By Tom Word
Ben Reach got the call early on a Monday morning. The caller was
Ron Altizer, a farmer whose family Ben had represented for forty
years. He heard Ron’s father, Carl, in Ron’s voice this Monday
morning. Carl had called him on a Monday morning in 1968, a call
made in desperation. The subject of both calls was the Altizer
family farm in Thomas County, Georgia, southwest of Thomasville and
south of the seat of Ben Reach’s law practice in Albany, called
“All-Benny” by locals.
The Altizer farm was a jewel, not large but fertile, well drained and
well watered, equal parts crop land and longleaf piney
woods. It had been in the Altizer family almost two hundred
years. It had nearly left their ownership in 1968, but Ben had
managed to save it for Carl who held the record title, but held it
really for his son, Ron, who was then in the jungles of Vietnam,
fighting what proved a hopeless war.
Ben recalled the desperation in Carl’s voice that long-ago Monday,
remembered what Carl said as if it were yesterday. “Mr. Ben, I’m
in a jam. I don’t think there is anything you can do, but I need
to talk to you about it.”
Ben had driven down to the farm that afternoon. Carl’s troubles
were familiar ones, brought on by the universal enemy of farmers in all
times, debt. Three years of drought-induced crop failures had
Carl facing foreclosure. Carl’s neighbor on the north had made an
offer to buy the farm that Carl had planned to accept the night he
called Ben. Ben asked Carl the amount of the offer. Then
Ben recalled that the neighbor sat on the board of the bank that held
Carl’s note, and thus had full knowledge of Carl’s financial
distress. It was a story as old as rural America—in hard times
the rich got richer at the expense of men like Carl, who like his
father and grandfather before him, had toiled to make the land pay
enough to keep it. Farming was a game of chance, with the odds
favoring the house, not the farmer. The house being the lenders,
equipment and fertilizer suppliers, cotton and pecan and peanut buyers,
the counterparties to the trades a farmer must make. The farmer
was captive to weather, to crop prices, fertilizer and fuel and
chemical prices, all things a farmer could not influence, much less
control. Farming was pure competition. All these forces had
caught Carl in a perfect storm.
Ben told Carl not to sign the contract to sell the farm to his
neighbor. “Give me a little time, Carl. I think maybe I can
find a way for you to keep this place,” Ben said that Monday in 1968.
Next morning Ben got a call from Carl’s neighbor. “You are
interfering in my business, Ben Reach. I’ll see to it you never
get another loan to close for Thomasville Bank & Trust.”
“You do that, Mr. Jenkins,” Ben had said. He’d already made up
his mind not to represent banks. There was more promise for a
lawyer like Ben in suing them.
Two days later Ben had worked out a deal for Carl that would let him
keep the farm. Another client of Ben’s would buy Carl’s note from
the bank, extend the term, and lower the interest rate. He would
also lease the quail hunting rights on the farm from Carl at a price
that would let Carl meet his debt payments despite inevitable crop
failures or falling crop prices.
Carl’s banker had called Carl to come in to discuss foreclosure, and
Ben went with him. Waiting with the banker was Mr. Jenkins, who
expected to strong arm Carl into signing the contract to sell him the
farm. Instead, Ben produced a cashier’s check in the amount of
the note balance and took great pleasure in handing it to the banker
under Jenkins’ nose.
A year later Ron had returned from the Vietnam War. He bore
wounds physical and mental. But working the land with his father
had healed him. Since Carl’s death in 1980, Ron had farmed alone.
Mr. Jenkins’ son now owned the neighboring farm (called Deep
Swamp Plantation), which had been in the Jenkins’ family since 1880
when the first Jenkins owner had bought it with coke money (not Coca
Cola money or drug money, but money from the kind of coke used to make
steel). The first Jenkins owner had been a Robber Baron of that
Ron Altizer now wanted Ben’s advice on selling the Altizer Place.
His two daughters were married and living up north and had no interest
in owning it. Their children were entering college. Ron wanted to
slow down—like many farmers, he’d worn himself out physically with the
manual labor. He wanted cash to help educate his
grandchildren. The current Jenkins neighbor had offered Ron
a price Ron thought was likely fair. Ben thought it light, based
on the sales he’d seen lately of farms not as good as the Altizer
Place. (If a Yankee family owned a place in Thomas County, you
knew it because they called it a plantation, put a fancy sign at the
entrance, and planted a double row of live oaks down the entrance lane
leading to a Big House.)
Ben told Ron to give him a day or two to think about the sale of the
farm. And, as he had forty years before, Ben got an angry call
from a Mr. Jenkins Tuesday morning, complaining that Ben was
interfering with his deal with Ron Altizer.
“Mr. Jenkins, Ron Altizer and his father have been my clients for forty
years. You’ll get your chance to buy the Altizer Place, fair and
square.” Then Ben hung up and smiled.
“The first thing we are going to do is get your farm drill tested for
sand and gravel,” Ben told Ron next day. Ron protested, saying he
would never be a party to mining the Altizer Place. Ben smiled,
“I didn’t say you had to mine it. But let’s see what you have
Ben had a contact that would do the drilling free on the prospect of
getting the chance to mine the property, though Ben had in mind another
play for Ron. Sure enough, a month later a report arrived showing
generous deposits of sand and gravel under the Altizer Place. It
was accompanied by a bid for the mining rights.
Armed with that, Ben suggested to Ron that he place a conservation
easement on the Altizer Place denying in perpetuity the right to mine
the property for sand and gravel. Ben explained that would
produce for Ben a charitable income-tax deduction.
Ben then engineered the sale of the farm in a sealed-bid auction
that he would personally supervise. Each bidder would have one
chance to buy the Altizer Place.
When the auction date arrived, Mr. Jenkins arrived at Ben’s office in
the company of his lawyer. The other bidders were lawyers who
brought their clients’ envelopes containing bids. Ben made them
identify the bidders they represented as a condition to accepting their
bids—Ben wanted Jenkins to know the other descendants of Nineteenth
Century Robber Barons with millions (or billions) available to
bid. After he heard the names of the other bidders, Jenkins
pulled another envelope from his pocket. Ben wondered how much
larger this bid was than the one in the first envelop Jenkins’ lawyer
When Ben opened the bids, Jenkins’ was the highest by far—how much
money he’d left on the table, Jenkins would never know, for Ben
shredded the other bids. Jenkins’ winning bid was exactly twice
plus $1 what he’d offered Ron Altizer before Ben became involved.
It was a hundred times what Jenkins’ father had tried to buy the farm
for from Carl Altizer under threat of foreclosure in 1968.
Ben Reach (whose nickname was “Long,” despite his 5’5” frame) still did
not represent banks, only sued them. Ben took special pleasure in
the fact that Ron would be able to shelter much of the tax on his gain
on the sale of the farm through the conservation easement.