Thirty-one years ago, I was a brand new Ph.D. with di-ploma almost in hand, starting my career in agricultural research. I was selected by Mississippi State University to carry on and expand a soil fertility/crop production research program on cotton and rice, neither of which I had seen grow before. My training was in agronomy in Kentucky and Illinois, and I was eager to put that book knowledge into action Just to back track a little bit...I was raised on a diverse farming operation in western Kentucky, the oldest of eight and the first to leave home for college. Our family far-ming operation was a partnership between my father and uncle, Green. In the early years (1950s), this operation included corn, soybean, wheat, hay and tobacco, along with a 100-cow dairy herd and a cow/calf operation. I got my start early on the farm and had chores from the earliest days. I even had the wonderful fortune to milk our family cow, “Daisy Bell,” by hand every day after our commercial dairy was sold in 1964, until I left home for the University of Kentucky in 1971.
Those were the days and also the era of proud ownership and love of the land that continues today. Tobacco was a cash crop that put many a kid through school and paid many a bill.
Times have changed. When I first ventured south into the rich Delta, anhydrous ammonia was used as a major nitrogen source for corn all over the country and cotton in the Delta. Ammonium nitrate was a commonly used fertilizer material also and not a component of a bomb to be used by terrorists.
Landscapes are also changing. King cotton has given way to corn on a larger scale. Silver grain bins dot the landscape where cotton gins once prospered. Cotton trailers were replaced by modules, and “tromping” cotton has been replaced by round seedcotton rolls and modules built on the go.
Tractors almost drive themselves but cost more than my first house. Two-row equipment is now 12- or 16-row equipment, and one operator does the work of many. The CRP and WRP have moved land back into trees that probably should never have seen the plow. Catfish are farm-raised just like other animals. Cotton sells for more than a dollar. Corn brings more than $6/bushel and soybean more than $12/bushel, but gasoline costs $3.25/gallon.
Mississippi corn production has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, reaching nearly one million acres. The last time Mississippi grew a million acres of corn was in 1960, and the yield was less than 25 bushels/acre. The state average corn yield today has approached 150 bushels. Soybeans have moved from “step child” to primary crop with early planting, biotechnology and irrigation.
And now the rest of the story. Rural America is moving to the cities. Fewer farmers are providing food and fiber for more people. Communication is instantaneous. Black and white televisions have been replaced by high-definition wide screens and 3D. Books are on tablets or pads. Slide rules are antiques. The college dictionary is gathering dust.
Libraries are online, and computers do everything imaginable. Man has been to the moon and back. Clothes can be made from almost anything, but cotton still feels better.
Today, the land grant institution is more important than ever before. Agriculture still feeds and clothes the world and its seven billion people. Change is inevitable, but with change comes new adventures. It is still important to make time for family and friends. Take a walk around and observe nature and thank the man upstairs for every blessing he has given you.
Stop and smell the roses or if you are like me...the freshly plowed ground!
– Wayne Ebelhar, Stoneville, Miss.