Pioneer Award Honorees

By Year

2021 - Pioneer Award Honorees

David Yow Pearce

David Yow Pearce was widely known as an innovator in the catfish industry. When he began farming catfish in 1971, the industry was still young, pioneering and manually driven 24-7 and so was he. Now 50 years later, Pearce Catfish Farm ranks as one of the country’s outstanding catfish farms. In 1994, it was named Alabama’s Farm of Distinction.

Pearce was born in West Point, New York, on February 26, 1948. He was the son of a West Point Graduate. Pearce graduated in 1966 from Butler High School in Huntsville and was a member of the 1966 State Basketball Championship Team. He attended Auburn University and graduated in 1970 with a degree in business and a ROTC commission. He was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

While at Auburn, Pearce met his college sweetheart, Fran Weissinger. They were married on June 13, 1970. His father-in-law, Dr. William Weissinger, convinced him to try cattle farming, a culture that was foreign to him. In 1971, he moved to Browns and started dairying. But, he was drawn to the five ponds on the farm that had recently been stocked with catfish. He spent years building ponds and growing Pearce Catfish Farm. Pearce was often asked how he got into farming. He loved saying, “I married the farmer’s daughter!”

From the beginning of his farming career, Pearce participated in the promotion of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish. In the 1970s, Pearce was a founding member and president of the Alabama Catfish Producers Association. He later was elected to the board of Catfish Farmers of America and was president in 1980. He was vice chair of The Catfish Institute. He presided over many meetings and ending them by saying, “Get used to eating US Farm Raised Catfish, it’s guaranteed to be your first meal in heaven!” In 2012, Pearce received the Catfish Farmers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1999, Pearce and a dozen other farmers built Alabama Catfish Feed Mill in Uniontown, where he served as president until his death in 2020. He knew the importance of a high-quality product. The mill had an open formula so farmers knew the ingredients in feed. That policy is still in place today. The Feedmill helped improved his farming operation, but also many other operations in the Blackbelt.

While Pearce built his stellar reputation through the catfish industry, he served his community in many other ways. He served on boards at the Economic Development Board, Chamber of Commerce, People Bank and Trust, Morgan Academy, the Selma Country Club, the Alabama Golf Association, Alabama Senior Golf Association and the Southern Senior Golf Association. He was also very active in Church Street United Methodist in Selma, Alabama.

Pearce’s goal in his later years was to “become more invisible.” He said he could do that because of his excellent managers. His sons, David, Jr. and Will now own and operate the farm. Derry Bone manages the day to day operation of the farm and Brennan Nedley manages the Feedmill. Pearce knew how to hire good people and treat them with respect, dignity and honesty. He touched many lives and leaves a legacy of INTEGRITY in how to live each day and how to do business. He is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Fran, two sons and their wives and eight grandchildren.

James Plaster

James Plaster was a true Southern gentleman with the ability to foresee the future needs of agriculture in Alabama and a drive to meet those needs as a public servant.

Plaster grew up on his family farm in Autaugaville, Alabama. After high school, he enlisted and served in the U.S. Navy during WWII and saw combat in the pacific theater aboard the USS Vincennes.

After completing his service, he enrolled and graduated in 1950 from Alabama Polytechnic Institute with a B.S. in agriculture. After graduation, Plaster returned to the family farm operation and began his farming career. He grew the farm to over 1,300 hundred acres in Autauga and Montgomery counties and was the winner of the 1972 National Corn Grower Association contest for non-irrigated yield.

Plaster was known by many for his numerous roles as an Alabama public servant while still maintaining the family farm. He was director of the Autauga County Farmers Federation and in 1974 was elected to the Alabama Legislature House of Representatives for District 78. He was an influential member who served on several committees including the Way and Means Committee and the Joint Senate and House Budget Committee. He also co-chaired the Agriculture and Forestry Committee.

In 1979, he was appointed executive secretary of the Alabama State Soil and Water Conservation Committee. He served in this capacity and continued his farming operation until his retirement in November of 1992.

