James Vaughn named 2018 Georgia Farmer of the Year

By: Sharon Dowdy, UGA CAES

Monroe County, Georgia, cattleman James Vaughn has been named the 2018 Georgia Farmer of the Year.

Under his leadership, Vaughn Farms has grown from a 500-acre cattle farm to a 5,590-acre diversified farm operation. Working as a team, Vaughn and his wife, sons and daughter grow Bermuda grass hay for the local and wholesale market, raise cattle for the specialized beef market, sell bred heifers and registered bulls, grow 4,000 acres of timber, and train cutting horses. Vaughn also provides legal assistance in farm-related areas as a partner in the law firm of Vaughn, Wright and Boyer LLP.  

After graduating from college, law school and practicing law in Savannah, Georgia, Vaughn returned to Monroe County to take over the farm his father established in the 1950s with a small herd of registered Angus cattle. Today, Vaughn Farms has 425 cow-calf pairs; 50 are registered and the others are purebred commercial Angus.

The farm is a large-scale operation focused on intensive management, sustainability and profitability.

“In the 35 years I have been active on the farm as an adult, I have achieved an important goal of maintaining a farm business where my family can work and maintain the lifestyle we enjoy,” said Vaughn, from his farm office, a white-framed farmhouse that was once his grandparents’ home. “Together, we are reaching another goal: producing high-quality beef, hay and horses along with commodity timber products. More importantly, we are producing these commodities in an efficient and sustainable manner in the hope and expectation that future generations of our family can live and work on the farm and meet the lifestyle and production goals they choose.”

Recognizing the benefit of niche marketing, Vaughn direct markets feeder calves to southwest Iowa. Beef from the farm is sold into export following harvest through an integrated market for nonhormone-treated cattle. Vaughn is also a Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Level 4 producer of grass-finished cattle for White Oak Pastures, the state’s largest organic farm, operated by 2013 Georgia Farmer of the Year Will Harris.

Vaughn markets Vaughn Farms cattle through the Georgia/Iowa Family Farm to Family Fork program. The hormone-free marketing program seeks marketing premiums for cattlemen who produce safe, quality, consistent beef using humane and hormone-free procedures.

In turn, producers receive carcass data that’s used to analyze their cattle’s performance. Vaughn and Caitlin Bennett Jackson, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent in Monroe County, are members of the program’s governing board. Vaughn helped to start the program, and Jackson analyzes the carcass data for local farmers and provides them with an easy-to-read summary.

Jackson nominated Vaughn for the Georgia Farmer of the Year award.

“Not only is Mr. Vaughn a great farmer, he is one of the greatest advocates for the agricultural industry,” Jackson said. “His ability to educate audiences about the importance of agriculture and the need for continued research from land-grant universities makes him a vital source of information for community members, stakeholders and legislators.”

Vaughn Farms is truly a family operation. Vaughn and his wife, Beth Vaughn, work on the farm every day and hold down full-time off-farm jobs. He is a local attorney and she chairs the board of a community bank. Two of their sons, Matthew and Jordan Vaughn, joined them in the farm business full time. Benjamin Vaughn, also an attorney, holds a forestry degree and assists them with timber management and production. Their daughter, Jennifer Vaughn Hickson, is an equine veterinarian assistant. She lives in South Carolina but shows cutting horses on the circuit with Jordan Vaughn.

From his desk, James Vaughn can see a herd of his cattle grazing on a wheat pasture.

“That’s a really pretty pasture, but the other farm is why we’ve gotten noticed,” James Vaughn said of the family’s 650-acre former pine plantation. “It was originally part of the Talmadge Place. In 2006, root rot fungus got in there and the trees began to die.”

James Vaughn took action to quickly harvest any marketable timber and reached out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for help converting the land from timber production to hay and cattle production. This process took nine years.

“I know about horses and cows and rubber-tired things, but I also know who to ask for help,” he said. “When we started, it looked like a pulpwood clear-cut, but then we sprigged 477 acres in ‘Russell’ Bermuda grass.”

He demonstrates the progressive conservation practices he has implemented with assistance from the NRCS and UGA Extension. He protects the ecosystems on the farm and outside its boundaries by maintaining stream buffers and roads and using sustainable methods.

Through his involvement with the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, Vaughn Farms hosts an annual farm tour to emphasize the economic impact of agriculture.

Heavily involved in the local, state and national communities, James Vaughn is on the board of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, acts as attorney for the Monroe County Hospital Authority and chairs the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority. He is also a member of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association, Georgia Forestry Association, National Cutting Horse Association, American Quarter Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association.

“James Vaughn manages his farming and timber enterprises through modernization and the adoption of best management practices. Using innovation and diversification, he took 500 acres and grew it tenfold using the best practices available across all of his farm operations,” said Mark McCann, UGA Extension assistant dean. “And, he has involved the next generation of his family.”

At this year’s Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, James Vaughn will represent Georgia and compete against farmers from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia for the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award.  

(Monroe County Extension agent Caitlin Jackson contributed to this article.)

(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)