By Jim Hannaford
Photos by Stephen Anderson
The Sirmon brothers control a lot of things on their family farm, but rainfall isn’t one of them. There was so much of it this past summer that lots of folks around the county thought they had seen enough to last a lifetime. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to ruin their bountiful sweet potato crop.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do about it,” says James Sirmon with a shrug. “You just hope the rain stops eventually and you don’t get so much that they rot in the ground.”
The daily heavy showers finally eased up, and fortune smiled once again on Sirmon Farms in the Belforest community, where sweet potatoes and other row crops have been their bread and butter for decades. Four different generations of Sirmons have worked this land for more than a century, weathering many changes along the way. As harvest comes once again they have a lot to show for it – nearly 18 million pounds of sweet potatoes from their flat, fertile farmland.
Now it’s time to focus on peanuts, and hopefully the Sirmons will avoid the kind of trouble they ran into last year, when Hurricane Sally blew in at the worst possible time. “We were just getting ready to dig peanuts,” says Joel Sirmon, the older of the two brothers. “It wasn’t good, that’s for sure. We had a pretty good crop up ‘til then.”
So it goes with the ups and downs of farming, and the Sirmons have been riding waves like this pretty much all of their lives. They raise cotton and corn, too, and though Belforest is the home and heart of their operation, their crops stretch out to other parts of Baldwin County. According to James, they own around 700 acres of their own property for planting and rent another 2,900. “It’s scattered all over the county,” he says. “We go all the way to Elberta and down to Lillian Swamp.”
A LONG FAMILY LEGACY
Their mother keeps a close eye on the family operation from her spacious brick home that’s just steps away from the farm office. Shirley De Filippi Sirmon, the matriarch of this productive farming family, is 85 years old and has a lifetime of memories, many of them tied to this particular ground.
Her father was a farmer, too, and so was the father of her late husband, who first planted on this patch of soil when he was still a boy. They are all direct descendants of the original Italian families that settled Belforest in the late 1800s. The name for this area of Daphne seems to translate into what could very well be an apt description of what the land looked like before it was cleared for agricultural purposes. No one disputes that it was indeed a “beautiful forest” back then, but she recalls another explanation. “My grandmother said it was nothing but pine trees when they got here, and she always said that’s how Belforest got its name – that they would put bells on the cattle so they could hear them. That was Grandma’s version.”
From her glassed-in family room, Mrs. Sirmon gazes out the back windows toward the west. She can’t see the horizon or even past her immediate family’s acreage. Instead, she sees dozens of big wooden crates, stacked seven high, which they use to transport potatoes from the fields to the building next door where they’re processed.
“That’s my landscape,” she says, and there’s more than a little pride in her voice.
Her husband of 64 years, Gordon Sirmon, passed away in 2018 at the age of 90. “His daddy and two brothers originally lived here and farmed,” she says. “He took over the farm when his father died and he was only 11 years old. We married in 1954 and had five children – three girls and two boys.”
The daughters, Vivian, Charlotte, and Brenda, have moved on to lives away from the farm, but not too far. Those two boys are now 65 and 61 years old. “They farmed with him until he died, and then they took over,” she says, “and they’ve done a wonderful job.”
If she had gotten her way, things would have gone differently, and this family tradition would have ended in 1955. Gordon Sirmon was drafted into the U.S. Army, and the newlyweds spent their first year in Germany. When his hitch was over, he was eager to return to the farm. She urged him to instead use his military training and experience to try and land a job at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile. “But he said, ‘Give me one year of farming and we’ll see.’ That was the year that my dad helped to plant Irish potatoes, and that was the year that we made really, really good. So he never even thought about going anywhere else for a job. That was it.”
A LOT OF WORK BY HAND
In the middle of the floor of a spacious warehouse, James gestures toward a large bundle of plastic bins, all containing either sweet potatoes or their red-skinned cousins. “Those are boxed and loaded and ready to go,” he says. “They won’t be here tomorrow.”
Most of their output is headed to Wal-Mart stores around the Southeast, and some of it may wind up in stores right here in our area. So if you’re shopping for produce in Fairhope, Daphne, Robertsdale, or Foley, there’s a chance that on the way there you passed the field where it was grown.