He was also instrumental in establishing the Catfish Diagnostic Laboratory in Greensboro, Alabama, for the advancement of the Alabama catfish industry. In 1989, he was awarded the National Association of Conservation Districts Executive of the Year Award. He also received the Governor’s Soil Conservationist of the Year by the Alabama Wildlife Federation in 1992.

Plaster was the primary leader in getting legislative support for the Alabama Crop Improvement Association Seed Technology Lab at Auburn University and supported the establishment of the Agriculture Center in Autaugaville. He also guided the cost share program through the legislature, and the state of Alabama still reaps the benefits of his dedication to agriculture and conservation.

Plaster was married to the former Marcia Van Bowers of Prattville for 40 years. His first wife, the former Lorena Woodham of Andalusia, passed in 1969 after 15 years of marriage. He has two sons, Bob and Jordan, and three grandsons.

2020 - Pioneer Award Honorees

Ralph Lovelady

Ralph Gilbert Lovelady was a true pioneer in Alabama cattle production. By paying close attention to genetics, forage production and keeping meticulous records, he developed one of the state’s top commercial cattle herds in the rolling hills of Chilton County.

Born and raised on a two-mule, 80-acre farm on the west edge of Chilton County on Feb. 21. 1921, Lovelady—who served in the United States Air Force—started his cattle operation in 1949 with eight Angus-Holstein cows and a Hereford bull. In the 1950s, cattle, hay and row crops provided income, but since the mid-1960s, cattle were and continue to be the sole source of revenue for the farm.

Lovelady hosted numerous tours of cattle producers from throughout the Southeast to his farm, eagerly sharing how he achieved top performance. He also received numerous awards for top-producing cows, and his farming operation has been profiled in numerous farming magazines and newspaper articles.

Lovelady farmed on the southern part of the Upper Coastal Plains on soils that ran the gamut from sand and gravel to heavy clay, usually suitable only for forages and trees. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, his two sons left for college and entered business, leaving him and his wife Myrtle as the sole labor force running a 200-brood cow operation. When Lovelady experienced health issues in 1988, his son Butch returned to the farm and helped to expand it.

Lovelady Farms focused on producing and marketing “predictable beef cattle,” meaning that the main goal of the breeding program was to produce a potential brood cow. The heifer was expected to calve as a 2-year-old and have the potential to wean a 700-pound calf each year. Steer calves were a by-product of the breeding program, but they had to meet the industry needs to bring top prices at sale time. The nutritional program was built around forage, with bermuda, bahia and dallis grass in the summer, overseeded in the fall with arrowleaf and clover. Lovelady began keeping individual performance records through the BCIA in 1981.

He was a tireless worker for Alabama’s cattle industry, becoming a charter member of the Bibb County Cattlemen’s Association in 1954 and later becoming its president. He also served as president and director of the Chilton County Cattlemen’s Association, regional vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and president of the Alabama Beef Cattle Improvement Association.

Lovelady was a deacon and a Sunday school teacher at Randolph Baptist Church. He died on Oct. 1, 1998. He and his late wife Myrtle are survived by two sons, Butch and Milton, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Richard True

Richard Dale True was a national pioneer in the catfish industry. Already in charge of dairy and cotton operations, True worked with business partners C.O. Stephens and Bryant Allen to start the country’s first commercial catfish hatchery, STRAL Company, in 1961. What began as a part-time enterprise soon developed into a full-time career.

By 1964, True was traveling to the Mississippi Delta to train other row-crop farmers in raising catfish. In November 1966, he and business partner Joe Glover Sr. started STRAL Processing, the country’s first commercial catfish processing company. After the company’s launch, True and his colleagues quickly adapted and developed new technologies to create a faster, more efficient processing system, which enabled the industry to grow more quickly.

STRAL Processing opened a new plant in Greensboro, Alabama, in 1968, with True as its first plant manager. The plant was sold to ConAgra Foods in 1969, and True moved to Mississippi to manage three more processing plants. He returned to Greensboro in 1975 to manage Country Fresh Processing. True retired in 1980. In the years since, his innovations have led to a national industry that now processes more than 330 million pounds of catfish annually.

