighbor up the road saw the pecan trees and offered to tag and preserve them. Some of those original trees that Newberry planted with his father more than 30 years ago are among the over 900 trees in the orchard today. Varieties include Jackson, Kanza, Lakota, Pawnee and Oconee.

“One thing led to another, and I’d buy a hundred trees here and a hundred trees there until one day I turned around and said, ‘What have I done?’” But he is quick to add that the trees, which can live 150 to 200 years, are part of his legacy as well. “I know they’re going to be around way past my time, and I hope my kids and grandkids can see the fruits of our labor and enjoy it.”

Speaking of legacy, “A lot of people don’t realize that the pecan is the only native nut to North America,” says Newberry. And, thanks to the APGA’s influence, pecans are also the official state nut of Alabama. But what he’s really nuts about are their suggested health-promoting nutrients. “I eat fourteen halves a day,” he says, insisting that it isn’t a magic number. “I used to tell my dad they were fattening, but at the time I didn’t know about the health benefits — heart health, weight loss, anti-inflammatory benefits and boosts to your immune system. Just tons of benefits.”

Ted Brooks tends to the sorting machine. Photo by Jeff White.

In addition to growing, Newberry Pecans has expanded to shelling, cleaning and packaging the 2,000 pounds of pecans it produces annually, and family members of all ages — Michelle and Adam Epling, Scott and Kim Newberry and several grandkids — all help on the production line. Newberry, his wife Marie, who is president and CEO of Newberry Pecans LLC, and their daughter, Michelle, collaborated with Robot House, an Oklahoma City-based creative agency, to bring their brand vision to life and won a 2022 American Advertising Federation award for their packaging design.

“The pecan orchard is near to my heart because of the memories it has created,” says Newberry. “Every visit reminds me of the time spent together with my late parents.”

Katherine MacGilvray and Jeff  White are Huntsville-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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