My father’s 1954 International pickup has served as an anchor to help me keep my “bearings and sanity” during all the technology changes of my “agricultural lifetime.” This very basic truck, made of steel, has a giant steering wheel and skinny tires to make it easier to turn (pre-power steering), but when I first started driving, I almost had to stand up to turn it. It’s slow, steady and runs best at 40 mph. My father passed it down to me; for many years, I wondered why.
Our family was raised on a small, rented cotton farm in Sunflower County, Miss. My family (like many Delta families) fell on “Hard Times” during the Great Depression, and after WWII, we still struggled to survive. But, like survivors, we kids rode bikes on gravel roads and swam in “The 100-Foot Ditch” and the “Big Sunflower River.” We were first on the bus, with a one-hour route to school, which was either “Delta hot or Delta cold.” Went to country church on Sunday, which was also Delta hot or Delta cold. Times were good and times were hard. My father’s expression: “We never made a living, we had to live on what we made.”
My wife, Patricia, and I both grew up close to Highway 82 around the Holly Ridge community. How I envied the “Town Kids,” who played baseball while I hoed cotton, football while we handpicked cotton, and basketball while we fed hogs and livestock that we needed to survive. Each cotton row had to be hand hoed every two weeks and then plowed after each hoeing. This was all dryland farming, dependent on Mother Nature. Cotton seed came from a Delta & Pine or Stoneville “Blue Tag Grower/Ginner” bag.
My four siblings left agriculture for very successful, varied lives. But, as tough as agriculture was, I stayed with it; as a young man, I only wanted to farm and fly. My wife and I both worked for Valley Chemical Co. – a leader in technology for the times – where we got our basic training that has served us all our business lives. I spent five years with Valley Chemical and 25 years with Sandoz before starting our “off-patent” (generic) chemical business. Our early business years were tough. Sometimes while questioning my sanity and how we would make the payroll on Friday, I would sit in my father’s 1954 International pickup to regain perspective. No matter how tough things were for me that day, they were probably never as tough as the challenges my father faced raising a family and trying to stay in business.
My father, Woodrow Oliver, was born in 1916 and died in 1987. He and my mother, Donna Mae, were Depression Era people with limited education. I asked him several times, “Woodrow, of all the technology changes in your lifetime – jet aircraft, space travel to the moon, penicillin, etc. – what technology advancement was the most striking?” He was real clear: rural electrification, “flip a switch and have light!” Through our love for agriculture and the financial blessing of our family-owned agricultural chemical business, my wife and I have been able to acquire a number of farms over the years.
Sometimes I fly over those farms (I finally got my wish of farming and flying!!) and remember the years our families spent working the fields, giving us the chance for the life we have today.
When I sit in the cab of one of our modern Chevrolet pickups, I quickly understand why technology and comfort left the old 1954 International so far behind. But I also think my father left me a strong, simple message: We must adapt, but remember where we came from and what is important. The old 1954 International is in the restoration shop, getting ready for another generation of Olivers. I hope and pray it serves to anchor them during times of change, which will come at a much faster pace than anything we have known.
– James Oliver is owner of Raymat
Crop Science, Hernando, Miss.