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Hembree Brandon: 45 years of ag journalism excellence

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association honored Hembree Brandon's contributions to agriculture with a memorial scholarship.

In more than 30 years, Hembree Brandon missed attending the Mid-South Farm and Gin show only twice.

The first was following a fall and a broken wrist in 2008. The other was last year as Hembree fought a courageous battle with cancer that he would not win. He spent much of his final days putting the finishing touches on the Gin Show photo gallery. He passed away shortly after he completed that last assignment.

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association honored Hembree Brandon's many contributions to agriculture with the SCGA Memorial Scholarship at the annual banquet Feb. 27 at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

For most of those three decades, Hembree Brandon was as integral a part of the Farm and Gin Show as the equipment displays, the specialty item vendors or the ubiquitous yardsticks youngsters pick up from exhibitors.

At last year's show, many of those exhibitors wondered about Hembree Brandon's absence. Many expected him to stop by and take photos of their booths to display in the gallery, as he had done for most of those 30-plus years. Several remarked on the many years they had known Hembree and how much they respected his work.

Those of us who worked with Hembree for a significant part of his 45-year tenure with Farm Press Publications share a profound respect for his abilities as a writer, editor, and photographer. We tried to emulate, but never completely succeeded in doing so, his work ethic, his commitment to accuracy and his dedication to the profession of journalism.

Hembree worked for Farm Press Publications in numerous positions from November 1973 until his death last March.

He leaves a legacy of excellence and a group of writers and editors who learned from him, admired him and marveled at his skill, his knowledge and his wit. We will not see his like again.

"Hembree is by far the greatest ag journalist I have met in my 40-year career," says Greg Frey, senior vice president, Ag Division for Informa Markets.

"His passion and devotion to the ag industry exemplifies his commitment to the American farmer. He was the farmer’s champion for almost 50 years and never ceased to help tell their story to the U.S. population and the world. He embodied integrity, grit and made the tough choices of telling a story even though it was not popular in the U.S. I am grateful to have known Hembree and cherished every moment that I spent time with him."

Abbott Myers, Dundee, Miss., farmer and chairman of the board, Mississippi Land Bank, met Hembree shortly after he signed on with Delta Farm Press in 1973, two years after Myers started farming on his own.

"What a fine southern gentleman, Hembree was," Myers says. "I knew him from the Gin Show and other farm shows around. I was always happy to see him, and he always seemed happy to see me."

Myers says Hembree treated him fairly in stories he wrote about his farm or his work with the Land Bank. "He always made me look smarter than I am. He was a wordsmith extraordinaire.

"Hembree loved people and loved telling farming success stories. He always had a positive attitude. We shared that; you have to be positive to be a farmer," Myers says. "A great teacher, Hembree wouldn't hit you over the head with ideas but gently talk you through it. I have a great deal of respect for him. He was a good friend."

Ed Phillips, managing editor for Delta Farm Press, worked with Hembree for more than 40 years, echoes that sentiment.

"Over my 40-plus years with Farm Press, we’ve lost some valuable team members, but none has left a bigger void — professionally and personally — than Hembree Brandon did," Phillips says.

"As a senior staff member, he was deeply involved in every project we had — the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show being just one. His attention to detail set him apart. As my mentor — I started with Farm Press in my late 20s — Hembree was my example and my go-to. He had a quiet demeanor that made it easy to listen to his advice and follow it.

"As a writer, he was the best. I envied his command of the English language – how he could cover broad subjects succinctly. As a friend, I miss him deeply. There was never a doubt that you could trust him and depend on him."

Long-time Farm Press Editor Forrest Laws notes that we, the editorial staff, wanted Hembree to edit our stories.

"We knew he would make them better," Laws says. "I’ve never known another journalist like Hembree Brandon. He could write beautiful feature stories celebrating the life of a farmer and then write a column that would move you to tears, such as the tribute to his son-in-law who was murdered in a robbery in Clarksdale, Miss.

"He was a great photographer who established standards that are still followed at Farm Press. He worked magic with layouts, selecting just the right photos and arranging them with text that made you want to read the story."

Hembree was always accessible, Laws adds. "I can’t remember a time when I stopped by his office to ask his advice or just talk that he acted like he was too busy to see me. This was in spite of the fact he was under a backbreaking workload at Farm Press most of the time. He is greatly missed."

Those of us who knew him well were amazed by his intellect as well as his far-ranging interests. He was a pilot. He was a gardener, although he often complained about the lack of decent soil available to grow tomatoes, or anything else, in the Mississippi Delta.

He also complained about the weather and the lack of fall color in the Mid-South. He said often that poison oak was the most colorful foliage in the region.

Hembree enjoyed music, good literature and good food. He was also quick to carp about food not up to standards. He is reported to have enjoyed fast cars.

As Myers said, Hembree loved people, including those he worked with. He never forgot a birthday and when we converted from typewriters to computers, we could expect, in the few days leading up to Christmas, a colorful, sometimes comic, sometimes reverent, electronic Christmas card from Hembree.

He shared essays and other examples of good writing he found during his insatiable desire to read and learn. He never stopped absorbing information, admiring excellence and encouraging it.

He expected a lot from editors, but he set a good example for us, a high bar to reach for but never quite grasp. We knew if we photographed a farmer in a field wearing sunglasses, we would get a note from Hembree, scolding us and assuring us that photo subjects would acquiesce to a polite request.

Hembree was also a devoted husband, father and grandfather. Surviving him are: his wife, Jean Floyd Brandon, Starkville; son, Stephen Alan Brandon and wife, Liz, of Jackson, Miss.; daughter, Lisa Carole McReynolds and husband, Bobby, of Starkville; brother, Ronald Brandon, and wife, Debbie, of Spartanburg, S.C.; brother, George Brandon, and wife, Mary, of Louisville, Colo.; sister, Jane Crispen and husband, Fred, of Panama City Beach, Fla.; grandchildren, Kendall Wright and wife, Emily, of Nashville, Presley Anne Flowers, Audrey Brandon McReynolds, Samantha Erin McReynolds, and Sydney Elise McReynolds, all of Starkville; and great-granddaughter, Sloane Carolyn.

Hembree Brandon witnessed and chronicled some of the most important changes in agriculture — mechanization, chemical weed control, boll weevil eradication, transgenic crops, and GPS equipment. He saw farm policy change again and again and turned the complexity of policy into understandable language.

All of agriculture has been enriched by his nearly half-century of journalistic excellence. As Abbot Myers said, "He loved telling farmer success stories."

He told them beautifully and always with integrity.

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