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Consultants keep it in the family

When Danny and Eddie Dunigan retire from their northeast Arkansas crop consulting business in a few years, they’re not going to worry about a drop off in service for the farmers they serve. They’ve been training their own replacements for 20 years.

Eddie’s son, Tommy, 31, who currently works for the area Boll Weevil Eradication Program in the area, will ease into full-time consulting equipped with the experience of someone much older. That’s because when Tommy was 8, and his brother Johnnie Wayne, 6, their father and uncle would pick them up at noon each Tuesday during the growing season, and take them along as they scouted fields.

The youngsters showed the right aptitude and attitude for the job from the get-go. “You can tell real quick if they’re naturals at it if they bring a bug or a structure back to you and ask what it is,” Eddie said.

When Tommy turned 10, and Johnnie Wayne, 9, the brothers started scouting full-time during the summer. Later, Danny’s young daughters Amanda and Samantha joined the crew. Then Eddie’s daughter Rachel, a junior at Arkansas State University, started working part-time for the Dunigans.

The Dunigans have never employed anyone outside the family during their 30-plus years as cotton consultants, bringing in sons-in-law and daughters-in-law as well as children, and even a wife in a crunch. It’s proven to be a good way to pass on their work ethic and knowledge of cotton and promote family togetherness.

The Dunigan brothers grew up on what was considered a large farm of the era — their grandfather’s 300-acre farm in northeast Arkansas. Their father, Noel, farmed cotton until 1950, when a single hailstorm destroyed the crop and put him out of business. He became a butcher in nearby Black Oak, but remained a farmer at heart for the rest of his life, until he died in August 1987. “He was always involved in farming with his family. That’s where we got a lot of our work values. He knew how to work,” Danny said.

Their mother, Mildred Dunigan, 81, who is still living, “chopped and picked cotton on the farm, and carried us to the field. We practically grew up there,” Eddie said.

Using a consultant to make recommendations for insect control in cotton was not a widespread practice in the late-1960s, when the two brothers answered a notice on the school bulletin board asking for cotton scouts. The pay was a respectable 90 cents an acre. Over the next few years, they learned about cotton “from real good people in the Extension Service who were willing to teach us what they knew,” Eddie said.

In 1971, they started their own consulting business, after Danny graduated from college with a degree in zoology and chemistry. Shortly thereafter, Eddie earned the same degree. They joined the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants as charter members.

Cotton cultural practices and attitudes about farming changed significantly during the Dunigans’ careers. “The transgenic technologies have raised yield,” Eddie noted. “In 1971, if you would have told me that we would see two-bale cotton, I would have laughed at you. Now, we can make three-bale cotton, and if you don’t make two bales, you’ll get left behind real quick.”

In 1983, the PIK (Payment In Kind) program was tough for consultants. “The government paid farmers not to farm,” but the law had no provisions for consultants, and scouting income declined significantly. “It hurt,” said Danny, who estimates that business dropped by 75 percent. But they kept plugging.

“There were several years in the 1980s when we worked from can to can’t,” Eddie said. “We’ve always treated every field like it was our own and treated the farmer like we would want to be treated if we farmed the land.”

Luckily for the Dunigans, they’ve always had other incomes. Eddie teaches senior high science at Buffalo Island, while Danny teaches junior high science at Riverside Junior High. Danny spent 39 years in the same school system and also taught girls’ basketball for 13 years. Somehow, they also find time to drive school buses in the afternoon. And as if that wasn’t enough, Eddie also drives the team bus for the Buffalo Island high school basketball team. When the team won back-to-back state championships, Eddie got a championship ring just like the ball players.

Juggling several jobs meant the Dunigans had to manage their time well to keep the peace at home. “There is a time in August where we start back to school, where we have to work on weekends and then at planting, we have an overlap, too,” Eddie said.

“It goes back to having good families that understand and know what a good job we do. Our wives have gone scouting with us,” said Danny, whose wife is Debbie. Eddie’s wife, not exactly surprising given the brothers’ similar paths in life, is Deb.

“We have good people around us. Our in-laws live close. We all go to church together. This is a good place to raise kids. We have good school systems,” Danny said.

Family ties occasionally extend to the Dunigan’s farmer customers. Eddie’s oldest daughter, Leah, who teaches mathematics at Buffalo Island, is married to Justin Gathright, a customer of the Dunigans.

Through the years, farms have gotten bigger, and clients fewer, noted Danny. “In 1974, we had a grower with 400 acres of cotton. We thought that was a big cotton farm. Today, most of our farmers have over 1,000 acres.”

One thing that has made their careers enjoyable is their love of the rural lifestyle. “I can’t wait until the summer,” Danny said. “Don’t get me wrong. I also can’t wait till it’s over. The only part of the job I don’t like is getting up in the morning when it’s wet. But the best feeling in the world is to see our guys picking cotton, knowing that you had a part in that. It’s just a good feeling to see our guys being successful. It’s pretty tough out there in the farming world.”

There came a time about 10 years ago when the ditch banks they had to cross suddenly appeared too daunting to leap — especially for a couple of 50-something crop consultants. The brothers started thinking of turning the business over to fresher legs.

“One thing they’re going to know is how to work,” Eddie said of the next generation. “They went to camp and did all that stuff when they were young. But when they didn’t do that, they were working. And it didn’t ruin them at all.”

“It made them what they are today — respectable,” Danny said.

Tommy, Amanda, her husband, T.J. Eakins, Samantha and Rachel are most likely to take over the consulting business for Danny and Eddie when they finally hang up their familiar straw hats. A representative of the third generation of cotton consultants in the Dunigan family, Molly Beth, 7, Tommy’s stepdaughter, will probably start going to the fields with Eddie “in a year or so.”

“We want to keep it rolling and rolling. And even if the children and grandchildren don’t want to do it full-time, they can use the business to help them work through high school and college. And it’s good for us to have family members out there,” Danny said.

“We have some good farmers we work for,” Eddie said. “Most of them have been with us for a minimum of 25 years. Some of them we’ve worked for three generations, 35 years or more. We started working with the grandfathers, then the sons and now the grandsons.

Pretty soon, those grandsons will be working with a second generation of Dunigans.

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