Cotton Links

Farming’s Future

Two Tennessee Producers Showcase A ‘Can Do’ Attitude

By Tommy Horton


Is being a cotton farmer in a small town in West Tennessee the ultimate “dream job”? That statement may sound far fetched, but it perfectly describes the feelings of Gem Mitchell and Andy Shelton.

These two young men could have chosen different careers, but instead are living out their dreams and would not change a thing about what they wake up to every day in Bolivar, Tenn., a small farming town about 60 miles east of Memphis.

They don’t have the most acres or the fanciest equipment. But what they do have is a passion for farming and a willingness to succeed in what can best be described as a difficult environment.

As colleagues and friends will say, agriculture’s future looks bright if tomorrow’s farmers look like Gem Mitchell and Andy Shelton.

Perhaps it isn’t such a surprise that these two life-long friends from the same town would wind up being farmers. Their fathers were farmers, and it’s what the sons wanted to do – even if they didn’t always admit it to friends.

However, what are the odds that two youngsters growing up in the same town, attending the same high school and church would someday be farmers in the same area, pursuing the same career goals?

And how coincidental is it that their wives and children are best friends with each other? To the outsider, it wouldn’t seem possible. But that’s exactly how it is. This is what you call true family farming.

Strong Family Ties

It’s hard to say what is more remarkable – the close ties between the two families or the passionate approach that Gem and Andy have toward farming.

In one sense, this story could have easily turned out differently. Andy, 37, attended Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. That’s where he met his future wife, Leanne, a native of McComb, Miss., and now a librarian at a county elementary school near Bolivar.

Gem, 41, had decided early on that he would become a farmer and began pursuing his career immediately after high school graduation. He wound up marrying a local girl, Vicki, who now works for the Farm Service Agency.

Nearly 20 years later, the two families are almost like one large family. Their homes and farms aren’t that far from each other, and the focus remains the same – agriculture and family activities.

“Gem will tell you the same thing, but how many people in this world can say that they are seeing their dreams come true?” says Andy.

“That’s how both of us feel. Granted, there are frustrating days when I wish I were flipping burgers at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t happen very often. I still love what I do and wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”

Nobody has to tell Shelton that these are difficult times for farmers. But maybe that’s why he and Mitchell are surviving so well. They are sons of farmers and know how to adapt to changing economic environments.

Adapting To The Market

Although the two young farmers would prefer to plant mostly cotton on their West Tennessee acreage, they understand the market. For that reason, they quickly moved a lot of cotton acreage into other crops to take advantage of high prices.

For example, this year Shelton planted 265 cotton acres, 920 soybean acres, 178 corn acres, 388 grain sorghum acres and 300 wheat acres. Just two years ago, he had planted 1,100 cotton acres. The workhorse cotton variety is Delta & Pine Land’s DP 444 BG/RR.

“It was pretty much of a no-brainer as to why we switched our acreage,” he points out. “The situation with corn, soybeans and wheat was incredible. We felt we had to take advantage of those prices.”

Another reason for switching to other crops was because of the excessive spring rains in West Tennessee. Shelton didn’t want to risk trying to plant additional cotton acreage with the ground completely saturated.

Even with the attractiveness of grain prices, Shelton and other Mid-South farmers are to be commended for remaining optimistic after suffering through two consecutive drought years.

Shelton averaged 516 pounds per acre on his cotton acreage last year, and he’s hoping for yields of at least 1,000 pounds on his acreage this year.

Mitchell and Shelton, like most West Tennessee cotton producers, farm on dryland acreage. Thus, a timely rain can make the difference between a profitable season and a disastrous one.

Strong Family Legacy

Even though being 37 years old might not seem youthful, Shelton says there aren’t many farmers in his area who are the same age as he and Mitchell. He knows that he’s carrying a big responsibility as he continues a farming legacy for his family.

Maybe that’s why he tries to have an open mind when it comes to technology and the market. He works closely with his consultant and Extension specialist, and he’s a regular visitor to the Farmers Cooperative in Bolivar where he also receives advice.

As for the close connection with his friend Gem, Shelton will admit that it’s rare for childhood friends to remain so close with each other for so long. But he considers himself fortunate to have such a loyal colleague.

“Gem is more than a friend,” he says. “He’s almost like a brother. If we need some help or want to use a piece of equipment, he’s always there. You can’t put a pricetag on that.”

