Nestled in Southwest Georgia’s mostly rural landscape, there is more than agriculture growing in Mitchell County. With the Flint River defining its western border, Mitchell County—with a population of less than 25,000—spans 514 square miles and is home to the cities of Camilla, Pelham, Baconton, and Sale City.
Encompassing more than 171,000 planted acres of rich farmland, Mitchell County is among the state’s top-producing agricultural counties, generating more than $370 million annually, according to the 2019 University of Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.
When it comes to row crop production, Mitchell County ranks No. 1 and generates approximately $144 million in farm gate value. Coming in at the top of the list for agricultural production is field and sweet corn ($76 million), vegetables ($64.8 million), pecans and peanuts ($52 million), and cotton ($48 million).
Bordering the banks of the Flint River in Camilla, Longleaf Ridge Farms is committed to sustaining natural resources and producing safe, high-quality food products. Named for the longleaf pine ecosystem naturally occurring across 2,400 acres, Longleaf Ridge produces sweet and field corn, peanuts, soybeans, and natural and planted timber.
Casey Cox, a sixth-generation farmer, works alongside her father, Glenn Cox, as she transitions into full-time management of Longleaf Ridge.
Her passion and family’s history for conservation led Cox to the University of Florida, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in forest resources and conservation. After graduating in 2013, she returned home and worked as executive director of the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Though I grew up on the farm, it took my years away in college for me to gain perspective and appreciation for both my background in agriculture and the significant opportunity I had to build on the foundation my parents constructed through the years,” says Cox, who represents Mitchell County on the board of supervisors for the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District. “Moving back home to the farm was the best decision of my life, and I am thankful that I work in the industry that is such an important part of our family’s heritage, as well as our future.”
As part of an ongoing learning process, Cox understands that most challenges facing farmers are not new to her generation.
“I am grateful for a community that has embraced my return to the farm and opened so many doors for me to learn as well as serve in leadership roles within agriculture,” she says. “Though we’ve made significant strides and progress since my grandfather and father first began farming, my generation is facing a whole new set of challenges we are learning to navigate in real-time.
“I read one time, ‘When Mother Nature is your business partner, you never know what to expect.’ The reality is that so many aspects of our business—like weather and climate—are completely outside of our control, so it’s critical for us to be creative in how we adapt and think about the future. ”
It was a difficult lesson—and one that came with tremendous expense—when in October 2018, Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on Southwest Georgia farmers, causing more than $2.5 billion in damage to crops, especially pecans, cotton, timber, and vegetables.
“Hurricane Michael really opened my eyes to what it means for our farm to be resilient and sustainable for the long-term and motivated me to start thinking outside the box,” she says. “Another major challenge for our generation is the growing disconnect between farmers and consumers, coupled with vast misinformation about our food system and the growing distrust it seeds in how our food is grown. We have to learn how to communicate more effectively with our consumers and demonstrate our strong stewardship efforts.”
Extending beyond farming, agribusiness represents Mitchell County’s largest industry with national food production companies like the Golden Peanut Company, a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland Company, and Tyson Foods.
Continuing to expand its Camilla facility and grow more jobs, in 2019, Tyson Foods invested $34.2 million to create a new “mega line,” which prompted the company to hire 100 team members as they ramped up operations in the region.
A Family Tradition
For more than 50 years, Hays LTI has been part of Mitchell County’s agribusiness network.
Established in 1970 by Ray Hays to manufacture fertilizer equipment, the company is now co-owned and operated by two of his four children, Ronald Hays and Donna Hays Stewart.
“My sisters Lynn [Pinson] and Shari [Cranford] are in education,” says Stewart, who oversees the company’s financial operation. “Lynn is principal at Baconton Charter School, and Shari is the school’s student information system administrator.”
In the mid-1980s, during the “lean years,” Stewart explains her father offered “what was left of the company” to her and Ronald.
“What was left was a great product, wonderful customers, reliable vendors but no money,” she says. “My brother and I grew up in the business. I sat with Mama around the kitchen table many nights learning how to keep the books. Ronald spent hours with Daddy in the shop. We loved it so much so we determined to keep the company and build it up.”
