Changes in the way Mississippi Delta farmers plant, manage, harvest, and market their crops has undergone a technological evolution during the 75 years that Delta Farm Press has been providing information to help them adapt to that new technology, as well as to an altered demographic in rural communities.
“The evolution of farming and the beginning of Delta Farm Press are comparable to the change from the first flight in 1903 to putting a man on the moon in 1968,” says Rodney Garrison, one of seven Mississippi farmers who gathered recently at Farm Press headquarters at Clarksdale, Miss.
Garrison, along with Coleman Allen, Jr., Harry Flowers, Charlie Craig, Richard Noe, Jim Humber III, and Tommy Allen, spent several hours around a Farm Press conference table reminiscing about the changes they’ve seen in agriculture and the rural landscape during their careers.
Time in farming among the seven “experienced” farmers ranges from 38 years to 55 years, a period that has included historic changes in mechanization, crop protection chemistry — and the costs required to make a crop.
All seven say that cotton is the crop that has provided the most consistent opportunity over the last five decades. “Cotton was the only thing we had, back then,” Flowers says. “We had an allotment, and some farmers would plant a little more and plow up the bad spots.”
1,000 WORKING MULES
A few remember farming with mules, and hand-picking cotton, before mechanization streamlined production. Flowers recalls that their operation at one time included 1,000 working mules.
It was a far-ranging conversation that included memories of rural health systems, back when some small towns had two or three doctors. “And they made house calls,” says Craig. “Now, you don’t even see a doctor — just a physician’s assistant. Many small towns no longer have a doctor at all.”
They talked about labor, the change from a sharecrop, tenant farmer system to mechanized agriculture that requires less, but better trained, labor. Coleman Allen showed a framed lease agreement from 1932 that spelled out precisely the obligations of landowner and sharecrop farmer. Tommy Allen pulled out a commissary product list, on which the proprietor kept records of purchases and payments.
They recalled those commissaries as general stores where sharecroppers could buy household goods, groceries, and seed on credit until the crop came in. They remember traveling stores — vans (panel trucks) packed with a hodgepodge of merchandise, including canned foods and other non-perishable items, as well as household necessities and candy. The traveling mercantile truck went through rural communities on a regular schedule.
BIGGEST CHANGE: HIGH COSTS
Most of the veteran farmers cited increased production costs and the disparity between the expense of putting in a crop and the prices received as one of the most difficult changes they’ve seen.
“Cost is the biggest change,” says Noe, who has farmed for 55 years. When he started farming, a producer could lose a crop occasionally and recover, he says, “but today, you can’t afford to lose a crop.”
Humber, who has 46 crops to his credit, agrees: “The biggest change I’ve seen is the increase in expenses and the narrow profit margin. It used to be that if you made 1,250 pounds per acre, you made big money. Now, that’s a losing proposition.”
Machinery requirements were minimal. “We picked cotton by hand,” Garrison says. “You need a lot of acreage now to pay for an $800,000 picker.”
Seed costs account for a big part of that initial outlay. Years ago, Flowers says, when seed was much less expensive, farmers would plant a lot of seed per acre and then chop it to thin the stand.
“We saved seed,” Humber says. “We had it delinted and planted it. Seed cleaners came to the farm to delint cottonseed.”
However, with today’s higher costs comes increased efficiency. The seven farmers have witnessed the mechanization of cotton farming — moving from mule-driven implements and hand-picked cotton to on-board module building cotton harvesters, chemical weed control, GPS guidance systems, insect resistant varieties, and improved communication across the agricultural industry.
They recall first seeing mechanical harvesters around 1942. Coleman Allen brought a photo of an early tractor-drawn picker.
Humber remembers his first cotton crop, a two-and-half acre patch his father allotted him to work and earn money. “I wanted to buy a saddle,” he says. “I had to do everything by hand — chop it and pick it. When I got through, I wasn’t sure the saddle was worth all that work.”
He also recalls an early 422 cotton picker. “I prayed that it would catch on fire, and vowed that if it did I’d make everyone get away from it and just let it burn. It did catch on fire, but I put it out.”
Coleman Allen has seen equipment go from “tricycle-style tractors to today’s ‘Cadillac” machines with air conditioned cabs, and an array of sophisticated technology, including GPS, yield monitors, and internet.”
“I remember going from M tractors to two or three larger ones,” Craig says. Flowers says the switch from four-row to six-row cultivators seemed like a big change, but is relatively small compared to the width of some implements in fields today.
With four- and six-row equipment, Craig says, “if you made a mistake it was a small one, but with these larger implements, we can screw up a lot more.” Modules made a big difference in harvest efficiency, he says “They did away with cotton trailers,” made transporting cotton to the gin a little more efficient, “and the roads a lot safer.”
“We eliminated a lot of trailers with module builders,” Garrison says. Most farmers in the area have gone to round bale harvesters, but “we still see a few conventional pickers.”
Gins were near the farms, often within a mile or two, and many Delta farms had their own gins. With the advent of module builders, and now round bales, transportation to more distant gins is not as much an issue — a necessary change since most of those small or farm-based gins no longer exist.
The seven say ginners are getting harder to find. “We don’t have a lot of ginners around,” Flowers says.
All remember driving tractors without cabs. “Even in the ‘70s, we had a lot of combines without cabs,” Coleman Allen recalls. “Some of us built cabs ourselves, sometimes out of plywood.”
HERBICIDES A GAME CHANGER
All remember the need for chopping cotton, hiring busloads of eager workers for $2.50 a day. Herbicides have eliminated most of that chore. “I remember when Treflan came out, and how it helped with grass and pigweed control,” Craig says.
