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Family farm grounded in faith

Some people might think cotton farmer J.E. Wray doesn’t need his second crop consultant, and probably pays him too much, too. But J.E. thinks the compensation is just about right — for what is given in return.

The 81-year-old Wray has been farming as far back as his memory takes him. He was born in Montgomery County, Miss., in 1926, a time when one of every four Americans lived on a farm and over 40 million acres of cotton were harvested in the United States annually.

During the winter of 1935, when he was around 10 years old, his father William and mother Velma moved the family to Mississippi County, Ark. They made a cotton crop in 1936, and in 1937, moved to the Caldwell Farm in Mississippi County where they made a crop in 1938.

In 1939, the family moved to Payneway, Ark., 37 miles northwest of Memphis. William purchased 40 acres of woods, cut the timber for a barn and a home and to shingle the roof.

It wasn’t an easy crop that year for the Wrays. They didn’t get all the standing trees moved from the field by the time they had to plant cotton. The trees fell into the cotton fields that fall. It was the only time then 13-year-old J.E. can remember “picking cotton in the treetops.”

At 18, J.E. married the former Martha Loudene Smith, bought a John Deere Model B and started farming 80 acres of cotton. The fine soils produced some good yields for J.E. Any time he made money on a crop, he used it to buy more acres.

J.E. was his own crop consultant back then, and a pretty good one at that. A bale an acre was enough to pay the bills and put a little bit away for a rainy day, like the time in 1970 when he made a great crop, but the bolls never opened. It was a disaster, “but back then, you could make a bad crop, and in two or three years, you could get out of it. You miss one now, and it’s Katie bar the door.”

Over the years, J.E. mastered the art of farming — he always bought the best seed, kept the crop clean, never scrimped on fertilizer and irrigated when the crop needed it. When module builders came along, he quit wearing out a pickup each fall hauling trailers of cotton to the gin. That helped.

So did plant growth regulators, defoliants and boll openers. Subsoiling offset many of the effects of drought on the crop, then he started adding irrigation capability after the drought of 1980.

He hired a crop consultant, Tom Davis, to scout for weed and insect pests.

Cotton acreage for the entire Wray family grew to nearly 10,000 acres.

Farming taught him humility, hard work and a thing or two about priorities.

When three sons, Eddie, Larry and Terry, came along, J.E. taught them how to work. “My sons once told their Uncle Doug that I can get more jobs started and go off and leave than anybody else. But that’s how you teach responsibility. You can’t do the job for them.”

J.E. kept his boys in line most of the time. He tried to teach them that the love of farming didn’t mean farming had to always be fun, like the time he caught Larry and Eddie racing tractors while plowing a field.

Later on, when Larry graduated from high school, he asked his father for the latest craze, a 1971 Mach I Ford Mustang with a racing engine. Instead his father bought him a 1971 Ford pickup. “If I had have gotten the Mustang, I might not be here today,” Larry said. “In those days, for me, it was wide open or nothing.”

“He taught me to be fair and honest and do the best you can,” Eddie said.

J.E. can’t recall exactly when farming started to get stressful. “There came a time in my life, it seemed like the Lord had turned his back on me. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t get an answer. Used to, I’d worry if it didn’t rain the day I wanted it to. If it rained too much, I worried about that.

“That’s when it happened. I came to a place in my life when I told the Lord, ‘the crop is yours, I’m yours, and if you want me to make it, we’ll make it and I’ll just do the best I can with what I got. I’ll leave the worrying up to you.’ Complete surrender. Of course, that’s what He was wanting all along.”

A burden was lifted. J.E. had hired — if you will — his second crop consultant.

Liberty Baptist Church is an old-fashioned country church in Payneway, built on land donated by J.E. in 1978. Its congregation is small in number, but it just might have the biggest collective heart of any church around. The church sponsors 20 foreign missionaries.

J.E. and Loudene support nine missionaries themselves in Russia, Alaska, Mexico, Canada, Brazil and the Philippines, to name a few. “My wife is a godly woman,” J.E. said. “She’d give away anything. Somebody would be picking up cans along the road. She’d stop and talk with them, give them whatever she’s got in her pocket.

“She has Alzheimer’s disease, now. People have asked me if I question God because of that. I say no. It’s a way of life. I’ve had her nearly 63 years. I need his grace and his strength to keep carrying on.”

In addition to supporting the missionaries, J.E. has tithed as much as 40 percent of his farm income to the church. Asked why he didn’t spend the money on a new truck or a vacation, he said of the latter, “I didn’t know how to spell that word, much less take one.”

Besides, the giving comes back each spring, when his second crop consultant performs an annual miracle. “You take a grain of corn, plant it in the ground. The moisture and temperature is right and up comes your stalk and you get two big ears. Look at the increase you got from that one grain of corn. That’s the way it is with God’s blessings. You can’t out give the Lord.”

“You don’t find too many people like J.E. today,” said J.E.’s pastor, Ed Fiszer. “He has a deep-rooted kindness that reaches out to people and is exhibited with a smile and a calm and composing demeanor. I call it the spirit. That’s what makes him so special. He’s such a loving person. He cares about people. He’d give you the shirt off his back to help you.”

J.E. has seven grandchildren, Jamie, Stephen, James Elton, Shelton, Justin, all Wrays, and Rebecca Wray Smith, and Ashley Ferris. He also has two great grandsons, Cameron Wray and Gabe Smith, and one great granddaughter, Emma Grace Wray.


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