Every family member in the Shelton house helps out on the farm, and that includes son Peyton (11) and daughter Abby Kathryn (7). When his wife Leanne isn’t busy with her job as a school librarian, she lends her support.

Intensive Management Pays Off

Gem Mitchell is a born optimist, and that attitude was certainly tested during the last two crop seasons when heat and drought scorched his acreage.

Two years ago, he averaged 650 pounds per acre on his dryland cotton, and last year it dropped to 500 pounds. In both cases, it was a record-breaking drought that hurt yields.

Amazingly, one of Mitchell’s fields yielded 817 pounds after it received some timely rains. On those fields that didn’t receive much rain, the yields were much lower.

Much like his friend Andy, Gem relies on DP 444 BG/RR for most of his cotton acreage. It’s been a reliable variety that can withstand even harsh drought and heat.

“It isn’t easy being a dryland farmer, but with any kind of rain, we can hit 1,000 pounds,” says Mitchell. “That’s the benchmark for us. I’ve had 2 1/2 bale yields, but I sure didn’t hit those numbers the last two years.”

In retrospect, the increased acreage for corn, wheat, grain sorghum and soybeans helped make the entire operation more profitable during a difficult year.

The high grain crop prices also helped Mitchell implement a more effective rotation with his cotton acres.

Pick a subject and Mitchell has an opinion about it, but no matter how much frustration he’s had with resistant pigweed or plant bugs or spider mites or city folks from Memphis and Jackson migrating to his county, he still views the future with optimism.

“There’s no doubt that it can be a bit frightening when you continue to face so many challenges,” says Mitchell. “We have what you’d call plenty of hills and valleys to get through before we reach our goals...both short-term and long-term. But, as a farmer, you try to stay optimistic.”

Everyone Has A Job

When the Mitchell and Shelton families get together, which is often, an outsider begins to understand the meaning of how much farming means to everyone.

Mitchell has three sons – Clay (16), Lane (14) and Ross (10) – and all of them have their own small plots that they take care of on the farm. All three sons also know how to drive a tractor.

In case Mitchell doesn’t understand a farm law or regulation, his wife Vicki has an excellent understanding because she works at the FSA office.

Did somebody say there aren’t enough hours in the day for two farm families to also be involved in activities such as baseball, football, basketball and rodeo?

“Somehow we make it work,” says Mitchell. “And the reason it works is because everybody pitches in.”

Shelton has a better explanation.

“Farming can be stressful, but when I pull my truck into the driveway every evening, I don’t bring my problems home with me,” he says. “That’s when it’s time to be with my wife and kids, and that’s the way I like it.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.

Younger Generation Knows How To Deal With Problems

For those who have known Andy Shelton and Gem Mitchell for any length of time, they aren’t
surprised at how well these young farmers have fared in their chosen careers. In fact, they always
figured they’d find a way to become good farmers.

“I go back 20 years with both of them,” says crop consultant Bob Sammons of Bolivar. “I worked with both of their fathers, so I am very familiar with the families.”

Sammons says the two farmers don’t profess to be the biggest or best who ever grew cotton or any other crop. However, he says they are extremely innovative and progressive.

One example of that attitude is the way Sammons checks their fields. He will make his report on a Palm Pilot and email the information to both farmers’ computers.

“Both of them are very attentive and meticulous about how we communicate with each other,” says Sammons. “We’ve worked well together through the years, and you won’t find any better people. They are passionate about farming and aren’t afraid to take chances.”

Another friend is Bill Mayfield of Silerton, Tenn., who had a long career as ginning program leader for USDA-ARS. Mayfield grew up with both farmers’ parents and has known the families for several decades.

“These are two of the finest young farmers you’d ever want to meet,” he says. “I could spend a lot of time talking about them. But I’ll simply say that the future of farming is in good hands as long as we have folks like Gem Mitchell and Andy Shelton around. They represent everything good about our industry.”

Gem Mitchell Farm

• 230 acres of cotton
• 1,050 acres of soybeans
• 140 acres of milo
• 300 acres of wheat
• Cotton variety – DP 444 BG/RR

Andy Shelton Farm

• 265 acres of cotton
• 920 acres of soybeans
• 178 acres of corn
• 388 acres of wheat
• Cotton variety – DP 444 BG/RR

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