A Vietnam War veteran, Sam Givhan of Safford, Ala., came home to his family farm in west central Alabama.

He diversified the farm and made it more profitable by adding an impressive catfish farming enterprise to the existing mix of beef cattle and field crops. He also has a strong record of service to farm and community organizations.

As a result of his success in raising cattle, catfish and row crops, Givhan has been selected as the Alabama state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Givhan now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Last year, he farmed 4,200 acres, including 2,323 acres of rented land and 1,877 acres of owned land. A farmer for 42 years, his crops include cotton, soybeans, wheat and corn. Drought last year depressed his corn and soybean yields, but his wheat yielded 42 bushels per acre and his cotton produced 820 pounds of lint per acre.

His beef herd includes about 420 cows and 20 bulls. His catfish operation features ponds covering 250 acres.

In 2000, Givhan returned to Vietnam and visited China to study aquaculture on a trip sponsored by Auburn University. This trip coincided with the large-scale import of fish from China, followed by additional fish coming to the U.S. from Vietnam. “Imported fish are not inspected like our domestic farm-raised catfish,” says Givhan. “These imports have risen dramatically. Along with the economic slowdown and slow catfish sales, these imports have hurt our industry. All of our catfish processors have had to cut back on their operations.”

Givhan supports cooperatives. He markets his catfish through SouthFresh Aquaculture, a division of Alabama Farmers Cooperative. He uses forward contracts to market corn, soybeans and wheat through Alabama Farmers Cooperative. He markets cotton through the Staplcotn Cooperative. He sells his cattle at the auction market in Uniontown, Ala.

In past years, he was an investor in a cotton gin and a local grain elevator. He also operates Central Alabama Equipment and Supply, selling aftermarket replacement parts and buying and selling used equipment.

He now lives on the farm where he was born and raised. “When I was a kid, we had 14 mules on this farm,” he recalls. The home he lives in was originally built during the 1830s, and has been remodeled and refurbished many times over the years.

Decorated Vietnam veteran

In Vietnam, Givhan flew a total of 1,250 hours on reconnaissance missions, and earned decorations such as the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and 25 Air Medals.

After returning from Vietnam in 1969, Givhan worked for a few years at the Bush Hog manufacturing facility in Selma, Ala. There, he was responsible for designing tillage equipment. During that time, he began farming with his father, brother and a friend when the farm was about one fourth of its current size. He also served six years in the Alabama National Guard.

“In 1972, my father, brother and I formed Givhan Land & Cattle Company,” he recalls. “In 1973, I went to work full time managing the farm. My father died in 1976, and in 1985 my brother and I divided assets, and I became the sole stockholder in Givhan Land & Cattle Co.”

Givhan earned his pilot’s license in 1963 and still uses the flying skills he perfected as an Army aviator. He flies his own airplane to agricultural meetings and to various farm events, including the Sunbelt Ag Expo.

His farming plans include adding irrigation. “The idea is to use water from the catfish ponds for irrigation, and then to replenish the ponds with water from a well,” he explains. He also plans on using long-term leases that will allow him to improve the land he farms.

He protects the environment by using conservation-tillage planting and by encouraging landlords to put marginal, erodible land into the Conservation Reserve Program. He maintains grass buffers and vegetation along stream banks. “On our catfish operation, we do not allow cattle to get into the ponds, and we use computer sensors to monitor pond oxygen and conserve energy use,” he explains.

Givhan has been active in farm leadership. For 26 years, he served as president of the Dallas County Farmers Federation. He is president of Central Alabama Farmers Co-op, serves on a committee for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and is on the board of the Dallas County Cattlemen’s Association.

He is a founding member of the Alabama Agribusiness Council and is a member of the Alabama Farmers Federation Wheat & Feed Grains Committee. He has also worked to bring industry to the Black Belt region of western Alabama.

Since 2003, Givhan has served on the board of Alabama Farmers Cooperative and is the current board chairman. He is also a licensed auctioneer and a registered professional engineer. He’s also a strong supporter of Marion Military Institute where he went to school.

He and his wife Lynne are members of Safford Baptist Church. Sam and Lynne have two adult sons. Their youngest son David works on the farm where he is responsible for managing the farm’s hay and cattle production. Their oldest son Sam is an attorney in Huntsville, Ala., and he helps the farm by serving as the secretary and general counsel for Givhan’s farming company.

Givhan gives Lynne much of the credit for the success of his farm. He met her when he was a student at Marion Military Institute and she was attending Judson College in the same town, Marion, Ala. They married in 1964.

 “It was very tough for our farm and for many farms during the early 1980s, with drought, grain embargoes and low prices,” he recalls.

“Lynne’s off-farm job and her income was a big help in paying our living expenses.” She taught school for a time, and before retiring, Lynne worked for about 15 years as director of mental retardation services for Cahaba Regional Mental Health Center in Selma, Ala. Her hobbies include gardening, and she was active for several years in the Extension-sponsored Master Gardner program. 

Jeff Helms with the Alabama Farmers Federation is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Givhan was nominated for the award by Robert Utsey, area organizational director with the Alabama Farmers Federation. “I worked with Sam when he was president of the Dallas County Farmers Federation,” says Utsey.

Likes  the diversification

“I’ve always liked the diversification on his farm, the catfish, the corn, soybeans, cotton and cattle. The more diversified you are, the more likely you are to be successful in farming. Sam has a long record of being a strong leader for our organization and for other farm organizations here in Alabama.”

As the Alabama state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Givhan will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a second $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 23rd consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $884,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Alabama include: Ricky Wiggins of Anderson, 1990; George Kiser, Sr. of Foley, 1991; Allen Bragg of Toney, 1992; Sykes Martin of Courtland, 1993; David Pearce of Browns, 1994; Glenn Jones of Blountsville, 1995; Raymond Jones of Huntsville, 1996; Dan Miller of Greensboro, 1997; Homer Tate of Meridianville, 1998; Eugene Glenn of Hillsboro, 1999; George T. Hamilton of Hillsboro, 2000; Bert Driskell of Grand Bay, 2001; Charles Burton of Lafayette, 2002; Bruce Bush of Eufaula, 2003; John B. East of Leesburg, 2004; James A. Wise of Samson, 2005; Glenn Forrester of Columbia, 2006; Billy Gilley of Holly Pond, 2007; Lamar Dewberry of Lineville, 2008; David Wright of Plantersville, 2009; Shep Morris of Shorter, 2010; and Andy Wendland of Autaugaville, 2011.

Alabama has had one overall winner with Raymond Jones of Huntsville being selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 1996.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Givhan farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-10.

The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, a retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist who is president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., from Greenville, Miss.; John McKissick, a long-time University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; and farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008.