UGAs Cooperative Extension Service helped Dick Phillips (BBA 53) create
a cattle farm thats friendly to the environment
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C R E V A R
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P H O T O S - B Y - C A R L Y - C A L H O U N - (A B '0 2, - A B J '0 2)
|Phillips (at top, with wife Julie and, above, at a cattle auction) sold an auto accessories business that he purchased in 1955 from his father, then turned to cattle farmingbut not as a hobby. Our goal, he says, is to make money, pure and simple.|
Phillips (BBA 53) isnt in the market for a bull. The man who owns Wakefield Farmconsidered one of the most environmentally sound in the countryhas come to Bowman, Ga., to see, as he calls them, the magnificent beasts and because his employees wanted to come. They may talk me into buying one before the day is out, he winks. But the main reason Phillips is out on this gray January day instead of next to the fireplace in his cozy farmhouse up the road in northeast Georgias Hart County is because, by his own admission, hes a people addict. I am an extremist when it comes to loving people, says Phillips, who, at 72, still moves with the athletic grace of someone half his age. Theres an almost knightly air in the way he comports his 63 frame.
Devotion to people has been the hallmark of Phillips business success over the course of 50 years, first in Atlanta as the owner of Auto Ventshadeselling car accessories (especially the plastic deflectors that shield windows)and now as a cattleman. And it has been his preacher-like ability to lend an ear that has garnered him not just financial prosperity but a string of admirers.
He defines the words character, integrity, and passion and has a way of making you want to be a better person, says Garnet Smith, former CEO of Advance Auto Parts. In turn, he has created a culture of success within his businesses because people are relaxed and able to be themselves.
In 2002, Phillips, his wife Julie, and WF managers Todd Baldwin and Scott Fleming translated that culture of success into a spot as one of eight finalists for, arguably, the National Cattlemens Beef Associations most illustrious prize: the Environmental Stewardship Award. Phillips 1435-acre farm represented the Southeast, showing that environment-friendly practices not only can equate to cost-effective farming but, in the long run, help insure productivity. Winning the award cemented Wakefield Farms position as a model of efficient and healthy farm management. But in typical Phillips form, praise heaped on him for any forward thinking is quickly redirected.
An assistant takes bids from the crowd at a cattle auction, which combines the frantic energy of the stock exchange with the poker-faced gamesmanship of a high-stakes card game.
hillips didnt grow up a farmer but like many depression-era children of the South, he understood that the value of material goods was a tenuous proposition. Inspect any appliance or piece of machinery in his possession and its easy to see that Phillips has been grooming himself to be a successful farmer for decades. Equipment is kept in immaculate condition. Twenty-year-old tractors look as if theyve just been driven from the showroom floorand on every one, written in economic script, is Phillips name and the date of purchase.
In 1935, Asa Sr., after leaving his position as a salesman with Kelly Springfield Tires and vowing never to work for anyone else again, purchased the rights to the original auto ventshadea metal visor that screwed to a cars door frame above the window. The product was invented by George Pritchard, who liked to crack his automobiles window, even in the rain, while enjoying cigars and touring Florida as a phosphate-mining engineer. In the days before air-conditioned cars, Asa Sr. marketed the product to Chevrolet, and in 1937 the innovation became a hit. But like many great ideas, it wasnt the products marketing that kept it successful but its constant reinvention.
During World War II, when there was no metal to come by, the business almost died, says Phillips. Then, after the war, hard-topped cars with air-conditioning almost killed it again. Necessity never made a good bargain.
While Phillips attended UGA, where he was the president of Phi Delta Theta and threw the javelin for the track team, his father struggled to keep the Ventshade a viable accessory for a growing line of more self-sufficient cars. After serving as a lieutenant in the Air Force, Phillips came home to Atlanta to take over a company that had withered to just a few employees.
At Dicks retirement party, I compared him to Jack Welchthe CEO at General Electricand said that Dick made him look like a rookie.
Then came the VW Beetle, says Phillips in the study of his home beneath a trophy that reads: Nobody Wins Alone. The Beetle had door frames and the product was back on cars in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and South America. But when the Beetle left and the Rabbitwithout doorframestook over, Auto Ventshade almost fell apart. Then came the popularity of pick-up trucks and AVS was back. Then trucks took out the triangular vent windows and we were hurt all over again.
(left) Scott Fleming extracts semen for the artificial insemination of a Wakefield cow. (above) Phillips fills buckets with protein-rich feed to supplement the herds bermuda grass and fescue diet.
