“I want to try growing crops in a different way and take a less conventional approach. I want to be a steward of the land.”
— Aries Haygood, A&M Farms, Vidalia, Ga.
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by the National Strip-Tillage Conference, Aries Haygood of Vidalia, Ga., talks about his unconventional path into the world of agriculture and how he first started learning about cover crops.
Haygood also talks about what equipment works best for him as a grower of Georgia’s famous Vidalia Onions, which are known to have a very sweet flavor due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil in that part of Georgia.
The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by the National Strip-Tillage Conference.
Build and refine your strip-till system with dozens of new ideas and connections at the 10th anniversary National Strip-Tillage Conference in Bloomington, Illinois from August second through the fourth. Experience an energizing agenda featuring inspiring general session speakers, expert-led Strip-Till Classrooms and collaborative Strip-Till Roundtables. Plus, Certified Crop Adviser credits will be offered. Register now.
Full TranscriptMackane Vogel:
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by the National Strip-Tillage Conference. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Aries Haygood of Vidalia, Georgia talks about his unconventional path into the world of agriculture and how he first started learning about cover crops. Haygood also talks about what equipment works best for him as a grower of Georgia's famous Vidalia onions, which are known to have a very sweet flavor due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil in that part of Georgia. So Aries, if you want to start out, just tell us a little bit about your background in agriculture and kind of how you got to where you're at today. I know you have kind of an unconventional way that you got into all this, and so tell our listeners a little bit about that, if you would.Aries Haygood:
Well, I graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2005, married my wife in December of 2006, and started on the farm in April of 2007. So I told my wife that I thought that I wanted to farm with her dad, and I saw that he always got a chance to ride around and look at everything, and his job consisted of just being outside, so I figured that's what I wanted to do. So I did that, kind of hit the ground running, started from the ground learning how to just do everything on the farm. We primarily grow about Vidalia sweet onions. Then we've diversified into watermelons as well, but we've always had some row crops, some corn, and some soybeans also in the bag. Yeah, so pretty much I have a business background. So I started off in the office just learning how it all functions. A lot of our business is probably it's a little different than maybe the typical farm.
We grow our onions. We also pack our onions and have to work closely with marketers that market our onions. It's a daily struggle trying to make sure you have enough product available to ship to pack for the retailers and that kind of stuff. So I did that, worked my way up, just kind of learning everything from running a forklift to a tractor, to making the call on fertility, and spray records, and recommendations, that kind of stuff. So fast-forward from '07 to 2019, my wife and I officially purchased the farm from my father-in-law, and we've been blessed to say the least, just have plenty of business. Seems like some days we're just doing a lot of work and not a lot being showed for it, but the business has been good.
When COVID hit, of course, that was a big shake up for us because being a packing facility, trying to figure out how to maneuver through COVID, I guess you could say, make sure that the correct rules were being in place and implemented into the packing house to not only keep everyone safe, but just keep them from getting sick, because we never slowed down when the country was shutting down. We were actually gearing up as far as providing that food being essential and all. So it was definitely a challenge, but we were able to get through it, and it seems like ever since we got through it, I don't know if just because the business has kind of grown that we just can't feel like we can grasp, or get caught up, or what the deal is, but we just keep plugging away.Mackane Vogel:
So what were some of the hardest things to get the hang of when you first got into farming with your father-in-law? What were some of the biggest struggles for you?Aries Haygood:
When I first got involved with it, I was lucky enough to have good mentors in my father-in-law, who's Terry Collins, and then his partner was Mike McKinley. They were good mentors. They were very respected around the onion world around here. They weren't the biggest, but they were really good at what they did. So I learned a lot from that. So I was fortunate enough to be able to experience the transition or the learning curve through them. Since 2017, it's been more challenging for me because I've been trying to figure out different approaches to growing the crops and the produce. In 2017, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, so I fought through that, and since that, I just made a commitment to myself that I just wanted to be able to... As we researched and were learning stuff, I said, "I want to try growing crops maybe a different way, maybe not as conventional as the conventional approach." So that's what my focus has been.
