This time 37 years ago I was trying to find my way through a new country — the vastness of the Southeast, stretching from the sandy soils of the Florida Panhandle to the rich earth of the Delmarva Peninsula, from the Coastal Plains of South Carolina to the Blacklands of Western Alabama, with occasional forays into the hills of Kentucky and frequent jaunts into south Georgia.
I was a newbie associate editor for Southeast Farm Press, green as the verdant kudzu that covered just about any untended plot of red dirt. For those of you unschooled in the science of kudzu, it is green and untamed.
To say I was clueless through most of the summer of 1978 is to stretch the definition. Deadlines were weekly, and travel was, if not required, at least strongly suggested — which, to an impressionable youth, was the same thing.
I attended weed tours, which I didn’t know existed until my first week on the job and found myself caught in the midst of one somewhere near Lexington, Ky. I didn’t know the difference between a pre-emergence herbicide and shampoo, but was relieved to find weed scientists willing to explain what I needed to know.
The following week, I was stirring up dust in a peanut field near Eufaula, Ala., with no idea where I’d spend the night until I did a quick in-field interview with Dr. Gale Buchanan, a weed specialist at Auburn University. He kindly told me what I needed to know about managing weeds in peanut fields — and where I could find a decent hotel in south Alabama.
I interviewed Dr. Buchanan dozens of times in later years, even after he ascended to key agriculture leadership positions at Auburn, and as dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia (among other academic positions). He also served as Under Secretary for Research at USDA.
I still consider him a friend and an important part of a career that continues to bring me in contact with scientists, administrators, and, most important, farmers who agree to spend a bit of time to enlighten me, educate me, and on occasion, straighten me out.
I’ve learned a lot about production agriculture since 1978 — not enough, but a lot. And every time I think I’ve mastered some aspect of crop technology, innovations occur, the learning curve begins its inevitable arc, and up I go, chasing an elusive objective that I’ll never completely understand, but continue to delight in the pursuit of.
Breakthroughs that occurred in the late 1970s were replaced by breakthroughs of the late 1980s, which became obsolete in the next decade. I remember the first interview I did on global positioning system agriculture. A Georgia farmer was experimenting with it, but he, and I, thought it might be a tad too expensive for widespread use. We both were proven wrong.
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But it’s the farmers I remember best. The Dunn family near Tifton, Ga., treated me to a hog roast one cold wintry day some 33 or 34 years ago. Fresh-cooked pork between slices of white bread, washed down with a cold RC Cola, remains one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten.
And there was the cotton and peanut farmer in south Alabama who desperately needed rain. I told him I needed to finish the interview and shoot some crop pictures, but after that it would be okay for rain. An hour after I left, he wrote me a week later, he got a good soaking rain and promised me a steak dinner next time I was in the area. I never collected, but that was my fault, not his. He would have been good for it.
I won’t name all my farmer friends. The list would fill an issue, and alas, I’ve forgotten too many names. But I will mention some relative newcomers, like Danny Davis at Elk City, Okla.; Barry Evans, at Kress, Texas; the Wilde family down at San Angelo; and Anthony Reed, Thackerville, Okla., one of my most recent interviews, whose enthusiasm reminds me why I enjoy this work so much.
In the next 37 years I hope to continue to explore more country — from the windswept plains of West Texas, to the rolling hills of central Oklahoma, down to the semi-tropic Lower Rio Grande Valley, to the Piney Woods of East Texas, and northward to the dark earth of Southeast Oklahoma.
Well, maybe not 37 more years. But at least a few more. The first 37 went by so quickly.