In addition to his work as an entrepreneur and processing innovator, True was a member of the Citizens Bank board of directors, an elder at the Newbern Presbyterian Church, a member of the American Legion and Greensboro Rotary Club, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a loyal supporter of the Boy Scouts of America. He attended Auburn University from 1949 to 1951.

True passed away in 2008. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Stella Byars. He is survived by his wife, Charlotte Stewart True; daughter, Frances True Sullivan; son, Todd Dale True, and stepsons, Rodney James and Joel James.

2019 - Pioneer Award Honorees

William I. Ethridge Jr.

WILLIAM I. ETHRIDGE JR.’S love of farming began at age 9, when his family moved from the city to a farm southwest of Bessemer, Alabama. His father had a few cows, fostering his interest in dairy cattle.

In 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the high school graduate to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he served the majority of his time as a radio operator stationed in Brazil. Following his military service, he attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute on the GI Bill, majoring in agriculture science. He graduated in 1948 and started Ethridge Dairy Farm in Jefferson County that same year, using money he had saved working at a Pullman-Standard railroad-car manufacturing plant with his father and two brothers and milking cows at his father’s farm.

Throughout his life, Ethridge was an avid advocate for Alabama agriculture, especially the dairy industry, and held many leadership roles. He was Jefferson County Farmers Federation president for 38 years, from 1961 to 1999, during which time the organization grew from 3,378 members to 12,125.

He also served on the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Board of Directors and was one of the leaders in the formation of Associated Milk Producers, an organization that helped dairy farmers get better prices for their milk.

An innovator, Ethridge traveled to Chicago for training in artificial insemination in cattle and became the first producer in his county to implement the technology in dairy cattle. He went on to breed cows for Alabama dairy farms.

A man known for his sense of humor, Ethridge was often invited to speak at agricultural events and to schools and other groups. His trademark joke was a tongue twister about a snake named Petey “hissing in the pit.”

In the late 1970s, he sold his dairy herd with plans to retire, but he couldn’t quit being a farmer that easily, so he bought and raised beef cattle for close to 20 years. After retiring from the cattle business, he continued to produce hay on his 135-acre farm.

He and his wife, Coty, married in 1959 and had one daughter, Carolyn. She and her husband, Don Baker, have two daughters.

Ethridge passed away in 2009 at age 88.

Roy N. Hereford Jr.

ROY N. HEREFORD JR.  was a New Hope, Alabama, native whose family relocated to Faunsdale in 1949 when he was 14 years old. He credited growing up on the farms in Madison and Marengo counties for establishing his love of the agricultural industry.

Hereford graduated from Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in animal husbandry. As a student, he served as business manager for the API yearbook and vice president of the College of Agriculture’s student council and was a member of the livestock judging team and Sigma Nu fraternity. Also during his time at API, he worked toward his commission in the Army as second lieutenant and, after graduating, served six months of active duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He then returned to the family farm in Faunsdale, fulfilling his military obligations with the 156th Battalion headquartered in Linden.

Throughout his career, he was active in several agriculture-related organizations, serving as president of the Marengo County Cattleman’s Association, a charter member of the Marengo County Farm Bureau and organizer of the county’s 4-H–FFA steer show. His honors included being named an Outstanding Young Farmer by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Demopolis in “recognition of exceptional progress in agriculture and contributions to the community.”

His true passion was auctioneering, primarily at livestock and farm equipment sales. One of his most exciting moments was the selling of an Angus bull at Auburn University for $320,000.

In an effort to improve public perception of the auction business, he established a statewide association to hold auctioneers accountable for their professional conduct and to discipline individuals guilty of conducting business unethically. For his leadership, the Alabama State Board of Auctioneers posthumously honored him in 1987 for his outstanding service as a member and officer.

Hereford’s peers in the agricultural industry say he was charismatic, humble, knowledgeable of agriculture, and was successful in spreading that knowledge to others.

He and his wife, Judy, had four children—Leanne, Trey, Rachel and Samantha—and five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In 1986, Hereford was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away two years later. He was 52.


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