Early adopters of herbicides may have felt some trepidation, says Flowers. “We were almost in a panic to put it out.” Calibration and concerns about leaving hired help to apply herbicides was worrisome. “We weren’t sure if it would kill all the cotton. Some cotton did get killed.”
Coleman Allen remembers “stirring chemicals by hand,” unaware of any safety hazards. He also remembers seeing eagle nests around Dundee, Miss. “And then there were none.” He suspects DDT had a role in the birds’ disappearance. “But now they are back.”
Farmers had a learning curve for herbicide application. Garrison recalls applying too much of a pre-emergence material and “killing the seed.” Tommy Allen remembers “opening up a hopper box with Temik and it about knocked me down.” And “we had to calibrate everything,” says Humber.
The industry witnessed a major change with the release of Roundup and then Roundup Ready crops. “Since Roundup,” Humber says, “we have not seen a lot of interest in developing new products — and we need them.”
The expense and time required to develop and register a new product hampers manufacturers from making the investment, they agree.
CHANGING RURAL COMMUNITIES
All the farmers have watched as the rural landscape has changed. Sharecropping and tenant farming — an established rural institution well into the 1970s — underwent an evolution as mechanization and herbicides replaced labor.
“Old NRCS (Soil Conservation Service, back in the day) maps from the late ‘50s show all the tenant houses,” Coleman Allen says. “We had 25 on our place.” It was usual, Flowers says, to see one tenant farm on every 20 acres.
Most farms had several families living on the property, Noe says, and “the old home places were named after the tenants. A lot of those old farmsteads may still be known by the names of the family who lived there.”
Flowers says, “I go to those old home sites to look for marbles,” while Humber says, “I used to crawl under those old houses to get early day Coca-Cola bottles.”
Coleman Allen remembers that most small towns had bells that were rung for special occasions. “They tolled when someone died, and if it tolled at night, you knew a building was on fire.”
Many of those small towns have almost dried up as the farm economy changed and support industries consolidated. “We used to have four Chinese grocery stores in Lula,” says Coleman Allen. “None are there now.”
Most rural communities also had their own schools, one white, one black.
“And next to every school would be a church,” Tommy Allen says. Coleman Allen recalls his mother insisting that the county provide heating for the black school, and wouldn’t accept the excuse that it was too expensive.
Electricity changed rural life, Tommy Allen says. President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration by executive order in 1936, but the program didn’t get into some rural areas until much later.
All seven farmers remember electricity getting into Mississippi Delta farming communities in the 1950s. “With the coming of the REA, we witnessed the passing of an era,” Coleman Allen says. “Tenant houses would be wired with one light cord suspended from the ceiling, and maybe one wall outlet.”
Railroads were another important aspect of rural life, Humber says. “Trains brought in coal — back then, we used coal for almost everything.” Garrison remembers that “they unloaded all that coal with shovels.” Humber remembers, “the last day the train came through our town, back in the 1950s.”
The train used to come by twice a day, Flowers recalls, and the conductor would stand at the back of the caboose and toss out a pack of gum every time it came by. “Imagine the rush by a bunch of kids to get that pack of gum.”
MACHINERY REPLACES MANPOWER
Labor in agriculture has changed from an era of dependence on many hired hands to plow, plant, hoe, and harvest a crop, to one in which sophisticated machinery requires fewer but more skilled workers.
The tenant farm system provided a lot of the labor needed in earlier days, and contractors gathered up labor to chop cotton. “A lot of help was available,” Humber says.
Coleman Allen remembers gin workers operating the vacuum hose to pull cotton out of the wagons. “There was an art to it — it seemed like they just danced it along.”
“I never had a problem finding labor,” Flowers said. “I never had to go look for it.” Some of his current employees have been with him for 30 years. “A symbiotic relationship has always existed between labor and farmers,” Craig says. “Farmers need labor and the laborer needs the work.”
RELYING ON DELTA FARM PRESS
All seven of the farmers say they evolved with the help of the Delta Farm Press. “It helped us a lot,” Flowers says. As new products and new techniques came out, “Delta Farm Press articles told us about them.”
“I’ve relied on it for as long as I’ve been farming,” Humber says. “It gave us application rates. It always gives us local information. And anyone who is just a little smart could take the Delta Agricultural Digest and farm with it.”
“We can get a lot of information in one place,” says Craig. Delta Farm Press, Garrison says, “has grown from a small, local publication into a nationwide, highly respected agricultural magazine.” Noe adds: “It has helped me keep up with the changes in farming.”
All agree that farming today requires technology that is light years distant from the equipment and production methods they started with, but with large investments and uncertain markets, stress is also greater. “Farming today is not harder or easier,” says Craig. “It’s just different.”
With land prices near $5,000 an acre, and the large investment required for equipment, to get started in farming today, without a relative to help with land and equipment, is almost impossible, they say.
“It’s hard to find anyone who started from scratch,” Craig says. “I know one farmer who did it. He had an off-farm job, started farming a few acres at a time, and worked his way up. He put his money back into the farm.”
All seven of the farmers started doing farm chores before their 10th birthdays, and remember going to the fields to chop cotton or drive mule-drawn wagons while field hands gathered corn. They recall long hours — “daylight to dusk, six days a week,” says Flowers.
They remember hired workers who were as committed as land owners to doing a job right. “I remember one in particular,” Craig says. “He lived in a shotgun house, and kept a 55-gallon drum of drinking water on his porch. I didn’t realize until later just how hard he worked.”
Farming has changed dramatically during the more than five decades some of these farmers have been working the land, but a farm still demands long hours, attention to the many details required to make a crop, and a commitment to continue the evolution as new products, new systems, and new technology become available.
“We’ve seen agriculture evolve,” Garrison says, “from hard, manual labor to today’s mechanized and computerized methods.”
All agree they would not have chosen any other profession for their life’s work.