The company became Liquid Transport Incorporated (doing business as Hays LTI). The family-management team continued to expand, including the addition of Jimmy Stewart, Donna’s husband, who is a co-owner and works with sales and operation.
After working several summers at Hays LTI, in 2013, Laura Pinson Sinyard joined the company her grandfather established. In addition to assisting Stewart with accounting duties, she manages the company’s marketing efforts and is involved with sales and customer service.
In 2015, after graduating from Auburn University, Matt Hays, Ronald’s son, joined the company and manages the production process, inventory, and sales.
“Matthew and Laura have a wonderful love for our customers, employees, and products,” Stewart says. “They are already putting their mark on the company. As they learn from us, we’re also learning from them.”
Hays LTI has expanded into a large-scale manufacturer, selling fertilizer hauling equipment including tender trailers, transport tanker, side dumps and tanks, plus offering repair services and a rental fleet of more than 800 trailers.
As production demands and sales soared, the company was located in three different properties throughout Camilla.
“Our products and services simply outgrew our three facilities,” Stewart says. “It was time to find a new home and get everyone back on one property.”
Wanting to remain in Mitchell County, in 2015, they purchased 60 acres, just minutes from Downtown Camilla. Two years later, they relocated to a state-of-the-art manufacturing complex that features 225,000-square-feet of production, storage, and administrative space.
“Our new facility allows us to be the best we can be for our employees and customers and it is everything we envisioned,” says Stewart.
Keeping to their father’s influence of generosity, the Hays LTI team enjoys donating custom-made smokers for fundraising efforts, hosting community events at the new facility, and delivering their signature homemade pecan pies to customers and friends.
In recent years, Georgia has emerged as one of the top 10 U.S. states to embrace the use of solar energy. According to the Georgia Solar Energy Association, the solar market has contributed $947 million to communities across the state.
In 2013, before solar was the hot topic it is today, Mitchell County was one of the first utility-scale producers of solar.
Almost a decade later, Mitchell County has a growing number of solar projects completed and in production, including RWE Renewables’ Hickory Park Solar, which is expected to be completed later this year. The project marks RWE Renewables’ first solar facility in Georgia and the largest solar plus storage project in the U.S. to date.
“The solar projects bring new tax dollars without infrastructure burden,” says Paige Gilchrist, executive director of the Mitchell County Development Authority, “We are increasing our tax digest, and the [solar] companies are making some improvements on the properties.”
“The company’s owner, whom I’ve known all my life, gave me a heads up that they were closing. Getting this news was like a punch in the stomach.” — Mayor James Eubanks
Diverting a Loss
It’s news that no city or county official ever wants to receive. Yet, in April 2018, Pelham Mayor James Eubanks vividly remembered the phone call informing him that Darwood Manufacturing, Pelham’s oldest industry and second-largest employer, was closing its operation, leaving jobs and livelihood of about 130 people in jeopardy.
“The company’s owner, whom I’ve known all my life, gave me a heads up that they were closing,” says Eubanks. “Getting this news was like a punch in the stomach.”
For 66 years, Darwood Manufacturing, a thriving shirt producer, was an integral part of Pelham and Mitchell County’s industry base. At the height of its production, the family-owned company employed upward of 400 people, though the numbers dwindled over the years.
Understanding that time was of the essence, Pelham and Mitchell County officials immediately started looking for a suitable replacement.
Within a few months, a silver lining appeared when Ohio-based Fire-Dex, a family-owned, global manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders, purchased Darwood’s 88,000-square-foot facility.
Gilchrist says recruiting Fire-Dex was a big win for the community and employees. “They started hiring back existing workers from Darwood, plus they completed upgrades to the facility, improved employee benefits, and have provided a whole new atmosphere.”
Fire-Dex has committed to ongoing expansion at the Pelham facility, including approximately one million in new equipment in the next few years.
Give Them A Hand
Located at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 19 and State Road 93, Pelham is approximately 10 miles south of Camilla. The small rural community with a population of less than 4,000 became a retail mecca during the early 20th century, primarily due to the presence of the Hand Trading Company.
