Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Farming A Thousand Acres Of Everything’

tyson raper my turnI’m not sure why I fell in love with agriculture at a young age. I wasn’t pushed into agriculture, but I feel like I was pulled — much like the smell of a fresh pot of coffee has a way of pulling you out of bed.

The ingredients were present. The first toy I remember was a 4000 series 1/16 Deere tractor. I’m not sure who gave it to me — I can’t remember back that far — but I do remember my brother and I raised a thousand acres of everything with that tractor on the living room carpet of our house in Spring Villa, Alabama.

My grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s sides farmed in years past. Whenever we visited, I gawked at the old equipment — it fascinates the mind of a young boy. Both sets of my grandparents occasionally told stories about picking cotton as children or chasing hogs. Both sets had a garden, and my parents had a garden, which meant we were always playing in a garden. Still love to garden today.

The strongest ingredient — the most dominant, I think — came from observing my father at work. At that time, Dad was an ag engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mom took us up to his office often for lunch, and I’d fiddle with penetrometers or the newest part from the fabrication shop or, if I was really good, a few toy tractors perched high on a bookshelf stacked full of reams of data, manuscripts and textbooks.

We didn’t go to the field frequently with Dad, but I can remember every little detail when we did. I would watch him examine disruption zones from tillage implements, pull deep soil core after deep soil core and, occasionally, we would get to tromp seedcotton in a trailer. Wires and monitors, soil core canisters and notepads were everywhere.

Everyone on the team had a job, and in the middle of it, there was Dad, sweaty, exhausted from a hard day’s work, but happy with the accomplishment of a completed sampling. Dad always worked hard but was efficient; I don’t remember having many suppers without him at the table.

Occasionally, we would attend field days where he spoke. Everyone listened attentively, and from the looks on everyone’s faces, I could tell what he said mattered — it directly impacted them. I didn’t get it then, but something about those experiences soaked into me, much like stain into raw oak.

In high school, I remember wanting to be a doctor, then a professional fisherman and then back to some agriculture-related job. After applying to Auburn and starting in the College of Agriculture, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

Working in ag retail seemed interesting, but I was still drawn to research/Extension. It clicked for me during an internship with a chemical company. I was sitting on a 5-gallon bucket in the shop, making small talk with the farm foreman over lunch. He asked me, almost out of the blue, what I was going to do. It sounded like someone else talking when I said, “Get my PhD.”

After completing my M.S. at Mississippi State, I married my high school sweetheart and moved to Arkansas for a PhD. Since then, time has flown. I learned a tremendous amount in graduate school, was able to interact with and learn from greats.

When this Tennessee Cotton Specialist position opened, it seemed perfect — working with one of the strongest Extension services in the Mid-South/Southeast staffed with the best specialists and agents at the top of their game. The job has its challenges, but the people I serve — and serve alongside — are incredible.

This job is extremely rewarding and I love it.
I’ve got two kids now, a 3 (almost 4)-year-old boy, Anderson, and a 20-month-old girl, Caroline. Introducing them to the world has been the highlight of my life. I look forward every day to hearing about what new skills or words have been picked up.

I do my best to make it home for supper. Rachel, my wife, brings them up to work often for picnics. If we are ginning, they insist on tromping the loose lint. And that 4000 series 1/16 Deere tractor? It has new owners, farming a thousand acres of everything on our living room rug just north of Jackson, Tennessee.

— Tyson Raper
Jackson, Tennessee

Dr. Tyson B. Raper is the Pettigrew Cotton Specialist for the University of Tennessee. You can find content by Dr. Raper in our Specialist Speaking column each month, on the UT Crops blog ( or on Twitter @TysonRaper.

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