I also have really just become I want to be a steward of the land. Where we farm at tends to be a little bit more of a rolling hill closer to the river. So when we do any type of tillage, we get these rain showers that come through. They'll rain two, three inches at one time. It washes all the topsoil off. So I've just been trying to figure out some different approaches with that. And that's been the challenging part because most people around here, they don't do cover crops, or they used to not do it. Now you're starting to see more and more people adopt it through the programs that are available through the government that's kind of incentivizing folks to try it at least. That's been the biggest challenge for me right now is just trying to take a farm that's like... It's so expensive now doing what we're doing.
The margin of error is so small now it's hard for me to make too many big drastic steps, but that's just how I like to roll. I just like to go for it, because I know if I don't go all in, then I won't do it. So it's been a little bit of a challenge just trying to maneuver through that and make sure that I'm not doing anything that's going to push me off the edge.Mackane Vogel:
So let's talk about some of those strategies that you've been implementing to try to be more of a steward of the land. Obviously, you said you're using cover crops. When did you first start using cover crops? Was that in 2017, like you said?Aries Haygood:
Well, no, actually, the first time I used them was after I purchased the farm, so it was in 2019. Going back, the older generation just really wasn't educated, but they just didn't really understand the whole cover crop philosophy, so it didn't really make sense to them. I mean, immediately after we purchased the farm and I had control of the checkbook, I bought rye cover crop seed and just used rye to start off with.Mackane Vogel:
And what other kinds of cover crops have you used since then and what have been the more successful ones for you or some of the ones that haven't worked out for you? What have been sort of the [inaudible 00:08:08].Aries Haygood:
Yeah. So rye is good because you got a large window down in where I'm at in Georgia that we can put it in. It's always usually been a good go-to, especially with having soybeans going behind it. I've read so much about the soybeans. Just the rye and the soybeans just kind of work really good. Here this past year, I got with a friend of mine that's a little bit more educated on cover crops, and mixes, and all that other stuff, and that's what he does. I think he may be tied in with the Green Cover crop or Green Cover seed folks. I'm not 100% sure, but anyway, long story short, he's kind of showing me some different mixes, cocktails that they use, and some rape, and some radish, and some, of course, the grasses. Some of my crops I'm switching or he's switched me more to triticale instead of the rye, kind of just piecing through that.
And then we're also trying to come up with the best mixes for each one of the crops. So I like to try to have something growing as many days out of the year as I can. Thankfully, in Georgia, we can pretty much grow something 12 months out of the year, and so I try to make a blend or a cocktail mix for watermelons, one for corn, one for soybeans, and then, of course, I'm going to try to figure out something for the onions. I already use some stuff for onions if I leave out a summer crop, but I want to try to incorporate something else and then maybe even eventually try some direct seeding onions into a cover crop, just kind of something really off the wall, because it does. We get between 40 and 50 inches of rain a year. Usually that rain, of course, comes during the winter months. That's when we plant our onions.
