MUSELLA, Ga. — Since 1897, Dickey Farms has been producing high quality peaches. Today, Robert Lee Dickey II (“Mr. Bob”), Robert Lee Dickey III (“Robert”), and Robert L. Dickey IV (“Lee”) combine their skills to carry on the farming legacy of growing the tastiest peaches in the South. Calling on deep family experience, they are planting year-round, inspecting every detail. This multi-generational experience makes them some of the most knowledgeable and skilled growers in the industry. And they love what they do.
Their success had led to Robert being named the 2019 Georgia Farmer of the Year. He'll face other state farmers of the year at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in October in Moultrie for the title of Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
All during his growing up years, Robert worked on the farm part-time. After graduating from high school, his father urged him to pursue a business degree, saying that he could always teach him more about the land, but that mastering the economics of agriculture would be of key importance to the future. So Robert earned his degree in 1977 in Finance from the University of Georgia, thinking perhaps he might enter the banking industry. Fortunately, for the long-term prospects of Dickey Farms, those jobs were scarce, and Dickey returned home, armed with educational tools that would prove to be innovative and expansive.
One profitable initiative was Robert’s idea to offer packing services to neighboring farmers, a decision that not only met their needs but utilized in a maximum way their packinghouse facility and generated additional income. “We’ve since more than quadrupled our volume,” he notes. “Forty years ago we were packing about 75,000 packages a year and this year we expect to pack around 400,000 half-bushel boxes.”
Thirty different varieties of peaches are grown on Dickey Farms from early May through late August. The primary types are Clingstone, Semi-Free, and Freestone. The Clingstone are the first peaches of the season to be harvested, typically ripening around the second week of May. Semi-Free peaches, a newer variety, are the second peaches of the season to be harvested and typically ripen around the first week of June and finish by June 20. They are a hybrid peach fused between the Clingstone and the Freestone. Freestone peaches are the last and most widely anticipated of the season, characterized by their hallmark juiciness and sweet flavor. Freestone peaches have the longest run, spanning from early to mid-June through August.
Dickey Farms sells primarily to Genuine Georgia Group, a sales and marketing firm with a solid foundation in the peach growing industry. Dickey Farms yields are: 218 bushels/acre of peaches on 890 acres; 10,000 pounds/acre of strawberries on two acres, and has 2,200 acres of varied timber as well as 100 pecan trees. Their orchards are spread out over 1,000 acres of land in several counties with over 100,000 peach trees — all to ensure that they’re growing the very best fruit.
Over the last five to ten years, Dickey Farms has expanded into the agro-tourism business, applying great ideas from all members of the family. They use the space of a generations-old wooden packinghouse and a general store where ripe peaches and peach ice cream can be savored by tourists, local school groups, and general passersby. Many visitors also come to pick strawberries and vegetables when they’re in season. “It’s brought in consistent return for us, but beyond that, we’ve enjoyed some wonderful, meaningful interaction with people from far and wide, particularly church, senior, and hobby groups,” says Dickey.
Dickey is quick to acknowledge the immense contribution his wife of forty-one years makes to their enterprise. “Cynde is the farm’s chief financial officer and started the retail and mail-order business a couple of decades ago. Now, with the expertise of our children and daughter-in-law and the website they’ve developed, the online sales are booming. And people come from all over Georgia and many other states to tour own farm, sample our peaches, and purchase our homemade general store products (“Mr. Bob’s Market”). These include baked goods, mixes, butter, candy, cider, cookies, drinks, honey, jams and jellies, gift boxes, dressings, pecans, pickles, preserves, relish and salsa.”
At 91, “Mr. Bob” is chief cheerleader, mentor, overseer, and encourager, arriving first in the morning with a list of instructions for everyone. Son Robert L. “Lee” Dickey helps manage the entire enterprise. He’s also in charge of the farm’s food safety program and the planting of new peach trees and crops. Lee’s wife, Stacy, lends assistance in sales and marketing through social media, employee training, and advertising. Lee and Stacy also have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to represent the next generation. Marjie, the Dickeys’ daughter, is the Ag Water Project Manager for Georgia EPD and a graduate of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. An avid cook, she creates exciting recipes for the farm’s bakery and initiated the paperwork for their entry into the H2A program.
H2A labor is a federal program operating for the last 25-30 years that allows agricultural enterprises to bring in legal (with passports and visas) seasonal labor. For Dickey Farms they pick and pack peaches and do pruning on the vast orchards. The laborers are transported, housed, and fed throughout the harvest period, and many have been coming for years from the same small town in Mexico to work for the Dickey’s.
“They know us and we know them after so many years of working together,” says Dickey. “Two of our crew leaders who organize the labor pickers originally came to the US with nothing. Today they have their citizenship and have raised children who are going to college. We’re a family here of twelve full-time employees and up to 112 seasonal full-timers.”
