Tranquil Turnabout

An autumn-filtered slant of late afternoon light suffuses skies over Pursell Farms with a deeper azure hue, contrasting with foliage turning to gold and rust early from a long summer drought. A winding drive to the farm headquarters presents a picturesque scene — a herd of longhorn cattle scattered across pastures, with one giant sorrel-spotted bull lazing near the wooden fence, wearing a placid expression of contentment.

The 3, 200-acre farm, in Talladega County, evokes that same sense of tranquility in humans — the ambiance CEO David Pursell intended when the original property made a dramatic turnabout. What had been a demonstration farm for the finest fertilizer has transitioned to a destination for golfers, business groups, wedding parties, hunting enthusiasts and serenity seekers.

“Everything here is a reflection of our family, and it has to be done right, ” Pursell says. “When our guests leave, we want them to tell 25 of their closest friends about the great experience they had here.”

Once master-planned to sell fertilizer, Pursell Farms is being transformed into a showplace for Southern hospitality and a top destination resort. The original 1, 600 acres of farmland were purchased in 1975, and third generation owner Jimmy Pursell began adding on, ultimately doubling the property size and aspiring to create the best time-release fertilizer on the market.

CEO David Pursell

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“At the time we started, we were number six in the country in controlled-release fertilizers, ” Pursell says. “When we ended up selling in 2006, we were number one. This whole place, when we first built it, was about selling this product. We sold (the company) at the perfect time. The economy was still going great, and you were seeing 350 and 400 new golf courses built a year. In 2008, everything just dove down.”

The Pursell Farms family business began in 1904 as Sylacauga Fertilizer Co., created by Dewitt Parker, who was selling traditional, livestock-produced fertilizer. His son, Howard, took over in 1930. When Jimmy Pursell married Chris Parker in 1953 and joined the family business in 1956, he brought with him a new patriarchal name and took over as CEO of a fertilizer company on the cusp of change. 

Jimmy Pursell had ideas to innovate the company by creating slow-release fertilizers. The resulting trademarked product was sold, along with the original company, leading to the creation of Pursell Farms and the pursuit of a new and better fertilizer delivery method. 

Polyon, said to be “the fertilizer of the future, ” was introduced to market in 1992 as the answer to keeping golf courses in their expected lush, verdant hue.

“Our fertilizer was like a controlled-release cold capsule only better, ” David Pursell says. “It was designed to exactly match a fertilizer’s release curve depending on the nutrient needs of a given plant species.” 

“It was expensive, but it was so much better than anything else out there. The bag costs more but lasts a lot longer. It was brand new to the golf industry and turf.” 

It wasn’t long before the golf course industry began to take notice, particularly when David Pursell brought unique marketing ideas to the table. In those days, the best way to sell products on a national level was to mobilize a sales team with a mission to convince buyers the fertilizer would transform their turf, sight unseen.

But David Pursell, a fourth generation owner, had another idea. Instead of sending the salesmen out, why not plough that financial investment into bringing in golf course superintendents who could see firsthand the difference the product made? And while they were visiting, a healthy serving of Southern hospitality was a natural accompaniment under the auspices of
FarmLinks Golf Club. 

As the plan brewed like a pitcher of Southern sweet tea, a joint venture helped broaden the reach of the signature, trademarked green Polyon pellets, and the profits rolled in. David Pursell’s innovative marketing brainchild would bring industry pros to a small Alabama town. That meant transforming rolling hills and pastures into manicured golf courses, but Pursell plowed ahead with a sort of “if you build it they will come” enthusiasm. 

“Instead of hiring a hundred sales people all over the country in different states, I had an idea, ” Pursell says. “What would happen if we could build the Epcot of golf maintenance here and not only bring something really space-aged in fertilizer, but get the superintendents to come here?”

FarmLinks, an 18-hole golf course designed by Hurdzan-Fry Environmental Golf Design, opened in June 2003 to showcase about 85 products. Superintendents were flown in and driven to the rural outpost for an observational sojourn.

“We were getting them to understand our products and to build trust in the Pursell family, ” says Pursell. They would host two groups a week for a first-hand look at Polyon’s results. “It was a great sales and marketing strategy.”

With the opportunity for the sort of one-on-one interaction such a demonstration site could offer, soon industry big names like the Toro Company, Club Car and BASF got involved in an unprecedented partnership for “The Experience at FarmLinks, ” a two-day conference-style setting targeting the decision makers of golf courses around the country. When not perusing more than 30 types of grasses and studying the effects and application of quality fertilizer, guests stayed at the property’s Parker Lodge, where they were served home-cooked meals in the most bucolic environment.

FarmLinks became a separate entity in 2005, and Pursell Technologies sold its fertilizer products to Agrium in 2006, timing the sale just right in what was to become a volatile marketplace. 

But the outlook for the Pursells was on the upswing. Now, the picturesque farm cottages are available to guests who have that “get-away-from-it-all” longing.

“When we sold the company, we were out of the fertilizer business, ” Pursell says. “Now we’re in the hospitality business. Hospitality was always part of our strategy. Now we’re changing Pursell Farms into the go-to resort in Alabama, and maybe even the Southeast.” 

The farm’s multi-award-winning golf course has long been a focus, but it’s now contending with other attention-getters on site. This year saw the introduction of the Orvis Shooting Grounds, where visitors can try guided turkey, duck and quail hunting or watch skilled gun dogs point a covey of quail or pheasant. 

“The family that owns Orvis contacted me two years ago because they were looking for a centralized location in the southeastern U.S., ” Pursell says. “We partnered with them to come down and turned over all of our hunting and fishing to Orvis.”

On the heels of that addition, the Pursells are expanding on a grand but very thoughtful scale. A farm-to-table restaurant in the clubhouse has seen demands for growth, and a huge commercial kitchen and new restaurant are in the works. The property has 40 rooms now, and with additional construction, will soon double that capacity with 81 guest suites. Ellen Pursell’s decorating talents have been put to work on the property, as it transforms from its “boy’s club” beginning.

“We were built to be a man cave, ” Pursell says. “When we started this, 100 percent of golf superintendents were male. We want to attract more females, families and couples. We’ve opened a spa here with four different treatment areas. We’re putting in a pool. The new restaurant is going to be huge. We’re giving people more reasons to come here.”

Jimmy Pursell’s high school buddy, actor Jim Nabors, has been a frequent visitor to the farm over the years. When he moved to Hawaii and downsized, he offered Ellen and David Pursell some of his long-stored treasures, including a Brunswick pool table circa 1900, once a frequent source of recreation for members of the Rat Pack and other Hollywood and sports legends. The table will hold a place of honor in Old Tom’s Pub, a sports pub named for greens keeper Tom Morrison, who won the British Open in the mid-1800s.

“Tom is the iconic greens keeper in golfing, ” Pursell says. “The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America gives an award in his honor each year to someone of note. All of our buildings are named for people as part of our convention to celebrate where we came from.”

Celebrations will be a big part of the resort as the family helps young couples create memories to last a lifetime. 

“The last thing we are adding is a wedding venue, ” Pursell says. “We want to be the Augusta National of wedding venues.”

There are three different settings for the nuptials — at the lake, at the plantation house or in a formal garden.

“We want people to come here and be able to experience the farm, ” Pursell said. “We want people to come out and be restored in whatever way that restoration looks like.” 

Cara Clark and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Text by CARA CLARK // Photos by ART MERIPOL

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