Ron Smith Kim Cutchins, APRES
Ron Smith addresses the APRES annual conference in Albuquerque.

Reflections on 39 years as a farm writer

I am thankful that I have been part of the process of chronicling the progress and recording the effects that new technology, changing policy, applied and basic research, and altered markets have had on farmers, ranchers and the fortunate consumers who depend on them.

Editor's note. I was honored to be invited to speak at the 49th annual annual meeting of the American Peanut Research and Education Conference, held July 12, 2017 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Below is the text from that presentation.

 

As luck would have it: reflections on 39 years as an accidental farm writer

 June 19, 1978, was my first day with Farm Press Publications.

In 1978, the average yield for peanuts in the United States was 2,639 pounds per acre. In 2016, the average yield for peanuts in the United States was 3,675 pounds per acre. During the 39 years that I have been writing about peanuts and other Sunbelt crops, average yield for peanuts has increased by more than 1,000 pounds per acre. Some people might consider that a coincidence. I don’t know. I just report facts.

And it was all an accident. During my formative years—high school and college—the possibility of a career in agricultural journalism never entered my head. I did not know such an occupation existed.

I really wanted to be a football coach.

I enjoyed a brief and uninspiring career as a bank teller shortly after returning home from basic training as an Army Reservist. That was followed by a short stint as a weekly newspaper reporter where I learned how to get by on meager paychecks.

I went back to school, earned a Master’s degree in English from Clemson University, thinking I’d become a professor in some backwater junior college and encourage inquiring minds to appreciate the beauty of Elizabethan literature and the power of a well written sentence. Job offers were not forthcoming.

But, as luck would have it, a friend from graduate school told me about a one-year job as Experiment Station editor at Clemson. Not exactly a promising opportunity to build a career on. But I needed a job, knowing full well that after one year the employee on sabbatical would return demanding her job back.

I put together a portfolio of my best work, such as it was, in what I  now realize must have been the gaudiest red photo album available, secured an interview and, AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, I got the job.

The editor on leave did return a year later, and did expect to get her job back. But another position—as Extension editor—opened up and I moved my desk from one side of the office to the other and my accidental career as an agricultural journalist was well and truly on its way. I have never regretted it and am more grateful than I can say for that helpful tip about a possible job opportunity.

A year later I was recruited by Farm Press Publications, signed on as associate editor in the Southeast working out of Atlanta, and here I am today, 39 years later, knowing that I could not have spent my time on anything more fulfilling than being a farm writer.

FORTUITOUS ACCIDENT

The accident of my career could not have been more fortuitous.

I am neither arrogant enough nor naïve enough to assume that anything I have done over the past four decades has contributed to the amazing advancements I’ve witnessed in agricultural production. I am certainly not responsible for the significant increase in peanut yields I mentioned earlier. You are.

But I am thankful that I have been part of the process of chronicling the progress and recording the effects that new technology, changing policy, applied and basic research, and altered markets have had on farmers, ranchers and the fortunate consumers who depend on them.

I was not raised on a farm. My dad worked in cotton mills all his life, managed to send five kids to college on what cotton mills paid hourly labor in the 1960s. He cosigned loans, encouraged us, and he and my mother made whatever sacrifices they had to make so that we could all get a decent education.

Dad even gave me a job a time or two—in the cotton mill, when I got dispirited about studying and talked about dropping out. After a summer sweating in the dye house of a cotton mill, I couldn’t get back to the classroom fast enough.

I did grow up around farmers. Both sets of grandparents farmed. Mom and Dad picked cotton when they were growing up. Granddaddy Smith could grow tomatoes on concrete. Granddaddy Griffith farmed and did blacksmith work.

One of my first memories about agriculture was Granddaddy Griffith’s riding plow, a horse-drawn cultivator he used to plow out his corn. He had a Case tractor he used occasionally, but he preferred working his two red horses. I would follow him to the field and sit at the end of the row in the shade just to watch. He tried to teach me how to guide the plow a time or two, but I never caught on. I think he took the reins back shortly after I plowed up a few yards of young corn.

I did learn a few colorful expressions when his horse veered off track or raised his tail and relieved himself at an inappropriate time.

