Brian Ponder - Ponder Farms, Omega, Georgia
“You’re going to get out of the land what you put into it.”
Brian Ponder and his brother Ken have a lot of family farming history to glean from as they run their cotton, corn, peanut, timber, and watermelon operation. Their great-grandparents initially purchased about 100 acres in 1884 in the beginnings of a multi-generational farm near Omega, Georgia. As the family story goes, they chose the original plot of land because it had a slight roll. This enabled them to clear the trees off the land for farming and let the logs roll to the bottom of the hill. The farm has expanded to several thousand acres since then as it’s been handed down through the generations.
Ponder learned early on from his Dad that “if you take care of the land it will take care of you.” Brian Ponder’s father was one of the first in the area that used NRCS services. “He saw the benefits of taking care of the land and keeping it from eroding and washing and he passed that understanding along to me and my brother. Over the years, we’ve tried to learn as much as we could about creating organic matter to hold more nutrients in the soil to be able to use less water and not have erosion.” He notes that their land is actually getting better, emphasizing that the land is not really theirs, but is on loan from God. “We want to make sure we take care of it while we have it.”
Family ties are a key part of the farm’s history and success. The Ponder brothers have been involved with the farm since 1982 and it’s all they’ve ever known. “I’ve got the best brother in the world,” Brian says of his older brother Ken. He’s helped bring me along and keeps me straight. We work well together.” Their father is still around the farm at 84 to “keep an eye on things.” The senior Mr. Ponder gets excited with projects that involve moving dirt, particularly in the pond building part of their family business. Brian’s adult children have grown up on the farm, driving tractors and learning conservation practices. Though they’re not currently a part of the operation, “the land is deeply rooted within them.”
With such a deep history working the land, the Ponder family has both great memories and knows what it is to persevere through hard times. “The biggest financial blessing the Lord ever gave me is not a great crop,” states Brian. Instead, it was “in the mid 80’s when things were terrible,” following a hurricane and high interest rates so that the farm was deeply in debt. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, they tenaciously persevered and things began to turn around. “After that, I’ve always said that was a blessing to be in that hole, because you really appreciate it when things got better.” The Ponder brothers are living proof of their grandfather’s assertion that, “There is no way, that anybody who works like y’all do, can’t make it.”
While many years of perseverance have enabled them to now be in a position to weather hard times, Brian expresses concern about the challenges for newer farmers to become successful. “We have to have those young people to carry on growing food to feed this country. But it’s so challenging for them to make it through those hard times, such as when commodity prices are down. We have to help those young people to stay in farming.” He highlights the many older farms with aging owners whose children aren’t taking over the farm. This is, in part, because of the profitability obstacles and the fact that it is so challenging during the harder seasons. “For those young people that do have a love for farming, we need to do everything we can to help make it profitable so they can get a start and go from there.”
According to Brian, a key part of his farm’s success today is the “workforce of 32 million cotton plants. “I look at that as 32 million little employees and I try and keep them as happy as I can. I keep water to them, making sure their soil is as nice an environment as it can be and make sure they are fed. I try to do the best that I can for them [so that] our 32 million employees are doing a real good job for us.” He emphasizes that the underlying principle of his land stewardship is that “You’re going to get out of the land what you put into it. You’re going to have to feed the land what it needs and you have to take care of it.” Ponder’s land stewardship has been recognized through the Tift County Farmer of the Year Award, ABAC Alumnus Master Farmer of the Year and the Georgia Soil and Water Conservationist of the Year Award.
NRCS has served him well in this effort and has been helping the Ponder family help the land since Brian was a small child. In earlier years, this included technical assistance for waterway management, terracing and designing drain tile systems. More recently, they’ve utilized the EQIP program in a variety of ways. Among several benefits, this has enabled the conversion from noisy diesel to more efficient electric pumps. These don’t involve fuel and oil spills of diesel pumps and their quieter sound profile wins favor with the neighbors. NRCS continues to be involved with their waterway construction projects, designing spillways and piping systems to help ensure dam safety on ponds. Ponder particularly notes the value of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) in the way it rewards quality conservation practices. “We’ve been involved with CSP since the start of the program. It’s been wonderful because it rewards farmers for a doing a good job to start with.” Along with thankful recognition of God’s gifts, perseverance, and love for each other, this foundation of quality resource stewardship is why Ponder Farms is successful after 134 years.