Onions is very intensively tilled. I mean, it is beautiful to come by an onion field and see everything bedded up, looks pretty, and then onions are growing. Man, every time we get a half inch or an inch of rain at a time, it's you just see it, just all that topsoil just pouring off the field. And so I want to try to figure out a way to help myself, the land around me, make sure that the rivers and the creeks stay clean, and also maybe try to leave my mark on the onion industry here that maybe I can help somebody else learn a different way to do it, so that we can check all those boxes off about the health of everything.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the conversation in a moment, but first I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, the National Strip-Tillage Conference Strip-till success doesn't happen overnight, but the chances of succeeding will often depend on taking advantage of the critical management and equipment decisions other growers have made as they adopt and advance this highly popular reduced tillage system. Build and refine your strip-till system with dozens of new ideas and connections at the 10th anniversary National Strip-Tillage Conference in Bloomington, Illinois from August 2nd through the fourth. Experience an energizing agenda featuring inspiring general session speakers, expert led strip-till classrooms, and collaborative strip-till round tables, plus certified crop advisor credits will be offered. Register now and use promo code podcast for $50 off the price of admission, and now let's get back to the discussion with Aries Haygood. Where you're at in Georgia is a huge onion industry specifically for the Vidalia onions, and I want to get to that in a few minutes, but first I was wondering, is there any equipment that you use that has been particularly helpful to you in what you're trying to do?Aries Haygood:
One of the things I've learned or picked up on is you've got to be versatile enough to kind of adapt to anything that may be happening or changing, especially with our weather patterns. One day your cover crop is perfect, you can go right in there and plant into it, come back later, terminate it, whether it be chemically or mechanically. One day it may get too big. You need to go in there and mow it. So the pattern of the way that the crop is distributed is important. So I've purchased roller crimpers, and I purchased the Cyclone mower from Major Equipment. Really and truly that was my first venture into this was the Cyclone Mower because what I liked about it was the way that it would cut, and flail, and throw the product behind it, kind of an even distributor instead of windrowing it, because you can go through fields all the time.
Especially in this area, peanut fields are one of the main ones, but then you could look at anybody that batches the crop, the hay from the crop, or they put it in rows. You can see it the next year, and so I'm like, "All right, let's spread it out, and that way the cover crop is protecting the soil better." That's another thing. I mean, just trying to keep something attached to that soil the best I can too, so that the next crop can grow, but I still mow some. I've been wanting to use the mower to mimic certain things.
A lot of the [inaudible 00:13:59], and a lot of folks talk about grazing cattle and how important it is, and I don't have anything fenced, so I've thought about going through and just doing some weird things, maybe taking a mixture of water and saliva from a cow and go through, mow the field at a certain height, and then spray that on while I'm mowing to see if maybe the chemical reaction, because they say that there's some kind of chemical or some kind of reaction that happens when a cow eats some forage or eats something. It sends some kind of impulses to the roots, and so I'm just like, "Okay, if I don't have cows, what else can I do to mimic that?" But again, we get so busy it's hard to test stuff like that for my own self. So I'm just taking bits and pieces of what I'm learning, just trying to add it to the arsenal. So I've already got the sprayer equipment and fertilizer rigs. I mean, I've got all of that, so I just had to add the roller crimper and then the mower.Mackane Vogel:
All right, so let's talk a little bit about the onions. Obviously, for people that don't know, this is a specific kind of onion. It's a sweet onion, right?Aries Haygood:
That's correct. Yep. YMackane Vogel:
So [inaudible 00:15:10].Aries Haygood:
The sweetest. The sweetest kind.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah. I've never tried one.Aries Haygood:
Now I'm curious. I'll have to make a trip down to Georgia or something.Aries Haygood:
Absolutely. You got to come see me, man.Mackane Vogel:
All right. All right.Aries Haygood:
In three weeks, you come. You'll get all the experience you want from onions.Mackane Vogel:
All right, sounds good. So tell our listeners a little bit about these onions and what you guys are doing with them.Aries Haygood:
Yeah, so Vidalia sweet onions became famous. Well, it's kind of the history behind the Vidalia sweet onion was a gentleman by the name of Mose Coleman that was looking for a way to generate some revenue for his farm back maybe like in the fifties or something, kind of coming out of the depression era. So Vidalia at the time was kind of an intersection of travel. I mean, I haven't seen but maybe one picture I vaguely remember, but some of just the intersections in downtown Vidalia. That was I think at the time US-1 was the road that went from Miami, or actually Key West, but anyway, it travels all the way up East Coast. So that was the main source of travel at the time. So anyway, he pretty much planted onions and then realized that the onions had a sweet flavor. A lot of it had to do with the soil type, the fact that it rained a lot, so it was able to kind of wash nutrients out, that kind of stuff.
