Wanda Hamilton-Tyler, or as she is often referred to around Southern Valley – Ma, Mama, or Aunt Wanda – is no stranger to all aspects of farm life. Born and raised right outside of Norman Park, Georgia, just minutes from where she still lives at the age of 72, she is the fifth of six children. Wanda grew up on a farm, like most everyone else in this part of the county, where everyone in the family helped out with the labor. Her family grew row crops and vegetables, which is how she ended up in the field picking cotton with a sack as early as age six.
After graduating from the local high school as Valedictorian, Wanda worked at a bank in Moultrie for about 10 years before deciding to get her realtor license. After becoming certified, she worked for three years in the real estate industry until she began keeping books for her husband, Benny Hamilton, who was a building contractor. She continued to work with her husband until she was met with a request from her two sons, Kirk and Kent.
Kirk, who was already involved in farming with family members, decided with his younger brother, Kent, to start a farming operation. They asked a friend, David, to come alongside to help operate and asked their dad to be a silent partner for investment start-up costs. The two Hamilton boys then asked their mother to be their bookkeeper. She, of course, willingly agreed. One hundred acres of land was purchased and the farming operation, Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable, was incorporated. Ownership was split equally between the four men: Kirk, Kent, David and Benny.
The beginning years of the operation were tough and Wanda doesn’t try to make it sound like it was easy. Just months after starting the farm, Kirk was tragically electrocuted by an irrigation pivot. As difficult as his death was, it was only the beginning of discouragement. “After Kirk was killed,” she says, “the community thought we would never make it.” Kent was still young, in his early 20’s, and inexperienced. Kirk had been the ringleader of the operation. One person even approached Kent and his parents wanting to buy the packing house, since it was assumed the operation wouldn’t survive with Kirk’s absence. There were days when the farm was barely surviving, but survive it did.
Wanda started out keeping the books, but willingly helped in whatever area she was needed – packing produce, tractor driving, shipping and receiving. She worked so willingly, in fact, that her work was performed with no pay. She maintained all the office work until 1991, when her sister, Valda, came to help with accounting after Benny was diagnosed with cancer. Wanda left the office to stay home and take care of her husband until he lost his battle with cancer later that same year. After Benny’s death, she resumed her role in the business, eventually moving into a sales position after David left the operation. She says, “People really thought the business wouldn’t continue after Benny’s death.” Southern Valley had just begun to grow produce on plastic when Benny died and older farmers in the area told Kent, “Son, you’ll never be able to make enough money growing on that plastic to pay for it.” But, somehow he did. Southern Valley started with 20 acres of vegetables grown on plastic. Those few acres produced a profit, and the farm kept expanding.
The discouragement didn’t end with the loss of a son and husband but continued even as Southern Valley started to see a little success. Once the farming operation began to grow and expand, the small town talk was that Southern Valley was involved in the drug industry. Nobody thought a mother and son operation would be able to survive with two tragic losses back to back. When it did survive, well, there had to be a reason, didn’t there? Wanda credits so much of the farm’s survival to Kent taking the bull by the horns and doing what he had to do to help the business succeed. Calling other farmers, calling county agents, working with the nearby Coastal Plains Experiment Station and working all hours of the night and day are just a few of the things he did to get the operation up and running.
But it wasn’t as if Wanda wasn’t doing her share of working night and day. In the midst of spring and fall growing seasons, there were nights she didn’t go home at all. After finishing in the office, she would move to the packing shed, and when the packing was done she helped clean up so they could do it all over again the next day. Some nights she was only able to go home for a bite to eat and a shower, before returning right back to work. Not every night was like that, but during the season it was regularly 2:00 – 4:00 AM before she went home, only to be back at 8:00 AM to start another day. Despite the heavy schedule, she says she never questioned whether or not the sacrifices were worth it, but being able to see progress gave her reassurance the business could be successful.
In fact, the times of growth are some of her fondest memories of those beginning years. She says, “As money was made, it was put right back into the operation so it could expand. The Lord really blessed us and we would have never made it this far without His blessing.” Their original investment of 100 acres had grown and being able to see that growth kept her pushing forward – that and knowing the work was seasonal and there would eventually be time for a break.
Another exciting landmark for Wanda was when Southern Valley expanded to Mexico. She says, “Never did I dream we would have gotten this far, gotten so big.” Beginning to grow in Mexico was exciting for the business. “There was no one there and we were in the middle of what seemed like a jungle. No one else was doing what we were doing – everyone else was contracting with growers, but we (Southern Valley) wanted to grow it ourselves. We owned the land, we grew the product and that was what made us different and kept the business challenging.”
It goes without saying she is thrilled some of her grandchildren decided to come back to the farm. She says it was Kirk’s ambition the farm would one day be large enough for them to hire Aunt Valda to work full time keeping the books. “That was his big dream,” she laughs, “and now, to have not just Valda, but Valda’s husband Steve, my nephews, Jon and Dug, and my grandchildren, Austin and Courtney, all working alongside an additional 28 person office staff is just mind blowing…really mind blowing.” Wanda says she is honored her family would choose to come back and be a part of the family farming operation.
Wanda’s husband, Ed Tyler, is yet another family member who currently works at Southern Valley. Wanda met Ed, originally from upstate New York, after he moved to nearby Valdosta and they married in 1993. He immediately joined the family farming business and today he handles all the maintenance on employee housing as well as maintenance on shipping containers used to haul produce. Kirk’s wife at the time of his death, Patricia, and her daughter, Skylar, have also worked at Southern Valley in the Accounting department for a number of years.
According to Wanda, the working hours and conditions are the main difference between taking over a family operation and starting one. She may come across as a little prissy to the average viewer, but she’ll be the first to tell you, “There isn’t anything on this farm a worker is asked to do that I haven’t done at some point.” “We started from nothing and made it this far. So, it can be done.” she says. Then she adds, “Hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure.” Today, Wanda and her granddaughters, Courtney and Kaylee, own more than 50% of Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable, Inc. making it a female-owned and family-operated business.