After working on his father’s farm, R.T. Stanley Jr. went off to college to pursue a job outside of agriculture.
“I was going to be a big businessman when I went off to college,” he said. “I didn’t realize farming was in my blood.”
Now, as someone who’s been named Georgia Farmer of the Year and served as the Vidalia Onion Committee’s chairman for a decade, the committee’s Grower of the Year, and a Georgia Farm Bureau county president, Stanley is both a big businessman and a farmer.
It started small, when Stanley quit college in 1964 to start sharecropping with his uncle.
He had married and was looking to start a family, and his father’s farm was too small to support a new family, so sharecropping was his only option.
He did that for four years, then made a down payment on his own 120 acres.
In 1974, his father approached him and offered to merge their operations so they could buy larger equipment together. They also invested in land together, 50/50, and mainly grew tobacco.
A year later, they made a fateful decision to experiment with 5 acres of Vidalia, Ga., onions — the same Vidalia onions that now enjoy international acclaim and a federal marketing order, thanks in large part to Stanley’s efforts with former U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas.
When Stanley’s first son graduated from the University of Georgia, he asked about joining the farm. Stanley made him an equal partner in his half of the business. His second son graduated from Georgia and did the same thing. The third son graduated from the same university, worked as a manager of a pine tree seed plant for more than a year, and then he joined his father and brothers.
“We started growing more onions, more tobacco, everything — peanuts, cotton, corn, soybeans — trying to diversify. Anything to survive on the farm,” Stanley said. “As those boys kept coming back from college, we didn’t have a choice but to get bigger.”
The youngest son’s return prompted an even bigger expansion. The company bought a nearby company called Manning Farms that processed onions and made relishes and dressings.
The processing plant helped steady the company when the weather hurt crops, Stanley said.
The company, Stanley Farms, since has put its revenue back into the operation, buying equipment or adding 100 acres here and there. After starting out with little more than 100 acres in 1968, the company now stands at 8,000 acres. And two years ago, the company added a processing and individual quick-freeze plant.
Stanley says diversification is necessary to survive long on the farm.
Despite its growth, the company had a rough year in 1980 because of crop and outside political issues, and they almost lost it all, Stanley said.
It made them appreciate the good years and their diversification, he said.
Stanley and his three sons are equal partners in the company, splitting everything four ways. They make the decisions the same way too. They take a vote. If it’s a 2-2 tie, then Stanley’s wife, Diane, breaks the tie. She’s done it two or three times.
“When someone’s outvoted, he joins right in,” Stanley said. “That’s how we make this family operation work. If we have a bad year, we suffer together. If we have a good year, we celebrate together.”
Stanley is an outgoing, generous and good man, said Sabrina Jarriel, office manager for Stanley Farms.
“He’s the main one that everyone goes to when they need support and guidance,” Jarriel said. “He’s all about helping everybody any way he can. Just an all-around good person. A good ol’ boy.”
Things are going well at Stanley Farms.
More than any other word, Stanley uses “blessed.” And throughout his company’s history, he’s met blessings with more faith and investment. And the company doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.