Besides the family members, there are a few full-time farm hands at Sirmon Farms, and the workforce swells to nearly 70 at harvest time. Most of the additional help are Hispanics employed through the H-2A program, which allows agricultural workers into the country temporarily. The orange-brown skins of sweet potatoes are rather delicate, so they have to be harvested and separated by hand to keep them from being damaged. That’s because their appearance is very important in today’s marketplace.
“I like a pretty potato,” says James, showing off a smooth, oval specimen that fits neatly into his palm. They work hard to control the growing conditions to produce potatoes that aren’t rough looking or crooked. There are certain tricks of the trade to achieve that – even though there’s really nothing wrong with a sweet potato that doesn’t have a perfect look and feel. “It’s what the customers want,” says Chance Dorn, a manager at the farm. He shows off two potatoes, one of them picture-perfect and the other a little scraggly and bent, with ends that are more sharply pointed. “There’s nothing different about them other than the shape,” he says. “They taste the same, they eat the same, they cook the same.”
Some are sold in bulk while others are packaged into three-pound bags, five-pound bags, or smaller microwavable pouches. Individually shrink-wrapped sweet potatoes, with a colorful label and a bar code, are a recent development. As a result of the COVID pandemic, some customers see them as a safer option.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Farming has always been back-breaking work, and Shirley Sirmon shakes her head at some of the changes that modern machinery has brought. She recalls her hard-working husband lifting endless heavy sacks of potatoes long before tractors used GPS coordinates to cultivate rows straighter than a fence post. “It’s gotten so mechanized,” she says.
The farm’s latest innovation is somewhat of a mind-blower even to the next generation. James shows off a major expense he hopes will pay for itself with reduced labor costs and less waste. It’s a high-tech machine that uses high-speed optical scanning to almost instantaneously sort potatoes based on different parameters such as size and shape. “It takes 42 photos per second,” he says. “It cost us nearly $400,000.”
With five children to feed, Mr. Sirmon was always looking for ways to make his hard work pay off even more. “We started the dairy, and we did that for 25 years,” Shirley Sirmon says. “After that, we did vegetable farming and also raised hogs.”
The two concrete-stave silos on their property stand as towering reminders of those days. They used to hold corn to feed those dairy cattle, before milk prices took a dive in the late 1980s. “Back then there were 120 dairies in Baldwin County,” says James, “and now there are zero.”
There were other diversifications over the years, too. Daughter Vivian fondly recalls a foray into asparagus, which was fairly exotic in the area. There was also a pick-your-own strawberry farm on 20 acres off County Road 13. For a generation of kids, her mom was known as “the strawberry lady.”
Mrs. Sirmon believes that the farming lifestyle yields something else that’s perhaps more valuable than the crops. “A farm produces families that stick together, because it is hard work. Our children all had to work. It’s just something that holds a family together.”
That’s changing, of course, with more residential and commercial development in the area. As older farmers pass on, their land is passed down, and some of it leaves the family. This flat, level farmland with its rich soil and abundant sunshine and rainfall is even more profitable as real estate. With an explosion of growth in the area, some members of the longtime farming families have given in to the temptation of selling out for top dollar.
“Before so much of our land here in Belforest was sold for subdivisions and things like that, we all knew each other, and we were a close-knit community,” Shirley says. Now there’s a shiny new elementary school a few hundred yards away to help serve an influx of new families, many of whom are settling into homes that have sprouted up in place of row crops or pecan orchards. They field offers all the time – mostly for an acre or two, James says – but aren’t ready to sell.
He and Joel both considered pursuing other careers but the farming life called them back home, and their father welcomed them into the fold. “He had tried to encourage us to do something different because he knew it was such a hard way to make a living,” says James. “It’s a hard life out here. It’s six days a week, and sometimes we work on Sundays, too.”
What keeps them in it? “It’s the love of the land,” says James. “We followed Daddy’s footsteps and kept growing, and here we are. Hopefully we’ve got a few more years left in us. Seeing a beautiful crop is a reward in itself, and if you can make some money, that’s a bonus.”
The brothers are reaching what many consider to be retirement age, and their sons have found success in other professions. It’s natural to ask how long they expect their family business to continue. “We wonder that ourselves,” their mother says. Asked if it looks like there’s an end in sight, she nods solemnly and says, “Much to my sorrow.”