This Friday meet Herbert Hodges, a retired military veteran, educator, and timber producer in Emanuel County, Georgia. Located a few hours southeast of Atlanta, his family’s farm is an environment where longleaf pine forests and wildlife species can thrive. Named after his father, the Willie Hodges Family Farm Estate is made up of a collective 600-acres, land that has been in the Hodges family since the 1880s.
A New Mission Focus
Herbert served nine years of active duty in the Army before becoming a teacher and serving in the Army Reserves. He eventually became a high school principal and, now retired, Herbert is dedicated to restoring habitat across the property he grew up on.
Since 2010, and with help from USDA and the Georgia Forestry Commission, he has transformed 400 acres into a longleaf ecosystem that continues to surprise him.
“After 12 years of restoration, the wildlife has returned,” Herbert said. “I see many more turkeys, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoises. After restoration, they picked up their suitcases and moved in. I don’t know where they came from. They weren’t there when we were planting.”
Now, armed with knowledge and field results, he hopes to encourage producers to improve their land by educating them about assistance from USDA agencies and their partners.
Herbert’s military and education experience taught him the importance of planning. Naturally, he enlisted USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help revitalize his land.
Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the former Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Hodges family worked with Sidney Lanier, a now retired district conservationist, and Soil Conservation Technician Sonya Merrion.
“I can’t take credit for what Sidney and Sonya started with the Hodges family, but I am honored to have helped them keep building on their successes,” said Vontice Jackson, NRCS district conservationist.
They installed and maintained a suite of climate-smart forestry and wildlife habitat practices, including establishing and managing almost 270 acres of longleaf pine and slash pine forest. With NRCS assistance, they installed over 16 miles of firebreaks as they maintain a wildfire resilient forest stand.
Paying it Forward
Herbert is an ordained minister who practices what he preaches and shares the good news of his heart. When it comes to his love for the land, he can’t help but share his life lessons with others and learn from his mistakes. A strong conservation advocate, Herbert helps connect minority landowners to resources to achieve their conservation goals.
Over the years, the Hodges family has hosted many groups to teach climate resilient land management techniques that reduce the wildfire risk, sequester carbon emissions, and provide for a healthier and more diverse wildlife population.
“My second profession was education,” Herbert said. “I believe when people learn better, they’ll do better. I wanted to talk to minority landowners and inform them of things they can do to manage their property when they’re not actively using the land.”
The Ohoopee River Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with the Hodges family to host these field days, along with other federal, state, and local conservation agencies.
Leading by Example
In 2021, Herbert was selected by NRCS in Georgia and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to lead the first Longleaf for All landowner mentorship model, a new peer-to-peer learning program for underserved landowners. Collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Wildlife Federation, and many other partners in the longleaf and wildlife community, the Hodges’ farm served as a training ground to help underserved communities learn about longleaf forestland management and how to keep land in their family for future generations.
Among these efforts in 2023 were a Longleaf Alliance Landowner Academy held in May, an Estate Planning Workshop in early November with the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, and a USFS-led farm tour later that month with international agricultural leaders.
Due to the success of this collective effort, the NWF is expanding the model to Alabama and South Carolina in 2024 in partnership with NRCS.
With an eye on a healthier and more climate-friendly future, the Hodges family will continue to build on and preserve their legacy of overcoming challenges in life and on the land, one tree at a time.
Visit local farms, ranches, forests, and resource areas through our Fridays on the Farm stories. Meet farmers, producers and landowners who are working to improve their operations with USDA programs.
USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster assistance, loan, and conservation programs to help producers weather ups and downs in the market and recover from natural disasters as well as invest in improvements to their operations. Learn about additional programs.
For more information about USDA programs and services, contact your local USDA service center.
Chris Groskreutz is a public affairs specialist for NRCS in Georgia.