A Legacy in Agriculture
The life of Tarrell Bennett: Ag Expert, Farmer, Confidant, Lender, and Consultant.
He sits behind a large desk, in a corner office in the Bainbridge headquarters of Southwest Georgia Farm Credit. A painting of an old homestead, the place he grew up in Whigham, hangs on one wall. A portrait of his twin grandsons, Kody and Kole, is given unapologetic prominence on another. Vintage tractor replicas fill his shelves. What space is left is dedicated to photos of those he loves, not to mention the snacks he has available for those who stop by to ask a question, or just to say hello.
You can hear Tarrell Bennett throughout the building. His voice booms passionately, his phone resting on his shoulder, his weathered hands moving over paperwork.
He is a businessman, no doubt. But it’s his jeans, sun-faded work shirt, and hands—those hands that suggest something else.
Tarrell Bennett is a farmer, first and foremost.
On The Ground Floor
It wasn’t long after Bennett graduated from Valdosta State University that his wife, Deborah, saw an ad in the newspaper for a loan officer and suggested that he apply for a position with what was then called Southwest Georgia Production Credit Association. Bennett is quick to credit Deborah for finding him the job that, fifty years later, turned into somewhat of a masterpiece.
Now, as the Association’s Chief Lending Officer, Bennett is responsible for relationship building. He’s a do-er, a fixer, a master technician when it comes to lending. Some might call him a problem solver but it’s more than that.
Amber Moore, Farm Credit’s branch operations coordinator, shared interlocking doors with Tarrell for about eight years and saw how genuine he was in every encounter. “Every one of the borrowers that came in, they’re his friends,” she says. “He’s very passionate about their dreams, desires, and goals. He wants to see them succeed.”
“Tarrell is hands-on from the time you think of the loan to the time you pay the loan off,” says Tommy Dollar with Dollar Family Farms and Franklin’s Spring Creek Ford. “To many people, he is Southwest Georgia Farm Credit.”
The Home That Built Him
Bennett’s life history is rooted in southwest Georgia. He grew up in a simple four-room home in Whigham—humble beginnings that urged him towards a place he would call his own someday. He wanted land—dirt—a place where he could farm, have some cows, and get his hands dirty. He remembers making a weekly drive to Bainbridge for supplies, and that’s where he met Deborah Lynn. After earning degrees in business management and marketing, he married, served in the National Guard, and started with Farm Credit in the summer of 1972.
Farming and Family
On a cool spring morning, Bennett looks out over the pasture that surrounds his home, greeting the familiar sunrise with appreciation. He takes it all in, noting one of his heifers nursing her newborn spring calf in the dewy distance. “This,” he says. “This is what it’s all about right here.”
Bennett and Deborah raised their two daughters on this property--carved out of an 80-acre tract that had been in Deborah’s family for well over 100 years. He acquired another six tracts around it—a total of 356 acres—which he farms. And, he still owns 50 acres in Grady County that belonged to his grandfather, Clayton Ulmer, which has also been in the family for over a century.
It’s land Bennett wanted from his early days. And it’s land that helps him relate to those who buy it, farm it, and earn a living from it.
“I understand what it means when you get too much rain or not enough rain,” he says. “Or a hurricane, tornado, or hail damages a crop. I share in that worry. I’m having the same experiences all the farmers in these parts are having.”
That devotion to the land and personal drive to accomplish something earns praise from those to whom he lends money. He puts himself in his borrower’s shoes. And when he ends his day, he heads home to check on his calves “up the road.” Deborah knows she’ll see him in an hour or two, just before dark.
Bennett is not afraid to collect sweat on his brow or put in the work himself. These characteristics are something he passed along to his two daughters. He taught them how to drive a tractor, work livestock, and clear land, which included picking up roots one Christmas morning, something his now-grown daughters will never let him forget.
The youngest, Erin, says, “There was always work to be done, but my most favorite words to hear were ‘Come on, let’s go ride!’ I would go with him to livestock sales during the summer, equipment sales on the weekends, and visit farms and businesses. No matter where we went, he knew someone; and he normally ended up helping them before we left.”
Bennett’s daughter, Celeste Burke, says, “Daddy wants a plan,” whether it’s for Friday night supper, clearing land, or working out a financing deal for his customers. “He is always willing to explore any new ideas and will do everything possible to make plans work.”
Now, Bennett is sharing his knowledge with Kody and Kole, the two grandsons he welcomed three summers ago. A colleague or two may have noted a change to Bennett’s laser-focused demeanor in the time since the boys came along. The center of Bennett’s world now pivots around the twins and what fishing trips and tractor rides he can fit in.
Farming and Lending
Bennett was on his way to see a client when a farmer called, wanting to make a payment on his loan. “I’m going to swing by the house,” Bennett said. “Just bring it by. Do you know where I live?”
Not unusual, say those who know Bennett well. He makes his business personal. It’s a trait that has kept him going strong right into his 50th year with Farm Credit.
"Because Tarrell is also a farmer, he understands the challenges that face the local agriculture industry and our customers,” says Southwest Georgia Farm Credit CEO Paxton Poitevint. “He has been able to couple his real-life farming experience with his professional lending experience to provide invaluable advice in areas that are critical to the survival of the family farm.” Among them: crop diversification, ownership in vertically integrated cooperatives, and conservation programs.