In terms of meeting the ever-present challenge of weather events, particularly periodic drought over the years, Dickey has bought irrigation equipment and added lakes, wells, and piping that helped mitigate the effects of dry conditions. He has also transitioned to low-volume drip irrigation without sacrificing quality or yield amounts. Areas between the peach tree rows are planted with sod, preventing soil erosion, giving improved traction for equipment, providing a habitat for helpful insects, and adding soil moisture.
Dickey follows EQIP (US Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program) recommendations for reducing scale on peach trees by applying oil instead of chemicals. Fallow field and crop rotations also improve soil fertility and structure. Dickey notes that timberland is now going to be professionally managed, adding, “Harvesting and thinning of the timber has become and will continue to be more strategic.” The farm staff has planted wildlife habitats in their forest and timber areas and makes concerted efforts to ensure protection of hardwoods.
With regard to ongoing improvements, Dickey has purchased a new condenser, added cold room space, and remodeled the packing line with a new Autoline sizer. He plans to expand strawberry and fresh vegetable production for the farm’s retail operation and to provide Georgia Grown produce to area schools.
On top of all this dizzying activity, Robert L. Dickey III is a Georgia state legislator, having been elected and returned to the state’s House of Representatives for District 140 four times. About this aspect of his career, Dickey says, “I thought we needed more agriculture and business people in the House with conservative philosophy. I’d been involved locally in the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Board but wanted to do more. Fortunately, I’m blessed with a supportive family who’ve made sacrifices in time and energy so that I could be away at the capitol periodically. It’s worked out well, especially with the fortunate balance between me being the big-picture planner and Cynde being the absolute best implementer.”
From the state House Dickey has been successful in promoting the Georgia Grown movement, one that receives tremendous support from Gary Black, the Commissioner of Agriculture. Dickey comments, “Since being elected eight years ago, he has done a great job on branding and expanding the program. He’s taken it to a whole new level.”
Dickey has also been a long-term member of the Georgia Peach Council and National Peach Council, founder and past board member of Georgia Agri-Leaders Forum, board member of SunTrust Bank of Middle Georgia, Flint Energies, and Gordon College Foundation, as well as a long-standing, active member of Musella Baptist Church. On vacations, the Dickey family likes to go hiking in state parks. They especially enjoy taking trips to the north Georgia mountains, kicking back on the beaches of the Barrier Islands, and just generally enjoying the vast and varied beauty of their home state.
Dickey’s ambition is to carry on the farm’s legacy and take care of the land for the generations to follow. He notes, “As my forebears always said, ‘Take care of the trees, and they will take care of you.’ Seeing the big picture—incorporating the lessons of the past and present to prepare for the future—is important, even critical, in farming. Planting seedling trees always gives me hope. It’s about discipline, patience, hard work, reinvestment, and long-term perspective. It’s been such a blessing to have my children be part of all this. I’ve also enjoyed watching youngsters visit us over the years and learn about farming and stewardship. This type of educational experience is something we’re passionate about at Dickey Farms.”
Dickey was nominated for Georgia Farmer of the Year by Sarah Greer, ANR & 4-H Youth Development Agent/County Extension Coordinator. Of Dickey she says, “When Crawford County lost its only grocery store in December 2016, Dickey Farms stepped up and provided fresh produce in season to meet the county’s needs. After strawberry season ended, they planted various vegetables to sell in their market. Dickey Farms exemplifies all that it means to be a steward of the land. They are an innovative, progressive, amazing farm that has lasted over generations. They are also outstanding community members who contribute to the health and benefit of the entire county.”
As the Georgia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Dickey will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Dickey is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Georgia include: Timothy McMillan of Enigma, 1990; Bud Butcher of Senoia, 1991; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 1992; John Morgan of Mystic, 1993; Alan Verner of Rutledge, 1994; Donnie Smith of Willacoochee, 1995; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 1996; Thomas Coleman, Jr. of Hartsfield, 1997; Glenn Heard of Bainbridge, 1998; Bob McLendon of Leary, 1999; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 2000; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2001; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 2002; Jim Donaldson of Metter, 2003; Joe Boddiford of Sylvania, 2004; Jimmy Webb of Leary, 2005; Gary Paulk of Wray, 2006; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2007; Wayne McKinnon of Douglas, 2008; Bill Brim of Tifton, 2009; Robert Dasher of Glenville, 2010; Carlos Vickers of Nashville, 2011; Barry Martin of Hawkinsville, 2012; Will Harris of Bluffton, 2013; Philip Grimes of Tifton, 2014; and James Lyles of Ringgold, 2015; John McCormick of Sylvania, 2016; and Everett Williams of Madison, 2017; James Vaughn of Forsyth, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Dickey Farms, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.