The science of food

UGA’s Cooperative Extension Service helped Dick Phillips (BBA ’53) create
a cattle farm that’s friendly to the environment

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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)

n a wood-paneled arena, half the size of a church gym, Dick Phillips and his crew from Wakefield Farm settle into a crowd adorned in camouflage and cowboy hats that takes up three sides of a steel-gated ring. An auctioneer welcomes the crowd as a series of explosive-sounding noises––behind and below the platform––punctuate his micro-phoned salutation. The blasts end when a portal opens to allow a 1,500-pound black angus “on stage.” The bull bucks and paws the ground, throwing yellow wood chips and saliva over the first row’s occupants. “Now here’s the best ribeye bull you’ll see today—and I’ll tell you, he’s also got a great scrotum,” says the auctioneer. The assembled cattlemen tilt their heads collectively to look at the different parts of the bull––hip height, muscularity, and flank length––and mark their dockets accordingly. Those looking for a bull of this sort nod with mannequin subtlety to indicate a bid. “If you’re eyeing that special cow to add meat and muscle to your herd, here’s your bull,” says the announcer. More than 70 animals will reach the block today, selling, on average, for $2,010 apiece.
Phillips with wife Julie cattle auction
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 farming—but not as a hobby. “Our goal,’ he says, “is to make money, pure and simple.”

Phillips (BBA ’53) isn’t in the market for a bull. The man who owns Wakefield Farm––considered one of the most environmentally sound in the country––has 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 Georgia’s Hart County is because, by his own admission, he’s 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. There’s an almost knightly air in the way he comports his 6’3” 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 Ventshade––selling 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 Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s 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 Farm’s 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
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.
“There’s a host of folks who deserve credit for that award,” says Phillips. “We couldn’t have done it without the University or without all the hard work from people on this farm. I never like to think of people working for me. If things are going the right direction at Wakefield, just like at Auto Ventshade, then people are working with me. Regardless of your business––car accessories or cows––it’s people that make the difference.”

hillips didn’t 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 it’s 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 they’ve just been driven from the showroom floor––and on every one, written in economic script, is Phillips’ name and the date of purchase.

“I am the product of my environment,” says Phillips, a graduate of North Fulton High School in Atlanta, whose given name is Asa Richard Phillips Jr. He then recites one of his “Old Saws” (a collection of which he actually published under the title Old Saws Ring True): “You know, money’s not terribly important to everybody––who’ve been without it.

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 ventshade—a metal visor that screwed to a car’s door frame above the window. The product was invented by George Pritchard, who liked to crack his automobile’s 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 wasn’t the product’s 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 Dick’s retirement party, I compared him to Jack Welch—the CEO at General Electric—and said that Dick made him look like a rookie.”
– Neal Williams

“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 Rabbit—without doorframes—took 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.”

Scott Fleming Phillips fills buckets with protein-rich feed
(left) Scott Fleming extracts semen for the artificial insemination of a Wakefield cow. (above) Phillips fills buckets with protein-rich feed to supplement the herd’s 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 company’s 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-Mart—and as an accessory for all the major Detroit automakers—AVS 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.

Doling out cotton seed
Phillips (shown here doling out cotton seed, which is a protein supplement) told UGA’s 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.
“He’s as good a business person as I have ever met,” says Neal Williams, chairman and CEO of the NA Williams Co.––among the first to represent Phillips in 1986. “He left no stone unturned and had a running rule that no phone call should ring more than twice or ever be picked up by a message machine. At Dick’s retirement party, I compared him to Jack Welch––the CEO of General Electric––and said that Dick made him look like a rookie. I once went with him to see a potential distributor, who wanted to pay for AVS products six months after delivery. Dick said, ‘When you gather enough money, we’ll get back together.’ Then he stood up and very politely walked out. That’s just the way he did business––he could be flexible and was always a complete gentleman, but he had exacting policies and morals.”

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 farm—one 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 transfer—charging 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 farm’s position as one of the country’s most environmentally proactive (while also enacting successful business practices), is due to a tapestry of partnerships. He then reels them off like he’s standing on stage accepting an Oscar but ashamed that he’s the one who has to receive the award.

“There’s 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 managers––Jerry Fleming in the 80s and 90s and then his son Scott Fleming and Todd Baldwin today––who 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 today’s farm––named in honor of the estate on which George Washington was born 200 years to the month before Phillips––was 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 WF’s row-cropped farmland to pastureland had begun in earnest along with the farm’s relationship with UGA’s 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.”

Phillips’s 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 specialists––livestock, 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. That’s impor- tant because most farmers aren’t 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 streams—which are naturally filter- ed because they flow through a clean environment—are 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 I’m gone, this could be a place where young people can walk and feel like they were traveling through the past.”
–Dick Phillips

“The University and the county agents deserve so much credit because their only purpose is to help out farmers like me—and 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 I’m 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 farm—Hart County’s largest—and seated inside his tractor, Phillips can see across rolling pastures, where bermuda grass and fescue are reaped and then rolled to feed WF’s 500 head of cattle.

“The reality of a cow operation is that it’s actually a grass farm,” says Scott Fleming (BSA ’90) as Phillips chugs past. In the center of each of the pastures—rotated for grazing and growing and separated by barbed and electric fences—are 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 drink––even in drought years.

At 1,435 acres, Wakefield is Hart County’s largest farm.
At 1,435 acres, Wakefield is Hart County’s largest farm. To feed 500 head of cattle, Phillips and his crew are more like grass farmers than Hollywood’s 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, it’s common to see deer herds and turkey flocks scurrying through rows of planted pine trees.

By 2002, Wakefield’s evolution was complete––from terraced cotton fields, with the feel of threadbare dishrags rung out once too often, to lush pasturelands that enhanced the farm’s 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 employees––which, 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 I’d go crazy,” says Phillips, dressed in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, khaki pants, and work boots—and inspecting a cow that just gave birth. “I just love the lay of this land and I’m having more fun than ever. I believe that when someone has been successful for 25 years, it’s time to do something else.”

But beyond his need to move on to greener pastures, it’s 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.

“He’s a good employer because he treats us with respect and rewards us for good work—and 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 employees—but 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 research––and 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 that’s not true. Businesses make shoes, or Ventshades, or cows. The challenge is to provide the best product you can—and if people want it, then and only then is a business a success.”

cows coming home
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.

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