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Rhyne Farms adapts to changing time

Dale James / Selma Times-Journal

Hoffman Rhyne Sr. has been farming cotton for most of his 76 years.

He’s seen some lean years, and he’s seen years that were a little better. He’s seen years when cotton was king, and years when you couldn’t hardly give the stuff away.

Rhyne first started going to the fields with his father when he was 9 years old. He was a water boy. He carried buckets of water to the laborers. Most of them, he recalls, were black.

As he grew older he took his place alongside them, chopping the cotton that grew in the rich black soil of his father’s Lowndes County farm.

Over the years, his children have followed him into the fields just as he once followed his father before him. Now his grandson, Hoffman III, has taken up the same path.

Rhyne Farms remains primarily a cotton operation. For the last 10 years, in fact, they’ve been the biggest cotton farmers in Alabama. &uot;That’s not bragging,&uot; Rhyne says, &uot;that’s just what happened.&uot;

But Rhyne sees the writing on the wall. It’s getting harder each year to wrest a living from the soil, harder to justify the risk of trusting another crop to the whims of weather and market conditions. Like some perverse equation, each hard won gain in crop production is seemingly offset by lower prices in the marketplace.

His grandson suggests that the changes in the global economy have heightened the challenges facing all Alabama farmers. There’s more free trade. The labor costs of developing countries are a fraction of what the Rhynes must pay.

In an effort to maximize productivity, the Rhynes have long diversified their production. In addition to cotton, they also raise cattle, corn, wheat, hay and timber.

Last year, the Rhynes launched yet another venture &045;&045; Rhyne’s Select Turf.

They started by planting 25 acres of Empire Zoysia on what was once irrigated cotton land. This year they expanded to 350 acres of Empire Zoysia and 10 acres of Zorro Zoysia.

The Empire and Zorro varieties are among the most prized &045;&045; and most expensive &045;&045; turfgrasses available.

Marketing turfgrass has required a different kind of approach than that of other crops. Cotton, for example, is considered a commodity crop, and most farmers employ brokers in hopes of securing the highest possible price.

In marketing turfgrass, on the other hand, the Rhynes have begun cultivating relationships with customers directly. Handling marketing duties for the new venture is the job of Hoffman III, a graduate of Auburn.

The younger Rhyne’s marketing duties are only temporary, however. He plans to pursue a career in ministry. He recently returned from a two-year mission in East Asia with Campus Crusade for Christ.

He is not unaware of the parallels between farming and ministry. Both plant seeds, both bear fruit.

For his part, Rhyne still goes to the fields, still thrills to the sight of a bumper crop he has helped to coax from the ground, still likes to see cotton grow. Given a little time he figures he can learn to appreciate a good stand of Empire Zoysia the same way.

This much is certain, he’ll go to his grave earning his living from the same land his daddy farmed. &uot;We done got in the habit of it,&uot; he allows.