A HARD LIFE

It was a hard life—trying to make a living on just a few acres of land just after the war. When we were going through some of my mother’s things shortly after her death a few years ago, I came across a clipping from the county newspaper. It was from 1948, the year before I was born. A hail storm hit the county and destroyed hundreds of acres of cropland. The reporter interviewed my granddad who lost more than half his corn crop and most of his cotton. I know he had a hard time recovering from that loss.

That my mother kept that clipping for more than 65 years indicates how big an impact that hail storm had on my grandad’s livelihood. I’ve seen and written about many similar calamities. The capricious nature of weather has always and continues to play havoc with hopes and dreams. Weather is the most important factor in crop production—and the one farmers have the least control over.

I’m sure that my grandfathers’ experiences trying to make a living on less than ideal farmland and limited acreage has something to do with the reverence I feel for the farmers I’ve met over the past 40 years. They were both good men, hard- working, and they loved their land. I’ve witnessed that same sentiment countless times over these past four decades—on farmsteads not much bigger than the ones my grandfathers worked, and on farms stretching across several counties and covering thousands of acres. It’s in the DNA of a farmer.

It’s a cliché, but a solid fact, that agriculture has changed tremendously since I was a boy. I remember the first cotton picker I ever saw, working through a small field beside the county road my school bus traveled every day. I remember my mom and dad expressing some concern that the machine left too much cotton in the field. That much waste would not have been tolerated when they were dragging their picker sacks through those dusty South Carolina fields. They would be amazed at the on-board module builders that harvest cotton today. They would be alarmed at the price tag.

Mom and dad told me stories of using mops to slather an insecticide onto cotton plants in a mostly futile attempt to kill boll weevils. The weevil drove cotton acreage down across much of the Southeast. Neither of my grandfathers was growing cotton by the time I was old enough to know what cotton was.

BOLL WEEVILS

While I was working at Clemson, I wrote several stories on a new pest management effort beginning as a pilot program in the Southeast corner of Virginia and the Northeast corner of North Carolina. It was the first test of what became a massive and hugely successful attempt to rid the South’s cotton fields of the worst scourge ever to test a farmer’s religion. From that small and inauspicious beginning, through more ups and downs than you’ll encounter on a Carolina dirt road, the Boll Weevil Eradication Program made its way through the Carolinas, down into Georgia and Florida, west into Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and into every cotton producing county in the United States. Only a small pocket of the little monsters remains in Deep South Texas.

I was fortunate to be able to follow that program from the Southeast, where I worked for Farm Press for about 20 years, and into the Southwest, where I have spent the last 18 years and still counting. Every new state offered new challenges, new objections, new court fights, and, after about two years, acceptance and better yields since they were no longer sacrificing several hundred pounds per acre to the weevil.

Cotton acreage had diminished significantly in the Deep South until the boll weevil was reined in. A lot of farmers had turned to another option as their main cash crop—peanuts. Peanuts became the crop of choice for many Southeast farmers. The citizens of Enterprise, Alabama, even erected a monument in honor of the boll weevil, a tribute for forcing farmers not to rely so heavily on cotton.

When I first started writing about peanuts, a quota system was still in place and farmers could count on a profitable price for the crop. That system began to change in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as Congress, in its infinite wisdom, began chipping away at the farm program, a nip here, a tuck there, and today the quota system is gone, and it took a lot of hard work by a lot of peanut growers and their representatives to get peanuts covered through the PLC program in the last farm bill debate. The struggle to maintain a viable safety net for all commodities continues.

FAVORITE CROPS

Peanuts and cotton have always been my favorite crops. They work well together for rotation. And they both require timely management, which means a lot of opportunities for story ideas. Taking an extended summer vacation was never a great idea for farmers with a cotton or peanut crop in the field—threatened by weather, all manner of insects and diseases, overnight flushes of weeds that would be near impossible to manage after a week away from the farm.

Of course, pest control is a bit more certain than it used to be. I remember on cotton tours back in the early ‘80s talking to farmers about insect control. Many were spraying newly developed synthetic pyrethroid insecticides a dozen times or more for weevils, bollworms, or plant bugs and still losing a good portion of the crop.

