An old windmill serves as a reminder of days past. From left, Rebecca Crownover, Justin Crownover and his wife, Stephanie.
Built on the backs of refinery workers and farmers, the little town of Sunray, Texas, has seen boom and bust. The Sunray co-op was once the largest rural grain elevator in the world, servicing farmers across the panhandle with a storage capacity of 7 million bushels. Yet most Texans remember Sunray for the 1957 explosion at Diamond Shamrock refinery, where the town’s entire volunteer fire department lost their lives.
The Crownover family legacy mirrors the history of the town they now call home. On the hardscrabble plains where wind is plentiful and water is precious, Justin Crownover and his mother and business partner, who goes by "K," have shared triumph and tragedy. During the past decade, two family partners have suffered fatal accidents that might have destroyed other families.
True grit, a love of farming and the desire to pass on the family farm to the next generation keep the Crownovers rooted in the area. Today, Lone Star Family Farms grows corn, seed milo, wheat and cotton on 20,000-plus acres of ground where 45 sprinklers might be going at one time.
"There aren’t many farmers left around here, so I guess we’re the crazy ones," says Justin, who tends to be proud and self-deprecating at the same time. The Crownover family is working to change the local dynamic by growing their business to support five families.
As a result of their fortitude and business excellence, Lone Star Family Farms was recognized as a finalist in the 2011 Top Producer of the Year contest, presented by Challenger and cosponsored by Asgrow, Bayer CropScience and SFP.
Hard Homecoming. Many generations of Crownovers have been farmers. Even so, Justin never felt any pressure to farm and even flirted with the possibility of a career at the stock exchange. The month he earned his college degree, land back home became available to rent. Justin took the long road to the windswept town of his youth.
Those early years were lean, with Justin and his father, Johnny, farming seven sections of land totaling 4,480 acres. Land came and went, along with weather disasters and low crop prices. When they lost rental ground to higher bids, Justin worked for no wages, receiving only room and board as his compensation.
"We eventually rented more land but soon ran out of money and credit at the bank," Justin says. "That low point was our wake-up call to get our finances under control."
Times and markets changed and opportunities presented themselves, and Justin and his parents formed a partnership and grew the operation to 19 sections of land. They explored other avenues of creating profit, including growing seed milo, which helped them pay their way out of the carryover note Johnny had held since the mid-1980s. By 1999, they had enough money to buy their first section of land with cash.
Soon, Justin’s brother, Adam, returned home from college and with his wife, Rebecca, formed their own farming operation. The three family units enjoyed farming separately but working together. Justin and his wife, Stephanie, started a family, having two boys, Cole and Connor. Adam and Rebecca had a little girl named Acie. Life was good in the Texas Panhandle.
Outside of town, the train tracks crisscross farmland like scars. In March 2006, disaster struck when Johnny died in a car collision with a train. The death of the family patriarch left a deep hole. In an effort to preserve the family farm, K, Justin, Stephanie, Adam and Rebecca founded Lone Star Family Farms in January 2009, affiliating themselves with FamilyFarms Group out of Brighton, Ill.
"We were so devastated and in need of management direction. The FamilyFarms concept appealed to us," Justin says. As part of FamilyFarms, they receive education, training and implementation guidance on everything from their finances to human resources. The Crownovers became part of a network of farmers across the nation that provided them with shared experience, networking and support.
- March 2011