So fast-forward, I think it was like the late eighties, folks from Vidalia kind of got together and was kind of pushing for the trademark in the name. Piggly Wiggly jumped on board. Piggly Wiggly at the time was one of the largest distributors of grocery and grocery retailers in the southeast. And so once they jumped on board, that's kind of what got everything pretty famous on the East Coast for sure was the Vidalia sweet onions. And so then it was federally trademarked. It's commissioned, or excuse me, it's protected by the Commissioner of Agriculture of Georgia, and then they pretty much let us growers kind of have a lot of influence on changes, or things, or things we need to implement, or anything like that.
Yeah, so the industry has pretty much kind of simmered out. There used to be a lot of five and 10 acre growers. They would pack at their facility, maybe like a little pole barn at their house, and they'd sell it on the roadside stand, or they'd have somebody in Atlanta that would buy or something like that, but as industry has developed, and the technology has changed, and food safety has changed, and that kind of stuff, you started seeing more of the guys, like my father-in-law and his partner just kind of got a little bigger, got a little bigger. They kept investing in it, and so that's the reason why we're here today, basically. And so the industry pretty much has kind of come and handled pretty much now with about 30 growers, 35 different growers that produce all the onions, Vidalia sweet onions.Mackane Vogel:
And am I correct too, you're part of the Vidalia Onion Committee? Is that [inaudible 00:18:34].Aries Haygood:
Yes, sir. Yeah.Mackane Vogel:
So what's your role with that group? What do you guys-Aries Haygood:
Well, I've served as the chairman of the committee for numerous years, a vice chairman. Now I'm actively a member and not really having to serve on the office portion of that, but I've always been involved with the committee from pretty much year one that I was here. When you're young coming into something, we always get asked to join and get involved because the older generation says, "Hey, we put in our time. We're ready to kind of start easing out." And so been involved in that from day one, so serving in many different roles throughout that.Mackane Vogel:
And so along with onions, you mentioned a little bit earlier, but you have some other crops going on in your operation too, right? You said watermelon, corn, soybean.Aries Haygood:
Yep, that's right.Mackane Vogel:
Are you guys doing cotton as well?Aries Haygood:
We have done cotton. I'm going to move away from cotton. Cotton is tough to rotate onions behind because of the hard sturdiness of the plant. So I'm going to kind of start veering away from cotton a little bit. I'm not really a good cotton grower either, so I struggle with that, but I've got buddies of mine that are really good cotton growers, so I'm like, "You know what? I don't want to saturate the market. I'll stay out of it, let them do that, and I'll tend to my own stuff."Mackane Vogel:
Well, how about we end on sort of a consultant note. What would be a piece of advice that you would give to someone who's either looking to get involved with using cover crops or maybe someone who's started to use them but hasn't quite gotten them to work the way they want?Aries Haygood:
Yeah. I'll tell you, it's sad for me to say this, but I have really just accepted that that's what I want to do. And so I literally am just on YouTube or Googling things just like... And if I'm listening to something, and I hear something, I'll try to research that, what that means, but by no means have I learned all that there is and learned. And that's the good thing is don't get frustrated, because there's so much out there that not even the scientists know, and they'll tell you. They're just digging into little bits and pieces of what biology is actually doing, but if it's warm enough for something to grow, just put something on there to grow, and don't be afraid of is it going to seed or if... Yeah, it probably will seed some. You probably will have some coming back, but you're going to learn from it.
At least know before you put it in, "Hey, I'm going to probably need to approach the seeding of that, or before it goes to seed by this time." And if you miss it, just keep working. I mean, it'll all balance itself out as what I'm being told and what I see, and so to me, it's just more satisfying to run a planter through a field and there's no dust and everything kicking up on it. It was just peaceful to me.Mackane Vogel:
Big thanks to Aries Haygood for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at Covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to the National Strip-Tillage Conference for helping make this cover crop podcast series possible. And from all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel, thanks for listening, and have a great day.