Peanut farmers were following a strict spray schedule to manage disease pressure—many still do, but it’s more efficient. A two-week interval shortened to ten days as the season moved along, and as the humidity common in the Southeast created an ideal climate for leafspot, pod rot and other diseases that I still don’t know how to pronounce.

I’ve witnessed the advent of integrated pest management, conservation tillage, genetic engineering, improvements in pesticides that allow applications of milligrams per acre instead of pounds. Pesticides now are more species specific, which preserves beneficial insects.

Improved peanut varieties now include disease resistance, pest tolerance and dramatically improved yield potential. Food quality is better, too. High oleic peanut varieties are common—dominant in many parts of the peanut belt. Sadly, price has not kept pace with all these improvements.

More crop acres are under irrigation. In the Southwest, peanuts are irrigated. Water is typically the key cost factor for Southwest peanut farmers.

Machinery costs are significantly higher than they were 40 years ago. But efficiency is much improved.

STILL GET LOST

Global positioning agriculture now guides most every piece of farm equipment in the field. It also guides me. I have to admit that I have been lost in more Sunbelt counties than I can name, have found myself driving down remote dirt roads that seemed to get  more narrow and less navigable with every mile.

So several years ago my wife bought me a Garmin. I thought it was a particularly romantic gesture—assurance that she always wants me to find my way back home. More likely, she figured out that I had more fishing stuff than any one man really needs and thought a Garmin would be more useful than a tie. The only downside is that getting lost always provided me with good material for my columns. Admitting that I could get lost in a town that had the you are entering and you are leaving signs mounted on the same pole made for some interesting self-appraisal.

Miss Garmin, fortunately, is not perfect and I still find myself—or lose myself—on backroads and small towns and in the concrete valleys and chasms of Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. I’ve even been temporarily misplaced in Apache, Oklahoma.

When not lost, my job always was and continues to be a fascinating drive through farm country to observe and write about the innovations that have changed agriculture since my first interviews with Clemson University ag scientists.

On my first day on the job as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press—June 19, 1978, I flew from Atlanta, Ga., to Lexington, Ky., to cover a weed tour. The following week I was trudging across a peanut field near Eufaula, Ala., chatting with Gale Buchanan about sicklepod and beggarweed control.

MANY MILES AND BAD BEDS

I can’t imagine how many peanut, cotton, corn, sorghum, and wheat fields I’ve walked through in the last 39 years.

I can’t imagine how many bad beds in cheap hotels I’ve tried to sleep in or how many bouts of indigestion I’ve contracted from too much fried food. I’ve swallowed enough Tums to supply a fairly large peanut field with a season’s worth of calcium.

I do recall waking up in the middle of the night in a hotel near Savannah, Georgia, to the spine-chilling realization that I had a cockroach on my ear. I did not sleep well for the rest of the night.

I’ve been rained out, snowed in, and caught in dust storms that made it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of me.

I’ve been stranded in airports, stuck in traffic, and befuddled by writer’s block.

And I would not trade any of it for any other career I can think of.

The incredible advances in pest control have been fascinating to write about. The innovations in tillage and conservation have impressed upon me that preserving natural resources is in the DNA of farmers.

The modernization of farm equipment—from that riding cultivator that my granddad used—to self-guided tractors that follow the same rows year after year, and harvesters that measure yield and build modules on the fly.

I’ve witnessed an evolution from giddy up to GPS.

From long hours walking fields to check on weeds, diseases and insect pest infestations to unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—that fly over and record field conditions in  a fraction of the time, ag technology in the past four decades has surpassed anything I could have imagined the day I started work for either Clemson University or Farm Press. It has been 40 years of incredible advances in agricultural science and technology that continues to provide ample food at affordable prices to consumers in this country and around the world.

I have been privileged to be able to document many of those advances.

But the thing I will remember about my job, long after I retire—if I ever do—will be the people. I have met men and women who touched my heart in ways too profound to explain. I have interviewed farmers and ranchers who personify what the term “salt of the earth” means. I have gotten so close to many farm families that we seem to be related, and I look forward to seeing them when I’m near their farms or at annual meetings. I’ve witnessed courage, kindness and perseverance that defy description—even to someone who has been trying to describe it for four decades.

