This is the first article in our Voices of Peanut Farming series.
To understand a farmer, you need to understand a farmer’s respect for the rain. I’ve never known a farmer who cared about whether it was too hot, too cold or having to walk too far to get where he was going.
But farmers care deeply about the rain. They study weather forecasts to calculate the best days to till the soil and plant. And each growing season is talked about, worried over, prayed over and rejoiced over according to too much, too little and the timing of the rain.
Most of us do not live on a farm. Farm and ranch families make up just two percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. To understand what makes farmers tick—or to find out why that rain is so important—we decided to ask several farmers some questions.
What unique challenges do you face? What changes have you made on your farm over the years? What were your best and worst seasons? What do you love and what’s hard about making a living from the land? What about the future of farming?
The average American farmer is 58 years old, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Farmers over 55 control more than half of the country’s farmland, and one in two is likely to retire in the next decade.
Today’s “average farmer” is the subject of our article—farmers who have proudly grown the food we eat for the better part of four decades and who have stayed the course. They identify as “the salt of the earth” and “seasoned” and who, each day, earn the respect deserving of these tags.
Virginia peanut farmer Dee Dee Darden
Dee Dee Darden and her husband, Tommy, farm peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, pumpkins and beef cattle on 600 acres near Smithfield, Virginia. In addition to the farm, Dee Dee and Tommy run a country store that’s been in the family since 1952 where they cure about 1,000 hams a year.
“I grew up on a farm,” Dee Dee said. “My grandparents farmed, my daddy farmed, and then in 1985, I married a farmer. I guess it’s been in me all my life.”
Hear Dee Dee talk about her love of farming.
Carl Sanders owns and operates a farm bearing his name near Brundidge, Alabama. in the southeast corner of the state. Carl raises peanuts, cotton, corn, oats and cattle.
“I was raised on a peanut farm,” Carl said. “I have a picture of me standing in front of a peanut stack about 1960. But full-time, on my own, I’ve been farming since 1976.”
Carl is well-known around Alabama for his community work and leadership in peanut organizations. He has been a director and president of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, a director for the American Peanut Council and a member of the Peanut Standards Board.
Hear Carl talk about his love of farming.
Louis Grissom farms about 1900 acres of peanuts, cotton and rye about two miles north of Seminole, Texas. Along with his brother Jimbo, Louis also runs West Texas Center Pivots & Pumps, servicing local farmers around the Texas Panhandle.
Louis is a third-generation farmer.
“I grew up on the farm and really didn’t know another life existed, to speak of much,” Louis said. “My father farmed, I enjoyed it. I can remember the summer…my dad turned me loose with a tractor. I thought I had died and went to heaven. At one particular time in my life, I thought, ‘Lord, what is it You really want me to do? I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”
Hear Louis talk about his love of farming.
These three peanut farmers are among the 7,500 farm families who grow peanuts and many of the other foods we eat.
A quote circulated around farming circles is, “Farmers are some of the biggest gamblers there are.” They invest in large equipment, such as tractors, planters, combines, trailers, irrigation sprayers—easily paying six figures for each. Each season has its own operating costs as well as outlay for such things as seed, fertilizers or fuel, just to name a few. These purchases must be made long before the farmer reaps any income at harvest. How do farmers handle this risk year in and year out?
To be a successful farmer, Dee Dee said it takes perseverance.
"You need to be willing to change and adapt," Dee Dee said. "I think that’s probably what has made most people successful—a willingness to change and adapt to the environment, to crop conditions and to the markets. You need a stick-to-it attitude and you’ve got to be positive.”
“I think someone needs someone to rely on or acknowledge at times,” Louis said. “My father grew peanuts and I grew up in the peanut patch learning at the end of a hoe handle. Also, education is important. You can’t know too much in the farming business anymore. They need to be hardworking, diligent and to top it all off, a good relationship with the Lord. A man will go crazy without it.”
Carl adds, “Dedicated. And you need to be a good businessman. You need to have high ethical standards. And good farmers are usually family men or women.”
It was Carl who—with that characteristic knack farmers have of taking big, broad ideas and boiling them down into a nugget of wisdom—summed up what it’s like to be a farmer: “It’s a good life; it’s a hard life.”
What makes it a hard life? Many people would love to be in the wide-open spaces every day, seeing food they grow come to fruition, and being their own boss.
“This is our money that’s out here being spent," Carl said. "We’re depending on getting our whole livelihood off this crop. It’s hard in that you’re risking a lot of assets every year. And the work can be hard. I’m 60 years old. And a 14-hour day and I’m tired when I get home and I have to get up the next morning and do it again.”
“The hard life is when you do need rain, and you can’t get it, and the thunderstorms go all around you,” Dee Dee said. “Not knowing at the end of the year if you’re going to have enough money to pay all your creditors. All those things are scary to farmers. We’ve been fortunate that’s we’ve been able to hold our head above water and pay the bills. There have been some tough years, but we’ve made it, I hope.”
“I think farming or any kind of life’s hard at times,” Carl said. “Sometimes there are good years; sometimes there are not so good years and sometimes there are bad years. If you enjoy what you’re doing and you love it then whether it’s farming, whether it’s preaching, whether it’s sitting behind a desk—it’s not all roses but you got to take the good with the bad.”
And then there’s the rain—but this time talking about the rain comes with a little perspective.
“What’s really bad about farming is sometimes it doesn’t rain and it’s dry and sometimes it’s too wet and it’s bad but God is always there," Louis said. "He knows what He’s doing."
All three farmers agree the good peanut growing seasons outweigh the hard seasons.
“I think the last two or three years on the farm, with commodity prices being high on everything, has really helped us be able to purchase some new equipment and things we’ve needed,” Dee Dee said. “We’ve had good and consistent commodity prices and that will make us farmers smile any day of the week.”
Louis remembers one of his best years was about 20 years ago. “We had about 2,500 acres of peanuts and we had a big percentage that yielded from 5,000 to 6,000 pounds per acre. That makes for a pretty good year.”
Carl couldn’t pick out just one recent growing season that was his best. “We’ve had several really good growing seasons lately. When we get good rainfall, we have good productive soils and we usually do pretty well.”
And so it all goes back to the rain.
Hear the full conversation with our three featured farmers.