Bob Holden, a farmer, businessman, and long-time Southwest Georgia Farm Credit board member, says Bennett’s knowledge and experience are what separates him as a lender. “He continually has some of the best crops in southwest Georgia and is open to helping anybody and sharing that knowledge,” says Holden, who owns Grady Ranch in Cairo with his son, Bobby Holden. He became a Southwest Georgia Farm Credit customer three years after Bennett started. “Tarrell and I have seen a lot in the Farm Credit System,” he says. He considers Bennett to be one of the best crop and livestock consultants in the area. “Farmers trust him,” Holden says. “Anything that has to do with agriculture, he’s the man to see.”
Saving Family Farms
The propensity to create a plan and pursue his interests benefits operations other than his own. Bennett has worked hard these past 50 years to secure the idea of the family farm. He understands the importance of legacy and mentoring the next generation. His optimism for agriculture has touched generations of dreamers, like himself, who want land; who want to grow; who want to raise their children in this rural lifestyle.
Many of Bennett’s lending relationships run three or four generations deep. When times are good and when times are challenging, Bennett is about solutions.
“Tarrell saved my farming career,” says Stevens Culverson, who is now on his 12th crop and represents the newest generation of farmers in his family—fourth on one side and six on the other.
Like most farmers in the region, Culverson was affected by Hurricane Michael, which ripped through the southwest Georgia area in 2018. Bennett opened the door for the young farmer’s membership in a shelling cooperative and helped him navigate the financials related to that new venture, despite his recent hurricane losses, preserving the farming operation. And, Culverson wasn’t even a customer at the time.
Tommy Dollar says that’s not unusual. “Most people don’t know the things Tarrell Bennett does behind the scenes to make the young farmer succeed. He’s an advocate for people and they don’t even know it.” He doesn’t like the fanfare, Dollar says, he just wants people to succeed. “Tarrell is a depth of knowledge. He’s a brain trust.”
Peanut Fields Forever
In many ways, Bennett is the eyes and the ears for farmers, especially when it comes to peanuts.“Peanuts are what made southwest Georgia,” he says. “It’s what has paid the bills over the years. We farm corn, cotton, cattle, whatever. But most all of us are peanut farmers that do these other things. So anytime anything rotates around peanuts, it gets my attention.”
Kim Rentz, who produces peanuts and cotton and owns a small cattle operation, says “Tarrell knows what my business is and he knows what’s working for some people and what’s not working for others. And he gives you his perspective.”
Rentz, who served as Chairman of the Board of Directors at Southwest Georgia Farm Credit for eight years, respects Tarrell’s innate knowledge. “It’s not just bank knowledge but a working knowledge and he keeps increasing it.”
Glenn Heard’s operation in Brinson is a third-generation family farm and he’s on his 42nd crop. “More than anything else, Tarrell being a farmer and being involved with a farm helps him relate to us. And more than that is the service. He’s all about service. He makes sure we’ve got what we need.”
Heard says Bennett stays up-to-date on peanut programs and the industry, but adds, “It’s comforting to know if I miss something, Tarrell’s gonna see behind me and say, ‘Hey, have you thought about this or that?’”
Tiling the Bill
Bennett has remained alert to changes in the federal farm bill and crop insurance coverage. When he sees something that might affect his customers, he passes the information along for them to make their own decision for their particular operation.
In 2002, when the USDA temporarily suspended the peanut quota system, Bennett recognized an opportunity for farmers to buy additional base acres. It was a calculated risk, and he could offer no assurances but felt it might be right for some farms that could do it without putting their entire operation in jeopardy. It turned out to be a good strategy for farms that participated, and the entire community benefitted.
Center pivot irrigation came to southwest Georgia around the same time that Bennett became a lender and Farm Credit offered financing for the systems. Bennett encouraged farmers to tap into the opportunity, which turned out to doubly bless farmers who added center pivot irrigation when the state instituted a moratorium on new wells. Irrigated farmland continues to be in high demand and rents for a premium.
“The moratorium basically happened overnight. Nobody anticipated it,” Bennett says. So, his early work getting systems in place continues to boost farm profits in the region.
Shoulders of Giants
Bennett has served as a mentor and had his own. One of those was the late Tom Maxwell. “He was the smartest uneducated person I’ve ever known,” Bennett says, “and loaded with common sense and work ethic.”
Tom’s son Paul Maxwell remembers Bennett as being part of the family. So, in 2002, when Tom told his son he was retiring effective the next day, Paul quickly called Bennett for financing. The opportunity would mean taking Paul’s operation from 100 acres to 1,500 but Bennett was reassuring and encouraging.
That deal won Paul Maxwell’s loyalties and he says now, “Everything I have financed usually ends up (at Farm Credit). I don’t know how to borrow money from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Connectors of Dots
These days, Bennett doesn’t have to go out and get business, the business comes to him. For example, he was one of Scott Lewis’s customers when he operated an aerial agricultural service. He knew Bennett was also with Farm Credit and asked if he thought it would be a good fit for a citrus operation Lewis wanted to launch.
Lewis told his wife later he felt Bennett’s trust. “It was an exceptional banking experience. He made it so easy for me—and for my wife,” Lewis says. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
And, so we honor him
This July will mark Tarrell’s 50th year with the Association. It’s the same day his twin grandsons turn three. He will likely not take the day off. But chances are, his Farm Credit family will celebrate him and his own family will have a “fry,” complete with pond brim and coleslaw and potatoes. His mother-in-law, Miss Cleo, has earned some specially-made hush puppies. And the boys, well, they just want to be with Pa, riding in the tractor, stopping to stick a line in the water. These are, after all, the best of times.
Julie Strauss Bettinger contributed to this story.