Phillips actually sold the company twice (retaining partial ownership each time) only to be asked back each time by the new parent companies, who valued his ability to captain the company through the constantly changing market place. In 1986, for the first time in the companys 50-year history, Phillips enlisted national sales representatives. The move paralleled the surge in retail stores geared to do-it-yourself mechanics. Now stocked on the shelves of chains like Advance Auto Parts, AutoZone, and Wal-Martand as an accessory for all the major Detroit automakersAVS and its new line of curved, stick-on Ventvisors and Bugflectors positioned itself for unequaled growth. When Phillips retired in 2000 the company had grown from seven employees in 1955 to more than 500.
Phillips (shown here doling out cotton seed, which is a protein supplement) told UGAs extension agents he was interested in a farm that was profitable but that also had sustainable agricultural systems to help renew resources and rebuild the soil.
rom the outset of nearly any conversation about the farm, a couple of myths are dispelled. First, that Wakefield, a cow/calf operation specializing in angus and gelbvieh cattle, is a play farmone set up by an Atlanta businessman with a romanticized vision of farming.
This is a working farm, says Phillips with a Clint Eastwood stare. We keep exact records of all the money that comes in and out. Our goal is to make money, pure and simple.
Wakefield makes money in beef cows for harvest and by selling pregnant heifers (first-time mothers). The farm has also branched into embryo transfercharging other farms to use Wakefield surrogates for their pure breeds. Phillips looks at the ceiling as if expecting something to fall from it, then adds, Count the day lost whose slowly sinking sun sees goods billed out at cost and business done for fun.
The second point Phillips makes is that the farms position as one of the countrys most environmentally proactive (while also enacting successful business practices), is due to a tapestry of partnerships. He then reels them off like hes standing on stage accepting an Oscar but ashamed that hes the one who has to receive the award.
Theres my buddy, he says, speaking about his wife Julie, who grew up on 275 acres in South Carolina and is actually the lifelong farmer of the two. Next, our farm managersJerry Fleming in the 80s and 90s and then his son Scott Fleming and Todd Baldwin todaywho have provided so much of the expertise. He peels down a finger for each person mentioned and then says, And the University of Georgia, its extension service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He runs out of fingers.
The original 341-acre tract of what would become todays farmnamed in honor of the estate on which George Washington was born 200 years to the month before Phillipswas purchased in 1981, when Phillips moved 10 cows from his farm in Greenwood County, S.C., to Georgia. (Phillips has owned farms in Georgia and South Carolina since 1959.) He started adding tracts to Wakefield immediately, reverting tired, furrowed cotton land to its more natural, rested state. By the late 1980s, the conversion of all WFs row-cropped farmland to pastureland had begun in earnest along with the farms relationship with UGAs College of Agriculture and the extension service, which is headquartered in Athens.
I got a call from Mr. Phillips in the mid-80s and he said he wanted to do two things, recalls Ron Atkinson, an extension farm management specialist from 1966-95. He wanted the farm to pay for itself and be profitable but he was also interested in sustainable agriculture systems to renew resources and build the soil. The first thing UGA researchers and extension agents had to do was conduct a detailed farm analysis based on the enterprises Phillips was interested in pursuing. One of the really amazing things about the man, says Atkinson, is that he gets so truly interested in every aspect of the business.
Phillipss interest coincided with USDA sanctions to integrate more sustainable agriculture practices on farms across the country.
His farm became the first real live demonstration where we could assemble an entire team of specialistslivestock, soil, pathology, entomologists, etc., says Atkinson. It was a profitable relationship for each because we were looking for someone to provide a place to assemble that team when Mr. Phillips called us to find one. And he has always been willing to let us bring other groups out to Wakefield to show the possibilities for sustainable agriculture. Thats impor- tant because most farmers arent as interested in results from laboratory farms as they are of what happens on real, working ones.
The expertise provided by the extension service included testing streams that crisscross Wakefield. These tests gauge the purity of the water before it enters the farm but just as importantly, they measure its cleanliness as it leaves. Today, WF streamswhich are naturally filter- ed because they flow through a clean environmentare actually purer than when they enter the property. And the dilapidated ground that was losing 22 tons of soil per acre per year in the 1970s due to wind and water erosion? After being changed to a no-till method of planting for natural cow pastures instead of the cotton and soy of yesteryear, it now loses an activist-friendly one ton per acre.
Ideally, when Im gone, this could be a place where young people can walk and feel like they were traveling through the past.
