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History Repeating Itself

Read this story from Massey Ferguson Farm Life Magazine about the Utsey family and how they found ways to live off their Alabama land passed down for six generations.

Much of Jake Utsey’s history courses through the dense, ruddy Alabama soils where he makes his home and his living; portions of the property have been in the Utsey family for more than 150 years. Water Valley Lodge sits on a slice of land in Gilberttown, in southwest Alabama. It is home to timber, gently rolling pastureland, hay fields and woods teeming with wildlife.

Jake Utsey holds dear his land and his family’s history on it. Here, he displays a photo of life as it was on what is now a 30,000-acre operation in southeastern Alabama.

Opened in 1996, Water Valley Lodge, the Utseys’ hunting operation, hosts a range of visitors; the family sees 200 to 400 hunters a year. “People come from all over the world,” Jake says. “The farthest anyone’s come to hunt is Pakistan and Japan, but we’ve had hunters from Scotland, Israel, Germany, French Quebec and [other regions in] Canada.”

Water Valley Lodge has hunting rights to 30,000 acres of land. Most of the farmed land is currently in timber; Jake owns a small hay operation; and he’s clearing land for future livestock use. The property also boasts a large hunting lodge, dining hall, bunkhouse, cabins, an office and the house where Jake resides with wife, Pia, son, John Jacob, 10, and daughter, Gaddy, 9.

It’s one thing to decide to run a hunting operation and quite another to actually do it; the sheer magnitude of the business was often overwhelming at first. “The learning curve was really rough,” Jake admits.

“Hospitality is something you have to do yourself,” adds Pia, who gleaned valuable hospitality expertise in hotels and country clubs. “We don’t run hunters through our business like cattle; we limit numbers each season. In order to make people feel at home, it has to be your home. That’s not something you can easily hire someone else to do.”

Jake and Pia shared a few other operational how-tos:

  • Hospitality is one of the keys to the success of Water Valley Lodge. Meals are served in the dining hall, along with conversation.
  • Water Valley Lodge offers four types of hunts: quail, turkey, deer and hog.
  • To keep the game around, food plots have to be planted and maintained. The smaller plots—anywhere from 1 to 2 acres—generally run north and south to “give plots more sunlight in winter months,” Jake says. Longer plots—up to 10 acres—are easier to plant and are set up, when possible, to allow hunters to be upwind of game.
  • Permits and insurance are required. There are burn and chemical permits, too.
  • Hunting may be the main source of income, but corporate clientele has suffered greatly since the economic downturn, and the Utseys have relied on other ways of making money. “It’s actually the hay operation that’s saved us,” Pia says. Previously the hay business was about one-tenth of the family’s income but it’s become one-quarter.
  • Conservation management goes hand in hand with timber. “We have a total and constant reforestation plan, including the planting of masting trees—which bear food for game—and constant erosion control,” he says.

Running the hunting operation may be an all-hands-on-deck, 24-7 job, but it has allowed another generation of Utseys to remain on their slice of family land.

Read the full story at http://www.myfarmlife.com/features/history-repeating-itself/.

Know of other non-farming operations that help land remain in the family? Share them with us in the comment section, below.

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