“We’d shut this place down tomorrow if it was going to come between our family.”
“If you’re going to preserve heritage and traditions, you have to want it,” Doug Gibbs says.
This is a lesson he’s learned through the years as he reflects on the road traveled leading him back to the rolling hills of Gibbs Farms on the north-central Alabama/Georgia line.
Looking through the history of the Gibbs’ fourth-generation commercial and SimAngus seedstock operation, it is rich in diverse agricultural practices, starting with Doug’s grandparents, Dewey and Loice Gibbs. Dewey, born on a 10-year horizon prior to the Great Depression, learned at an early age the value of making a living around production agriculture.
“Back in the day of my granddad, not a lot of people in the area had beef cattle — just a milk cow,” he says. “They did whatever it took to survive. Grandpa farmed, ran a sawmill, and owned and operated a cotton gin. In the late ‘40s he got his start in the poultry business,” Doug explains. “He was one of the first of the integrators that are around today — owning the chickens and providing the feed to people contracted to raise them.”
Together, the couple had two sons — the oldest is son Wendell — and a daughter, building a life together around row crops, a feed mill, the poultry enterprise and family. Polled Hereford cattle were added in the mid 1950s.
Strong ties to the family business led Wendell to return home in 1961, soon after marrying Nan Reaves, a farmer’s daughter from just across the state line, where Gibbs cattle graze today .At first, Wendell followed in his father’s footsteps, working for Dewey’s feed mill and managing his own poultry operations. The newlywed couple also made their debut in the beef business, adding a small herd of Polled Hereford heifers to their business. But soon after returning home, Wendell was offered a position at the local bank, taking the opportunity to expand his professional career. There he rose to executive vice president, with Nan taking charge of their livestock.
Soon after, the couple started their own family, raising Doug and his two sisters, Lorie and Wendy, in the midst of the diverse, expanding beef farm.
“In 1972, we bought our first Simmental bull to cross with our Polled Hereford cattle,” Doug says. “I was just 10 years old but vividly remember people lining up along the catwalk of the sale yards to see that set of hybrid calves.”
Jumping forward to 1985, Doug and his wife, Lucretia, returned to the area after college to open an automobile repair facility, leaving behind Doug’s upbringing on the family’s cattle farm.
Around that same time, Wendell retired from the bank, joining Nan on the farm fulltime and expanding the operation’s cattle development by bringing Angus genetics into the equation.
“In 1999, my dad was elected as the president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association,” Doug recalls. “This led him and momma to travel extensively.”
Doug stepped in to help pick up work on the farm while his parents were away, soon realizing that he had reconnected with the roots he strayed away from.
“Getting more involved with the farm really made me start to realize what I was missing,” he says. “Then one day, grandpa walked into the body shop and made a statement I’ll never forget.”
“No matter how hard it got during the Depression, it was people in the farming community that still ate well,” Dewey said to Doug.
Those words completely changed the future of Gibbs Farms, resulting in Doug and his wife selling their body shop after 15 years and returning to the family operation for good. By this time, the beef herd had been expanded to almost 200 cows. But the Gibbs family philosophy stood: “When more mouths come to the table, you don’t divide the pie into smaller pieces — you have to grow the pie.” That resulted in Doug purchasing land, bringing in leases and taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Over time, we became customers and friends of Frank Bell and Gordon Hodges of Optimal Beef Genetics in North Carolina,” Doug says. “One day Mr. Bell stopped by the farm to visit and catch up. Turns out he was headed south to explore the option of dispersing his high-reputation Simmental cattle herd. Well, this ended up in a conversation that led to Gibbs Farms purchasing their entire herd.”
Within months, Gibbs Farms brought Hodges over from Optimal Beef Genetics onto their team, implemented an embryo-transfer program, built a sale facility and hosted their first SimAngus production sale.
“That was quite the whirlwind, but we’re coming up on our 10th sale this year, calving almost 700 mama cows, and are continuing to expand within,” he says.
Part of this expansion process has also been the return of Doug’s son, Bradley, to the day-to-day, hands-on duties and the operations’ genetic direction, and his daughter, Whitney, who will be working with herd data. Doug and Lucretia also have another daughter, Toni, who has a cattle and poultry farm with her husband Adam Lovvorn. Both daughters have contributed to the upcoming fifth generation, Doug adds.
As Gibbs Farm evolves into the fourth-generation transition, Doug is quick to attribute it to succession-planning practices implemented early on.
“Grandpa passed away right before our production sale last year at the age of 95, and my dad was able to easily handle the estate transition that he and his father had started in the late ‘70s,” Doug explains. “It can be catastrophic if you’re not prepared when receiving devastating emotions and there isn’t a road map in place. It can leave things wide open to overreact at the wrong time and panic.
“Dad is about to be 73, so we’ve been actively transitioning and planning to protect us from estate taxes and other obstacles. It has to be continuous because things change. It can all be different with the next congressional session or presidential election, so you have to grow and be prepared for things that can be unpredictable.”
Another lesson has been compensation for active family members, resulting in everyone working as employees for Gibbs Farms, and treating family business members like cooperators with their cattle.
“When it comes to business management, there is no exact science to this,” he explains. “It’s a learning process, and you may do things one way one day, and then back up and refine it later. One thing we’ve realized is that you can be fair in a family and things not be equal, as long as we’re compensated fairly for whatever level we choose to participate in.”
One of the biggest challenges, Doug says, has been the delegation of responsibility among incoming family members. He recalls growing frustrated with his parents being slow to change practices when he first returned.
“I used to hate the statement, ‘That’s not the way we have always done it,’” he says, but adds that as he learned and gained their trust, they would hand him more opportunities. Having experienced that first hand, he also admits it has been something he’s had to work on now that it’s his turn to hand down responsibilities to the next generation.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that would rather just do something myself instead of someone not doing it right, to the point mom has stepped in and given me good advice that I be more patient and delegate more responsibility,” he says. “When I started giving out more responsibility, the confidence has made them more devoted and to have skin in the game. Stepping back to encourage and teach has been a huge lesson for me, but it definitely works better.”
While Doug is proud of the legacy his family has built over the years, he makes no confusion about what is most important.
“We’d shut this place down tomorrow if it was going to come between our family,” he says, adding that Gibbs Farms will soon begin moving forward with more succession-planning conversations.
“It is easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day work of the operation, but it is time to slow down and start having these conversations and finish what we started,” he concludes. “It won’t be easy and there are going to be difficulties, but we are fortunate people to be part of a family operation — and that has to take precedence. The family has to be the glue that holds everything in place, so we have to do what it takes to make sure we have the right tools to do so.”