Armed with a degree in history and love for sports, William McElveen set out early in life to teach and coach. Several decades later he's still at it — teaching and coaching, but no longer in school.
After a short but successful tenure as a high school history teacher and football coach in Bishopville, S.C., McElveen came to understand he was living the wrong professional dream.
With a John Deere 4010 tractor and a few acres of land, he began farming part time to supplement his meager teaching and coaching wages. From that humble beginning, his farming operation has grown to 600 acres of peanuts, 500 acres of cotton, 500 acres of corn, 500 acres of wheat and 1,000 acres of soybeans, some of which is double-cropped behind wheat.
McElveen is being honored this year as the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Upper Southeast States.
He farms with his son Will, who says his father never lost his knack for teaching people how to do things and his ability to coach them to do it right. “Everything I know about farming I learned from my father,” Will says.
The old coach tells the story a little differently. “If I've had any success in farming it's because I listen to people who know what they are doing, and I adapt what they tell me to my farming operation,” he says
“For example, I used to patch equipment up in the field and go back to work, usually stopping several times to get it fixed. When Will came back to the farm, he said, no, when a piece of equipment breaks down, let's take it back to the equipment shed and fix it right. Will was right and I was wrong and now we have less trouble with mechanical breakdowns,” the senior McElveen explains.
A key to his success has been his ability to find, train and most importantly keep good labor. “We have five people who work with us on the farm. They have all been with us a long time, they work hard, and know what they are doing,” he says.
What is evident, but what McElveen humbly doesn't say is his workers are well coached and well trained.
When he made the decision to give up his dream of being a football coach and teacher, McElveen had meager resources to put it mildly. In addition, his wife, Dianne, was pregnant with Will at the time. “Talk about risk in farming, he laughs, it's nothing new to me.”
Though the vast majority of peanut production in South Carolina is from growers who have been in the business for less than five years, McElveen is the exception, having grown peanuts for more than 25 years.
Profitability in peanuts is directly tied to timeliness. “When the experts say spray right now, you've got to be ready to go. However, they are looking at spraying small acres in test plots, and we are spraying big acres. We have 600 acres of peanuts, so it takes some time to do anything to all our acres of peanuts,” according to McElveen.
“The key is taking the information, for fungicide spraying, for example, and adapting the recommended spray schedule to your own operation. You have to be flexible and adapt information to what works best for your farm,” the veteran peanut grower says.
Case in point, on May 19 McElveen was trying desperately to finish planting peanuts. He started on May 6, exactly when Clemson Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin says plant, but weather didn't cooperate, spreading planting out over two weeks. On May 19, wind isn't usually a problem in South Carolina's Pee Dee Region, but on this day gusts of 20-25 miles per hour made spraying herbicides behind the planter impossible.
Being adaptable, McElveen planted the peanuts and will come back and spray when he sprays cotton. The key, he says, is to get the herbicide on as quickly as possible after planting. “In our case, in this year, spraying 2-3 days after planting was the only course possible,” he explains.
At a time when most folks are gearing up for retirement, McElveen is still going strong. Planting peanuts, finding cotton seed that were supposed to be delivered, but weren't, switching planters from peanuts to cotton — all in a days work. All a part of the dream William McElveen is living out.
Whether 25 years of growing peanuts makes William McElveen the dean of South Carolina peanuts may be a stretch, but certainly he is one of the state's longest running producers.
“Growing peanuts today is nothing like it was 25 years ago. Heaven forbid, we couldn't have continued this long without all the technological changes that have come along. And, we wouldn't have been able to stay in the peanut business profit-wise without adapting these changes to our own situation,” he says.
“When we started growing peanuts, we used a four-row planter. Now, we use two eight-row planters,” McElveen says. “Getting bigger is easy, getting bigger and staying profitable is not nearly so easy,” he adds.
How well a grower is able to adapt equipment from growing peanuts to cotton to corn to soybeans or any other crop sounds simple, but it's not. Neither is seeing a farmer down the road be successful with a new technique, trying it, then having to admit it's not right for your situation, he says.
“For example, we read about and talked to our neighbors about strip-tilling peanuts. For some folks it works well, saves fuel and time, but for us it didn't work. Last year, we had to make our crop at harvest time, because the drought limited the amount of peanuts we had at picking time. We had trouble getting our peanuts out of the ground on the land we strip-tilled. Our soil is just not suited to it.” McElveen contends the biggest yield loss most peanut farmers have comes in the digging and picking process. Timing is critical, but you just can't stop everything else to pick peanuts, he says. “Even though we may be picking peanuts in one field, we are still spraying peanuts in another location,” he says. “On the one had you have to be timely in peanut production. On the other hand, you have to be thorough with all your crops.”
He says giving peanuts, or any crop, a good start is another key to profitability. “We put Temik at 5 pounds per acre in the furrow with the planter, and we feel like that gives our peanuts a good start. We include Asset to help with root formation and Optimize Lift at planting,” he adds.
Though many long-time peanut growers in neighboring states have had debilitating losses from disease, McElveen says being diversified has helped with peanut rotations, but the real key to avoiding disease problems is again, timeliness.
“At 45 days we begin with an application of Bravo and Tilt, giving us two different families of fungicides. At 60 days, we come back with Provost, giving us another family of fungicides. At 75 days we spray with Abound and at 90 days with Provost and my last spray will be another application of Bravo,” McElveen explains.
Growing peanuts in combination with grain crops can be an economical blessing in 2008. With commodity prices high and peanut contracts good, the opportunity is clearly there for farmers to have a good year. However, all the tools needed to grow those crops — diesel fuel, fertilizer, seed, pesticides — have all gone up faster than commodity prices.
“What the American public doesn't understand when they see all these media reports about record high commodity prices and increasing food prices, is that to grow these crops, the farmer has to accept much higher risks. A drought, a flood or some other natural disaster beyond a farmer's ability to manage can take him out of business in today' world,” McElveen says.
“I am an optimist — I don't see how farmers can stay in business without being optimistic. Taking risks is one of the components of living the American dream,” McElveen says.