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On Golden Farm

FRANKLIN LIVING—

On more than 600 acres in the Newburg area of the county, one Franklin family is carrying on the legacy begun by their ancestors nearly 200 years ago – finding the joy in heritage and hard work on Golden Farm.

Peter M. Barker started the family farm in 1824, establishing what became the cherished family homeplace. To his son Sterling Barker, to his daughter Mattie Barker Golden, to her son Martin Golden Jr., to his daughters Patsy Golden McDuffa and JoAnn Golden Graham, to JoAnn and husband Mike’s son Marty Graham – the farm has grown and thrived through generations. “The whole thing is still in the family, and we’re hoping it continues,” JoAnn said. “We’ve had a lot of family members on this acreage out here.”

To chronicle the history of almost two centuries of family farming is no easy task, but that’s just what JoAnn set out to do when her father was in the final months of his life, to qualify the farm as an official Alabama Century and Heritage Farm. The state program honors family farms that have been in operation more than 100 years and have played a significant role in Alabama’s history. To date, more than 600 farms have been recognized across the state – a total that now includes Golden Farm.

When JoAnn’s father, World War II veteran Golden Jr., passed away in October 2017, she and her sister each inherited half of the farm. Now that Marty, 39, has purchased McDuffa’s half, finalizing the sale in September 2019, he’s running it with his mother as a silent partner. He’s relying on the farm skills he learned working alongside his grandfather on Golden Farm during Golden Jr.’s later years, starting in 2007.

“I went to Auburn and got my ag economics degree, and I came back home and worked in the poultry industry, but in 2007 he made me a partner,” said Marty, who worked first at Gold Kist and then at Pilgrim’s before leaving the poultry industry to take up farming. “He told me, ‘We’re either going to keep this thing running, or we’re fixing to sell out,’ because he was 84 years old at the time. He said, ‘I can’t do it by myself.’”

The Grahams had returned to the family land in 1993 after living in Russellville for 15 years; as a child, Marty had spent a couple of days a week during the summer helping out on the farm – learning the feeling of an honest day’s work with one’s own two hands – and he knew he couldn’t let the family farm leave the family. “I knew it was something I enjoyed, and as I got older, I had started seeing the love Granddad had for it.”

Golden Jr. started teaching his grandson the financial side of running a farm. “We got an operating loan, and he said, ‘Here you go. You get to handle the books.’ I had never dealt with anything over $1,000 at the time,” Marty said. “And the man never asked once to see the books” – trusting his grandson was managing well.

The two worked together to grow and sell each season’s calves, retaining the heifers and paying for the best bulls they could afford to continue to improve their herd. “I had to make it financially off my part of the calf check each year,” said Marty, admitting he felt the strain of caring for his own young family – his wife Lacy who he married in 2008 and their first son Hudson – on the limited funds, especially since they had to take the loan payment off the top first. His share of the calf check was his only salary. But “we made it. We made a profit every year. It wasn’t a lot, but we made a profit. It made you a pretty good manager … I had half the herd after he passed away, just from what we had built together.”

JoAnn harbors fond memories of her father’s work on the farm from the time she was a child, and she said it means the world to her to see it continue in the family. “I have always loved it. I love this land. I always, even when I was a little girl, wanted to build a house here,” said JoAnn, who worked 35 years for the Department of Human Resources. “It’s just something within you that you can’t explain. There’s nothing any prettier to me than right here. I love the beach, I love the mountains, but right here – it’s almost like I feel my ancestors. This land has been good to us. We have been blessed for a long, long time.”

Mike, who married JoAnn in 1974, feels much the same; after a career in education as a principal at Phil Campbell and Tharptown and 21 years in the Franklin County School central office, he has enjoyed being able to help on the farm in his retirement. “I don’t know that I would ever want to live back in town again,” he said. “I intend, good Lord willing, to be out here until I’m dead and gone.”

The farm started its tenure as a cattle farm almost 70 years ago; as row cropping began to lose its profitability, the family traded beans, wheat and cotton for cattle and hay. At different times Golden Jr. also painted houses, ran a mail route and served in public office, but working on the farm was his first love. His dedication was recognized with awards like Conservationist of the Year and Farmer of the Year, and the whole family was named the Franklin County Farm Family of the Year in 2017.

Marty did return to Pilgrim’s as a broiler service technician in 2014, rising to assistant broiler manager and now broiler manager, a role he holds even while running the farm. Through the fall he has stayed busy with calving season, taking care of vaccinations, feeding and marketing as he prepares to sell his newest stock. “It’s just stuff my granddaddy had pretty well established,” said Marty, who has no reason to reinvent the wheel. He works with Superior Live Auction to his extend his sales reach and relies on John Henderson with Superior and Johnny Little, a longtime friend of his grandfather’s, as mentors in the industry.

Golden Jr. had two open heart surgeries in 1998 but remained active on the farm until his final days on earth – down to still cutting his own grass with a zero-degree mower nearly right up until he entered palliative care at Helen Keller. Mind still sharp as a tack at 94, even as his body began to betray him, Golden Jr. would ask after the cows and took pleasure in learning their family farm would be designated a Century and Heritage Farm.

“It just needed to be done,” said JoAnn. “It was something I wanted to do for Daddy. He probably never would have done it himself, but before he passed away, we had been told it had been approved. I was real happy he knew it … He was interested in it when I was researching it. He would go over stuff with me and talk to me about it.

“He was just a very unique individual,” JoAnn added. “He was always on the go. He was positive; if he worried about something, he didn’t let you know about it.”

“He was from the Greatest Generation and left a huge legacy,” Mike added.

For Marty, who was “trained by the best” in his grandfather, continuing the family farm after Golden Jr.’s passing was really his only option. “I think if I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted it,” said Marty. He said managing the family farm is a dream – albeit an anxiety-producing dream. “It’s a lot of weight just because of the history.” He’s channeling his grandfather’s positive attitude and worry-free spirit, setting his own “worrier” nature aside. He said he tries to follow his grandfather’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, just pick one.”

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him,” Marty added. “I think of him all the time. I had the best trainer I could ever have in him; the years with him were invaluable.”

Marty said he hopes his sons, 9-year-old Hudson Jameson and 2-year-old Sterling Hayes, will also love the family farm, just as their great-grandfather did and their father does. “It’s something where you can really see the fruits of your labor.”

“It was daddy’s heaven,” JoAnn added. “He loved it.”