If you will indulge me, I want to mention a few, knowing that I will leave out some because we simply don’t have enough time today or  this week, for me to talk about the hundreds of folks who have made my job a labor of love.

IT’S THE PEOPLE

The first is not a farmer. Her name was Rosemary, and I can’t even remember her last name. But she is the grad school friend who suggested I get in touch with someone at the Clemson University public relations department. I owe her more than I can every repay.

The next is Dot Yandle, the Clemson University Extension editor who entrusted me with her job while she accompanied her husband, an economics professor, to Washington DC for a year. He crunched some numbers for someone in the Gerald Ford Administration, if I remember correctly. Dot came back and we became officemates and friends. We kept in touch for a few years, but she retired, I moved to Georgia, Kansas and Texas, and we lost touch.

The next two you know well. Frank McGill and Ron Henning were working in Tifton, Georgia, as state peanut specialists when I started as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press. They taught me a lot about peanuts. They were more than patient with a green reporter who had little understanding of what it took to raise peanuts. And they instructed without ever making me feel stupid—even when I was.

They also showed me what it means to live your religion. I don’t know that I have ever met two finer human beings. Ron told me several years ago, after he had retired—sorta retired—from peanut work and had become a minister, that he had decided to do God’s work for a while. Well, Ron Henning has been doing God’s work for as long as I’ve known him. The same holds true for Frank McGill.

Tom Ingram is a cotton and peanut farmer in Lee County, Ala. He is the first cotton farmer I interviewed about no-till cotton production. He switched to no-till cotton in 1984. He later used the same technique with peanuts and says the system works well. The last time I spoke with him he said he has not plowed those cotton fields since 1984.

Tom is also a genuine American hero. He is a WWII veteran, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, recipient of a Purple Heart and other medals for bravery, and a patriot of unimpeachable character. I am a better man for knowing him.

Bill Mayfield, a retired ag engineer from Auburn University who now lives near Memphis, Tennessee, introduced me to my wife. I met Bill at a peanut field day somewhere in south Alabama in the first year I was working for Southeast Farm Press. He had a neighbor and friend, a single mom with a five-year old daughter. He thought we might get along, so he set us up on a blind date, which didn’t go all that well, according to Pat. I, however, was smitten, and began writing to her. I write pretty good letters. We met in February, 1980. We will celebrate our 37th anniversary Oct. 3. Never underestimate the power of the pen.

Ed White, Alabama peanut farmer and a longtime leader in the state and national associations, endured one or more of my probing interviews many years ago. I always look forward to seeing Ed and his wife at peanut meetings. He always has a sound perspective on what’s going on in peanuts and has always expressed appreciation for what we in the ag press try to do.

Tyron Spearman, when he was with the Georgia Peanut Commission, somehow got me inside a Congressional farm bill markup session—at the Capitol. They were discussing possible changes in the peanut program. Tyron didn’t tell anyone that I was a journalist and swore me to secrecy. I didn’t take notes or shoot pictures. I really wanted to. It was an eye-opening opportunity to see how laws are made.

The late Roger Dunn and his sons farmed a few miles outside of Tifton and raised just about everything you can legally grow in Georgia. I visited their farm numerous times in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If I wanted to do a story on corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts, tobacco, cattle, or hogs, I could talk to Roger or one of the boys.

I stopped by their farm one cold day in early spring and found them rained out of the field. They put the break to good use, killed a hog, spitted it and had it roasting over hot hickory coals when I showed up. We sat around all afternoon slicing slabs of pork off the roasting pig, slapping it between two pieces of white bread and washing it down with RC Colas. I don’t remember what kind of story I got that day, but I’m sure it was a good one.

Jimbo Grissom was one of the first, if not the first, peanut farmer I interviewed just after I moved to Texas in 1999. Gaines County was celebrating the annual Agricultural and Oil Appreciation Day, which included a tour and then a golf outing. I’m not a golfer, so Robbie Blount lined up a private tour guide for me—Jimbo. He took me around his farm, his drying facilities, talked about his grid sampling plots, showed me his and Shelia’s horses and then drove me back to the County Park for barbecue. It was a good day and I have interviewed and just visited with Jimbo and Shelia several times since then. I consider them good friends.