The University and the county agents deserve so much credit because their only purpose is to help out farmers like meand I need all the help I can get, laughs Phillips, who sponsors a yearly $1,500 scholarship for UGA agriculture students. He is also a charter member of the Presidents Club and a UGA Partner. In private business, there is none of this camaraderie, he says, pausing for a moment and reflecting. I want to leave this land in better shape than I found it. Ideally, when Im gone, this could be a place where young people can walk and feel like they were traveling through the past.
rom a high spot on the farmHart Countys largestand seated inside his tractor, Phillips can see across rolling pastures, where bermuda grass and fescue are reaped and then rolled to feed WFs 500 head of cattle.
The reality of a cow operation is that its actually a grass farm, says Scott Fleming (BSA 90) as Phillips chugs past. In the center of each of the pasturesrotated for grazing and growing and separated by barbed and electric fencesare 33 concrete water tanks supplied by nine wells. Those wells represent, as ventshades did for cars, simple but effective innovations in cattle ranching. And they have helped put Wakefield on the fast track to environmental notoriety, beginning in 1992. It was in that year that the Natural Resources Conservation Service began working with Phillips to install fenced buffer zones around streams. The barriers kept cows out, contamination down, and creek bank erosion to a minimum while the tanks provided cattle a guaranteed place to drinkeven in drought years.
At 1,435 acres, Wakefield is Hart Countys largest farm. To feed 500 head of cattle, Phillips and his crew are more like grass farmers than Hollywoods romantic notions of what it means to be a cowboy.
Wakefield Farm is a leader in the implementation of buffers and other setbacks to enhance wildlife and protect natural resources, says Forrest Ferguson, a district conservationist with NRCS. Mr. Phillips only needed to be shown the benefit of a particular conservation practice before he would try it. Today, amongst WF cattle, its common to see deer herds and turkey flocks scurrying through rows of planted pine trees.
By 2002, Wakefields evolution was completefrom terraced cotton fields, with the feel of threadbare dishrags rung out once too often, to lush pasturelands that enhanced the farms natural setting. It was rewarded for that evolution with the Environmental Stewardship Award. The award winners are selected annually by a committee of representatives from universities, conservation organizations, and federal and state agencies. It recognizes cattle producers whose farm management practices are inventive, cost-effective, and contribute to environmental conservation.
It takes dedication of resources and a respect for the environment to convert abused row crop land into pastures suitable for cattle production, says NCBA President Wythe Willey. This is what the Phillips family has been able to do with Wakefield Farm. [It] shows a true commitment and respect for the environment.
t an age when many people hang up their saddle, Dick Phillips has built his second company with 500 employeeswhich, at Wakefield, just happen to be cows. When I told people I was leaving Atlanta to work on the farm, they thought I was a fool and said Id go crazy, says Phillips, dressed in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, khaki pants, and work bootsand inspecting a cow that just gave birth. I just love the lay of this land and Im having more fun than ever. I believe that when someone has been successful for 25 years, its time to do something else.
But beyond his need to move on to greener pastures, its Phillips ability to share his passion with others that keeps his interest high and people clamoring to be around the man the NCBA called an exceptional environmental steward.
Hes a good employer because he treats us with respect and rewards us for good workand we take care of him, says Todd Baldwin while laying out hay for the cattle. He and Julie want to see long-term benefits for me and Scott. They think of us as employeesbut first he thinks of us as friends.
Meredith Phillips (BS 98), a medical illustrator, grew up on the farm and gleaned her work ethic from watching her father.
I have learned that by staying busy and productive it makes one more content at the end of the day, she says. People like my father because he likes people and is genuinely interested in them. He asks questions, listens, and is an enthusiastic host even when he is not in his own home. He has been successful at most everything he does due to hard work, diligence, curiosity, and lots of researchand so, people admire him.
After breakfast, as the mist lifts from Wakefield pastures, Phillips leaves the kitchen, where on the refrigerator a comic strip cow is eating five-dollar bills. Outside, he climbs into his tractor to move one of the giant rolls of bermudagrass to a herd of cattle waiting greedily for their breakfast.
Running a cattle farm is a challenge and that is what I love, says Phillips. Most people think that businesses make money, but thats not true. Businesses make shoes, or Ventshades, or cows. The challenge is to provide the best product you canand if people want it, then and only then is a business a success.
Wakefield Farm won a national environmental stewardship award for implementing land-friendly practices such as buffer zones, which keep cattle from contaminating streams and help prevent erosion.
©2004 by the University of Georgia.