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Soil man

After nearly a decade in golf course management, Charlie Roberts brought his specialized expertise back to the Halls family farm
Story and photos by: Sarah Geyer 12/31/2018


During the summer of 2015, Charlie harvested his first triticale crop as a cover crop seed producer. Since that time, his continued search for innovative farming approaches has captured the attention of the ag industry. Last year he participated in the 34th class of the DuPont Young Leader Program, this spring he was named West Tennessee Area IX Conservation Farmer of the Year and, most recently, he was selected for Syngenta’s Leadership at its Best program.
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Self-proclaimed dirt nerd Charlie Roberts discovered his life’s passion during a summer stint at a Murfreesboro sod farm.

“That experience lit a fire in me,” says the Halls native, who was attending Middle Tennessee State University at the time. “We worked on a few golf courses, and that’s when I realized that I really liked this grass thing.”

Charlie’s dad, Ronnie, a third-generation farmer, and mom Charlene encouraged their son and younger daughter Rachel to experience life outside their small West Tennessee hometown.

“After high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” says Charlie. “But in the back of my mind, I knew I’d eventually return.”

Once his career choice was clear, Charlie transferred to the top turf school in the South at that time, Mississippi State University. After graduating in 2005, he spent a few years managing golf courses in Louisiana and Mississippi. In 2008, Charlie landed his dream job supervising a prestigious course located in one of Birmingham’s largest gated communities.

In the next two years, Charlie experienced personal highs — he married his college sweetheart, Bettye — and professional lows — a collapsing housing market led to many of the community’s 3,000 homes displaying “for sale” signs, resulting in a decline of club memberships. Soon, Charlie’s employer froze employees’ salaries and benefits.

That December, Charlie and Bettye spent their first Christmas as a married couple in Halls. As the newlyweds were leaveing, Ronnie and Charlene asked about their son’s job.

“We shared a little about our frustrations,” says Charlie. “And then out of the blue, Dad says, ‘Well, the farm is always here if you are interested.’”

The couple spent the six-hour drive home talking about their future. By the time they reached Birmingham, their minds were made up. In less than a month, the two were living in Halls.

“I could have probably made it work at the golf course,” says Charlie. “But we had both lived in big cities and didn’t want to raise our children there.”

At first, the learning curve was steep, says Charlie, describing his transition from growing grass to raising, harvesting, and marketing 1,000-plus acres of row crops.

“But there was one thing that I could really roll with,” he says. “Everything depends on the one thing I really understood — healthy soil.”

When farmers were investing in pivots following the drought of 2012, Charlie’s soil expertise led the Roberts in a different direction — cover crops.

“It made sense to me having an agronomy background,” he explains. “I could see the long-term [picture]. Dad thought I was nuts for the first couple of years, but when he saw it working, he got on board, and we started increasing the acreage. Now our goal is to cover every acre, every year.”

Ronnie, a long-time member of

Tipton Farmers Cooperative, was raising soybeans, corn, and wheat, in addition to Croplan soybean seed for Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. In 2015, at Charlie’s urging, TFC’s Halls Seed Plant began

processing cover crop seed, and the Roberts signed on as one of the seed producers, replacing their 400-acre wheat crop with triticale, cereal rye, field oats, and forage oats.

“It was a roll of the dice since oats really hadn’t been grown in the region before,” says Charlie. “But it turned out to be a good move, and that’s when Dad said, ‘It’s time for you to take the reins.’”

Today, under Charlie’s management, the farm’s 1,400 acres are planted soybeans, corn, and winter cereals. At some point, he’ll add cotton back into the rotation.

When he’s not working on the farm, Charlie is lending his soil expertise to his community. He supervises the care of the athletic fields for Halls High School and is available for lawn care recommendations.

 “It’s just enough to scratch my ‘I love working with turf’ itch,” he explains.

Always on the lookout for new farming ideas, Charlie is excited to try a new soil fertility management approach based on the Kinsey-Albrecht Method.

“I’m going to start out trying it on a couple of hundred acres, and we’ll see what happens,” he says. “If I’m not failing at something, I’m not trying hard enough.”

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