From the cab of her tractor, Brandy Cherry watches as her dad, Ricky Essary shells corn on their west Tennessee farm. Soon he’ll be ready for her to drive the grain cart alongside his combine so he can unload without stopping.
“We run two grain carts with one combine, and that lets us hold enough grain that the combine never stops,” Brandy said. “With only one combine we have to be really efficient.”
The Essary and Cherry families farm 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Milledgeville, Tennessee. They do it with one combine and four full-time employees: dad, Ricky, daughter and son-in-law, Brandy and Jason Cherry and son Kevin Essary.
Despite a slim workforce, Essary and Cherry Farms typically finish harvesting earlier than most thanks to good planning, variety selection and optimizing the efficiency of harvest equipment.
“To make it work, we’ve had to become good time managers,” Brandy said, “and we have to maximize productivity where we can.”
Essary and Cherry Farms is truly a family operation. In the late 1980s, Ricky and his wife, Brenda, transitioned from hog farming to exclusive row crop production on about 1,500 acres. It wasn’t much later that a boy from down the road started dating their oldest daughter. When future son-in-law, Jason, joined the farm in the mid 1990s, they picked up more ground.
The operation continued to grow when Kevin graduated and came on board in 2003. And soon, Brandy returned to the farm full time after spending several years teaching at the local middle school.
“We’ve still been growing every year, but we’re at a point where we can’t grow a lot more without adding more equipment and more people,” Brandy said.
Added Kevin, “It’s not always better to get bigger. Sometimes you need to do better with what you’ve got. We’ve found you can increase productivity by doing a better job of managing what you have.”
Begin with end in mind
The key to an efficient harvest begins in the spring. Essary and Cherry Farms plants anywhere from one-third to one-half of their soybean acres in Group 3 varieties, according to Brandy.
While the majority of Tennessee soybean acres are planted in Group 4 varieties, Jason said for many years his family has leaned on the earlier maturing Group 3s to expedite harvest.
“If we can get those early maturing soybeans planted on time, we can start cutting beans in August,” Jason said. “One day harvesting in August or September is equivalent to two days in October or three in November as far as daylight hours. By planting Group 3s and desiccating, we can take advantage of those long August days and finish our harvest in a timely manner.”
As more Mid-South producers plant earlier maturing soybeans, and more soybeans are available in August, Brandy says her family is not seeing the premium prices they once did when they were one of the few farms in their area harvesting that early. However, they still find the early maturity groups to be beneficial to their operation.
“We could not harvest 4,000 acres with one combine without planting Group 3 beans,” Brandy said. “We would probably still be in the field when Santa flew over. As it is, most years we’re finished harvesting around Halloween.”
Keep the combine moving
On a typical day in harvest season, the goals of the two families is to keep the combine moving. That could mean shelling corn in the morning until the soybeans dry down, then changing headers and switching crops.
“Instead of finishing the corn and then moving to soybeans, we don’t mind going back and forth between the two,” said Jason Cherry. “That prevents a lot of waiting and allows us to fully utilize the time we have.”
Everyone has their role. Kevin and Jason do all the grain hauling. Brandy and a part-time seasonal worker drive the grain carts. Ricky runs the combine.
“I’ve heard him make the comment he couldn’t do anything else, but I think he just doesn’t want anyone else driving it,” Brandy joked. “But he’s been doing this his whole life, and he’s really efficient at it and the logistics of it. He’s really good at working out where we need to unload and not getting in a corner and getting full.”
“The extra grain cart is another way to ensure the combine never stops,” Brandy said. “Especially with corn, because it comes in so much faster, we would have to stop and take that corn to the bin. With two grain carts, the trucks have time to go where they need to go and get back.”
Beyond the farm
The old saying goes, “If you want something to be done, ask a busy person to do it.” It’s hard to find someone busier than a farmer in the fall, and the Essarys and Cherrys are no exception. However, that doesn’t stop them from logging serious hours of service to their community.
Jason serves on numerous agricultural committees, including the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board. Kevin is a city alderman in Milledgeville. Ricky is on a local soil conservation board. Both are volunteer firefighters. Brandy is PTO president at her daughter’s middle school. Jason and Brandy are active in church.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s really hard. We have a lot of help from family,” Brandy said, “but as people of faith, we feel we are called to serve, and we try to do what we can.”
There’s also the added responsibility of being young parents to kids with their own schedules. Brandy and Jason are parents to two daughters. Kevin and his wife, Megan, have two sons. This time of year, if they’re not in the field, they’re at a school meeting, or a ball game, or for Jason and Brandy, helping their daughters pursue their new passion of showing cattle. (Jason owns 75 Herefords with his father.)
How do they do it all? There’s no easy answer. Just hard work and good planning.
“I guess we use those time management skills that we put to use on the farm.”