The Bearden brothers are fourth-generation farmers in Shelby County.
It’s 4 a.m. on a crisp, autumn morning in Vincent. Bearden brothers, Randy and Wayne, are awake before the sun doing what all farmers do: sweating, bleeding and crying on the land they call home.
Nestled in the “foothills of the foothills” of the Appalachian Mountains, in the Northeast corner of Shelby County, just shy of a thousand acres of rolling hills, spring fed creeks and lush greenery make for picturesque scenes of simpler time.
Fourth-generation farmers, first dairy and now beef, the brothers have milk and dirt running through their veins. On this farm, there are a few rules by which the Bearden men have always lived: Work hard, pray harder, pull for the Tigers and don’t sass your mama.
The history of Bearden dairy farmers spans nearly a century with the original Bearden farm getting its start in Helena in 1929.
In the early ’70s, family patriarch J.E. ‘Ned’ Bearden, after whom the Pelham High School football stadium is named, and two of his sons, Joel and Ralph, bought 600 acres in Vincent and named it Shel-Clair Farm, with two-thirds of the farm in Shelby County and the remaining acreage in St. Clair. Ralph’s two sons, Randy and Wayne, who were teenagers at the time, live on the farm to this day and the pair still abide by the rules they were taught as children.
Their father Ralph, a man with twinkling blue eyes, two large dimples and few words, moved with his wife Monta Faye and four children to Vincent in 1974. There the men worked the land, milked cows, raised children and tried to break even for more than three decades until the last dairy cows were loaded up and sold to the highest bidder. Ralph had retired five years before and the brothers, who are equal parts gruff and kind-hearted, pushed through until finally deciding to sell the dairy in 2005.
“We each had four children – one’s a veterinarian, one’s a politician, one’s a school teacher … Nobody was coming back to the farm and it didn’t make sense for us to work seven days a week just hoping to break even at the end of the month … and we didn’t always break even,” Randy says.
The last holsteins were milked on Bearden land on March 5, 2005.
“Man, that was scary. Wayne and I watched that last trailer load of cattle leave here and we’re like ‘Now what are we gonna do?” Randy says. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were pretty sure we were going into the beef business but no concrete plans had been made.”
Not wanting to see their life’s work vanish overnight, Randy and Wayne held onto 40 cows for another year until finally deciding to let it go.
“We watched Uncle Joel do that. They had a dispersal sale in Helena – they milked cows on Saturday morning and by Saturday evening there was not a cow in sight. The equipment was gone. Seventy-two years of milking cows in the same place, without missing a single day and suddenly there was nothing left,” Randy says. “We didn’t go that route. We were really just afraid to quit. We didn’t know how to let it go.”
With no holsteins to be milked and no 4 a.m. wake up calls, the Bearden brothers, along with their father and their three sons, packed their bags and the RV, and headed out West. They visited Colorado and the Grand Canyon – enjoying the first real rest they had in years.
Once back home in “God’s Country,” Randy said they endured a trial by fire while navigating the beef business. “We pretty much jumped in with both feet and hoped to come out in one piece on the other side,” he says. There was a definite learning curve, but with patience and prayer, the brothers found success.
Known as a cow-calf operation, today Shel-Clair is a thriving cattle farm complete with horse boarding, riding trails and beautiful views. Randy manages the upkeep of the farm’s 12 miles of marked horse trails and a newly planted apple orchard that he says will make a beautiful spot in a couple of years. He enjoys thinking of ways to make the homestead a more beautiful place—and he has big plans for the future. Eventually, Kelley Creek will be a site for primitive camping. Wayne is quite the opposite. The self-proclaimed silent partner is like his father in more ways than one: he’s a man of few words. “If you see something that’s running, that’s Wayne’s doing. If you see something that’s pretty, that’s Randy,” says the youngest of the Bearden brood, Ramona.
Between the brothers and their two younger sisters, Cindy and Ramona, the Bearden family is a large one, with 14 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Shel-Clair serves as a gathering spot for the growing brood that is expanding year by year.
In addition to his brother, Randy has another not-so-silent partner in his dog Belue.
“She helps me run this farm,” he says. “She never leaves my feet … I’m going to have a funeral on this farm when that dog dies. She’s my best friend.”
Belue’s favorite farm job is moving cattle, but Randy says the 8-year-old blue heeler doesn’t care what she’s doing so long as she’s working. “It doesn’t matter what we’re doing as long as she’s right there with me all day long,” he says. “I paid $100 for her and $100,000 couldn’t buy her now. I will never have another dog like her.”
A few years ago, to commemorate his 60th birthday, Randy and Belue set out on an all-day hike around the perimeter of the farm. The pair tackled 12 miles of terrain that day and paid for it for the next week. “It was something I always wanted to do really just to see if I could,” he says. “It took all day and almost killed me. I claimed I’d do it again on my 70th, but those stairs at my house are getting a little difficult, so I don’t know if it’ll happen.”
When he’s not on the farm, Randy burns up the interstate on the way to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit his grandsons. The boys keep him young and simultaneously out-of-breath, but Randy says Jack, Carter and Liam are the lights of his life. “If I ever have a granddaughter, I’ll be there every other weekend,” he says with a laugh.
With no plans to retire, Randy says he will one day die on the dirt that’s known as Shel-Clair Farm and Ranch. “I can honestly say that as long as I’m healthy, I’ll be working on this farm,” Randy says. “You don’t quit something you actually love. It’s never been a job for me – it’s a way of life. Just how I’ve always been and how I’ll always be.”
His favorite part? The independence. “I don’t have to fight traffic every day and punch a timeclock. Unless there’s some emergency with a cow down or a tree over a fence or something then my day goes along as how I plan it.”
And to him there’s really no better way to live. “It’s the best way in the world if you asked me,” he says. “Nothing can beat it. (On a farm) Children learn about life and death and hard work and the value of hard work … It’s been said a million times by a million different farmers, but I truly believe that there’s no better lifestyle when it comes to raising your children.”
Randy penned what it means to him to be a farmer in Shelby County. To him, it’s how life should be and he can’t imagine anything better: “It begins with a sunrise and a good cup of coffee. Somewhere in rural Shelby County someone is checking the herd or preparing a tractor for a day in the fields. From animal agriculture to row crops and everything in between, Shelby County is blessed with a wide variety of agricultural interests and the men and women who are part of the 2 percent: the proud and privileged to call themselves farmers who at the end of a long day and the setting of the sun eagerly await the next break of light and the next good cup of coffee.”
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FROM THE FARM
Shel-Clair Farm and Ranch is located at 5635 Hwy. 57 in Vincent. Randy also writes a blog entitled “Thoughts from a Tractor Seat,” where he shares anecdotes and life lessons about life at Shel-Clair. His writings, along with photos and more information about the Bearden family farm, can be found at shelclairfarms.com.