In 1914, Judson Larrabee Hand, a local businessman, started construction on the massive four-story building, which he patterned after visiting the Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago, Illinois.
For more than a century, the Hand Trading building has been a towering presence in downtown Pelham. When it opened in 1916, the expansive department store sold groceries and clothing to houseware and farm equipment.
As the number of customers declined, the Hand Trading Company—now the Hand Building—was forced to close in 1984 and remained primarily vacant.
“With a building of this size sitting empty, especially for so many years, it casted a large shadow on our community,” says Eubanks. “It’s a big part of our history and a huge centerpiece for our downtown.”
Thanks to the vision of community leaders, the Hand Building gained a new purpose. In 2019, the Joint Development Authority of Mitchell County and Pelham worked with IDP Properties and SCG Development to transform the building into 54 one, two, and three-bedroom residential units. Constructed using Earth Craft Building standards, the renovations maintained the building’s historical charm, including an open rotunda highlighted by a dome with intricately designed glass panes set in copper frames.
“It’s a perfect fit, especially for our downtown,” says Eubanks. “We didn’t have enough affordable housing in Pelham, and this gives us new modern housing opportunities.”
Owned and managed by IDP Properties, the building also features community space, a fitness center, a computer lab, an arts and crafts room, and other common areas. In addition, a section of the first floor is reserved for retail space.
“The Hand Trading Building came on our radar, and I was immediately drawn to the history of the building as well as the impact it once had on the community of Pelham,” says Rhett Holmes, president of IDP Properties. “I was able to talk with many community leaders and felt confident that restoring the building would be a great economic benefit to not only Pelham but Mitchell County. Not only would it bring back one of South Georgia’s most iconic buildings, but it would also serve a dire need in that community for affordable housing.”
“Southern Sass has been a great addition. The building needed a lot of renovations, but the owners worked their magic. It’s very popular, and at lunchtime, you have to get there early for a seat.” — Christian Drake
Restoring the Hand Building was a catalyst for the revitalization of Downtown Pelham. “It makes a world of difference for the feel of our downtown,” Eubanks says. “As a result, we’ve been able to attract more businesses to open in the downtown area, and there is a lot of excitement.”
Now with a steady stream of downtown residents, Ronald and Brenda Wisham, from nearby Cairo, decided to open Southern Sass Café. Serving breakfast and lunch, the café features traditional cafe dishes like burgers, wings, and wraps, plus a full ice cream bar.
“Southern Sass has been a great addition,” says Christian Drake, Pelham Downtown Development Authority director. “The building needed a lot of renovations, but the owners worked their magic. It’s very popular, and at lunchtime, you have to get there early for a seat.”
Just a block from Southern Sass, Pelham Jesse Romero recently opened Backstreet Seafood Restaurant. Serving lunch and dinner Thursday through Saturday, Backstreet’s menu includes oysters, flounder, the traditional southern shrimp and grits, and more.
“Having Backstreet Seafood open at night is a big plus,” Drake says. “We need a few more restaurants, especially open later at night and during the week.”
A splash of art is now part of Downtown Pelham’s transformation. A series of hand-painted murals feature regional scenes and inspire community pride and a sense of belonging.
“The murals have added beauty to our downtown,” Drake says. “They also increase walkability and help draw people to the area.”
In nearby Camilla, the downtown district recently gained an artistic anchor when the Flint River Arts Council took up residency.
“We’re excited to have the art center downtown,” says Don Gray, director of Main Street Camilla. “They offer a variety of classes plus have events and exhibits to showcase local artists.”
With a mix of retail, restaurant, professional, and government offices, the downtown’s focus is promoting local entrepreneurs. When looking to start a business, Gray says, “We encourage people to use their talents and interests.”
Moving toward expanding the downtown district’s footprint, Gray says, “We have found that within five years, and because of how the downtown area is shaped, we need to develop outlying areas for more growth.”
Adding to future downtown revitalization efforts, Camilla is applying to be a designated Rural Zone—joining South Georgia communities like Bainbridge, Nashville, and Adel—which will give tax credits to eligible businesses that create jobs.
Gray says plans for Downtown Camilla include adding a splash pad, amphitheater, and various entertainment zones for evening activities.