2017 Best Young Farmers, Ranchers

DTNPF Announces America's Newest Best Young Farmers and Ranchers

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Pictured are the 2016 DTN/the Progressive Farmer Best Young Farmers and Ranchers Program honorees. Front row, left to right: Marty Wooldridge, JR Shannon, Angelo Erickson, Adam Winkelman, Lamont Bridgeforth (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

CHICAGO (DTN) -- DTN/The Progressive Farmer this afternoon added five new honorees to its America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program. The class of 2017 was introduced here during an Ag Summit lunchtime event held in their honor.

Now entering its eighth year, the program recognizes young farmers and ranchers who are building successful and innovative agricultural businesses. The award also recognizes the work they do to promote agriculture and have a positive impact in their communities. The 2017 class joins 31 past honorees.

Here are the newest members of the America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program:

Angelo Erickson, 39, Erickson Farms, Tarkio, Missouri.

Angelo Erickson farms 4,200 acres in northwest Missouri and helps to manage another 4,000 acres owned by his father, Dennis. The Ericksons are predominately white-corn producers, selling about 1 million bushels a year to buyers in the U.S., Europe, South Korea, New Zealand and Mexico.

"I hope one day I can be half the farmer my dad has become," Erickson said. "No school could have come close to teaching me the important lessons he has. His words have always been 'try your best.' I know that whatever life throws at me he will always be there to push me through it."

Erickson is married to Lori. They are raising two boys, Alex, 9, and Aiden, 5.

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Marty Wooldridge, 39, Wooldridge Land & Cattle Company, Oil City, Louisiana.

Wooldridge Land & Cattle Company operates on 3,000 acres of deeded and leased land. The operation is based upon a 500-head commercial Brangus herd. Marty Wooldridge keeps 20 herd bulls that service both a spring and fall calving herd. He and his wife, Crystal, are exploring opportunities in beginning a branded-beef retail business. With their own meat label, they see profitable opportunities in selling beef cuts to consumers in the Shreveport, Louisiana, area and statewide.

"When I started the ranch in 1998, I just wanted to have a herd of beautiful cattle," Wooldridge said. "But it's more than that today. It's about throwing a fine-tasting, juicy steak on someone's plate. You get a new sense of purpose that you don't get from selling a truckload of calves to the feedlot."

Marty and Crystal are raising a son, William, 2.

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Adam Winkelman, 31, Winkelman Farms, Arenzville, Illinois.

Adam Winkelman's 520-acre farming operation has been built upon a diverse base of enterprises. In addition to an irrigated corn and soybean business, Winkelman is a contract hog producer. His two hog buildings turn out 11,000 market hogs and 12,000 feeder pigs per year. He maintains a 100-head beef feedlot, with plans to triple the lot's size in the future. The cattle business makes sense, he said, because he has close access to gluten supplies from nearby ethanol plants. He ships livestock and brings feed onto the farm with his seven-truck semi fleet.

"My decision to contract finish hogs has paid off and allowed me to farm full-time," Winkelman said. "With the manure, I have nearly eliminated my use of commercial fertilizers and have increased my yields while doing so. Building the barns has been the single most important business decision I have made."

Winkelman is married to Breanna, a school teacher.

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JR Shannon, 36, SK-Ranch-CRS Farming, Visalia, California.

JR Shannon farms and manages 12,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The operation produces grapes, citrus, walnuts, almonds, kiwi, corn, beans, wheat, onions, garlic -- and water.

Everything in California agriculture revolves around water, and because of the state's historic drought, that has been in short supply. Shannon has turned to micro-irrigation systems and is using soil moisture probes to more closely manage his water applications. He installed this year an infrared system that reads the temperature of the canopies of his citrus and nut trees. The readings help him identify stress and fine-tune his irrigation program.

Shannon planted a 200-acre block of kiwifruit to his operation, as insurance against a new citrus disease, and to tap into a new market opportunity. He expects his first crop in a year and his first commercial crop two years after that.

"The devastating citrus greening disease could destroy citrus industry. I wanted to have something different in case that happened," Shannon said. "I looked at the kiwifruit as another leg to add to our diversification. I needed to step into this for the betterment of my future."

Shannon is married to Jayme. They are raising four children, twin boys, Cash and Kingston, and daughters, Shiloh and Kherington.

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Lamont Bridgeforth, 40, Darden Bridgeforth & Sons, Tanner, Alabama.

The Bridgeforth farming operation is 9,300 acres and produces corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and in more recent years, the farm has found opportunity to grow winter canola for a food-grade processor in Georgia.

The Bridgeforth family traces its line back 146 years to George Bridgeforth who grew up a slave on the James Bridgeforth Plantation in Tennessee. Soon after gaining his freedom, George Bridgeforth began buying land -- a rarity in the late 1800s among black farmers.

Lamont's father and uncle, Greg and Bill, are the principle operators of the farm today. They are the two youngest of eight sons born to Darden Bridgeforth. Lamont, Greg's son, and his two cousins, Kyle and Carlton (Bill's sons), stand ready to take over the Bridgeforth operation.

Lamont manages the spraying and planting operations on the farm. He is also tackling the growing issue of hiring labor.

"How do you know when we have enough people?" he asked. "How do you make the tradeoffs? Do I buy a truck or hire someone? You can put a load on five or six people when you need eight or nine, but they get burned out."

Hiring millennials is just plain challenging, he added. "You've got to understand their work attitude. Sometimes they just want time off. They'll sacrifice money for that," Lamont said. "So, we don't want to give them money, when it's time they want. But we also don't want to give them time, when they need money."

Lamont is raising three children: Emily, 9, Gregory, 7, and Daniel, 1.

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Nominees for America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers must be 40 years old or younger, manage at least 500 acres and/or have interest in a 50-head cow herd or larger.

Nominations for the class of 2018 are now open. Applications are available by email request sent to dan.miller@dtn.com or by phone at 205-414-4736. All nominations must be postmarked by April 28, 2017.

This newest class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers are profiled in the February 2017 issue of The Progressive Farmer magazine.

Video presentations of each of the America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers honorees can be found at: http://bit.ly/…

Dan Miller can be reached at dan.miller@dtn.com

(ES/AG/SK)

Dan Miller