Doc and Danny Davis grew cotton near Elk City, Oklahoma, and were pioneers of no-till production. I visited their farm several times and interviewed Danny for numerous stories when I would see him at Beltwide or other cotton meetings. Doc passed away several years ago and Danny died way too young last fall. I considered Danny much more than a source. He was a close friend and I loved him, his dad and his mom, Margie, like family. I miss him.

Dale Swinburn is a gentleman. I met Dale at a conservation tillage meeting, got his phone number and made arrangements to visit him for a story, probably 15 years ago. While driving around cotton country near Tulia, Texas, I discovered that we shared a love of books, and for years we have exchanged ideas about what we have read and what we would recommend, and occasionally swap books. He’s sent me more than I’ve sent him. Dale is generous and kind, a good businessman and a good farmer. I consider him a dear friend.

Elmo Snelling is the oldest farmer I have ever interviewed. He was 98 when I wrote his story, three years ago, I think. At 98 he still maintained a passion to farm and a desire to make as much cotton per acre as he could coax out of his High Plains farmland. He exuded energy. Last I heard, he’s still farming. The last thing I asked him in early spring, three years ago, was, “Are you going to make another cotton crop this year?” He answered: “I’m gonna plant one.”

Jim Jones didn’t expect to be waylaid by a farm writer when he stopped by Remcor, Inc., Near Howe, Texas, on the day before his 86th birthday. He became an accidental interview. He told me about the farm’s history, back to just after the Civil War. He talked about changes he had seen in farm practices over the years, but then he talked about his wife, who was in late stages of Alzheimer’s. He told me that he usually carried her in this truck wherever he went and even built a handicap ramp to his deer stand so she could watch for deer.

He took the good with the bad, accepted whatever came to him. He asked me:

“What’s the name of the person from the Old Testament, the one who lay down with his head on the stone?”

“Was it Esau?” I asked, trying to recall Sunday school lessons from too many years back and quickly dismissed that guess as wrong. Almost simultaneously we looked at each other and said: “Jacob, Jacob’s ladder.”

Mr. Jones explained the reference: “When Jacob woke up, he said, ‘God has been in this place.’ That’s how I feel about my life. God has been in this place.”

I had to agree with him but also had to bite my lip and choke back a tear.

FEW HEROES

 I don’t have many people I consider heroes. Tom Ingram is one. My dad was one. And I am fortunate to have met a man I believe has earned that honor. I met Dr. Norman Borlaug just a few months before his death, and was honored to have just a few minutes to shake his hand, express the high regard in which I hold him, and ask him a question or two. I consider that encounter one of the highlights of my accidental career. He demonstrated throughout his career the value of agricultural research. He told me that relieving hunger and poverty would be a crucial part of moving the planet closer to world peace. I think he was right.

I could name others, many more who have touched my life in some way, taught me something about agriculture but more about life. I have rarely visited a farm that I didn’t leave with a new friend.

I count many of you in this room as valued colleagues and also friends. I’ve badgered many of you for quotes or photos or for ideas for stories. You’ve always accommodated.

ACCIDENT OR NOT?

In the last 40 years I’ve conducted interviews around kitchen tables, in the shade of giant oak trees, perched on the tailgates of pickup trucks, in the cabs of combines and cotton strippers. I’ve written about weeds and water, insects and irrigation, seeds and soil sampling. I’ve done stories on farm bills and fertility. Recently, I’ve written about technology, including GMOs, GPS, and drones. I’ve chronicled innovations in tillage and pest management. I’ve learned—but mostly forgotten—enough about agriculture to fill several books.

But primarily I’ve written about people—how they survive drought, hail storms, freezes and market collapse. I’ve done stories about disasters, such as the March wildfires that ravaged the Southern Plains. I’ve sometimes had to choke back tears to get through an interview. I can’t claim to be an unbiased reporter. In 40 years I’ve grown to care too much for the men and women I interview to be callous about what they endure. I’ve witnessed courage beyond imagining, patience beyond belief and faith beyond comprehension.

As luck would have it, I have spent going on 40 years doing something I love to do. Maybe I have an accidental career, but I can’t help but detect a bit of divine intervention in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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