By Patricia McDaniels —
A third-generation farmer from Jackson, Tennessee, who manages more than 5,000 acres of row crops has been named the Tennessee Farmer of the Year by University of Tennessee Extension.
Johnny Verell, who farms in partnership with his father and grandfather, John Verell Jr. and John Verell Sr., rose to the top of the competition because of his business savvy, his land stewardship and his devotion to community service.
Verell was nominated by Danny Morris, a UT Extension area farm management specialist for 10 West Tennessee counties, including Madison County. Farmers from across the state were nominated by their county Extension agents or by area farm management specialists.
The youngest Verell began farming in 2005 – 40 years after his grandfather started the family business. At first he was entrusted with just 50 acres of the family’s 2000 acres, which he planted in Delta & Pine Land cotton. Now he manages the entire 5,050 acre operation.
At his direction, Verell Farms, as the business is known, has moved away from cotton production to cultivating wheat, corn and soybeans. And lots of them.
With the help of technology and precision agriculture, Verell’s irrigated acres of corn have been known to produce more than 300 bushels per acre. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the U.S. average yield of corn to be 171.8 bushels per acre.
What’s more, at 65 bushels per acre for full-season soybeans, Verell produced well above last year’s national average yield of 49.5 bushels per acre.
In 2008, Verell Farms faced perhaps its biggest challenge. In February of that year, a tornado spawned as part of that year’s Super Tuesday Tornado outbreak destroyed much of their equipment, all their storage sheds as well as the homes of John Sr. and John Jr.
“This placed additional financial and emotional stress on the entire family,” Johnny understates. “Debris was scattered across 1,000 acres of ground that we worked. We were able to overcome this natural disaster thanks to support from family, close friends, our church family and our faith in the good Lord above.”
Since then, Verell Farms has expanded to include not only the original family-owned land but also some additional 3,000 acres of rented cropland. All of it, Verell knows, contains the secret to his future success.
He manages the land for sustainability, including installing wildlife food plots, planting buffer strips along the edge of streams and using best practices that reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides applied to the crops. He has even planted 20 acres designed as pollinator habitat to help native bee populations survive and thrive.
Verell will be introduced as the Tennessee Farmer of the Year in August at the Tennessee Farm Bureau President’s Conference in Franklin, Tennessee; at the Tennessee State Fair Hamburger Grilling Contest for Media, sponsored by the Farm and Forest Families of Tennessee; and at the UT Institute of Agriculture Ag Day celebration scheduled for Sept. 22 in Knoxville.
According to the graduate of Jackson State Community College – Johnny holds an associate degree in precision agriculture from that school and a bachelor’s in agronomy from Murray State University – the honor of being the Tennessee Farmer of the Year does not belong to him alone.
All three John Verells have daily input into the success of the family business, and the youngest considers the farm’s employees – who happen to also be skilled tradesmen – to be critical to the success of the operation. Finally, the support of wife Crissy and daughter Emmi has been invaluable.
As Tennessee Farmer of the Year, Verell will compete in the Southeastern Farmer of the Year competition at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia. The overall winner will be announced at a luncheon on the expo’s opening day, Oct. 16.
Patricia McDaniels is a senior media coordinator with the University of Tennessee. She may be reached at email@example.com.