Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Recollections of Life in the Mississippi Delta

By Brian Pieralisi

I grew up in a rural community east of Leland, Mississippi, that is referred to as Longswitch or sometimes Dunleith. This area is rich in farming and cultural history. Leland is home to Jim Henson and the Kermit the Frog Museum, which is something all “Lelanders” proudly boast! As a child, I always thought of Longswitch as it pertained to me, as a long switch… maybe an association with discipline? However, the area was formerly known as Long and the Columbus/Greenville railway ran along side of old Highway 82 or Longswitch Road. The name Longswitch came from the train track switch that was there before my time.

Anyway, as a child growing up on a cotton farm, I spent most of my time on the farm, my grandmother’s house or the shop. I have vivid memories of a fleet of 2- and 4-row cotton pickers pulling around the shop yard for servicing. I still remember the sounds of engines racing, then idling and then racing again. I remember farm workers huddling around 55-gallon drums burning waste cotton to stay warm on cold mornings. There’s something about smells and sounds you encounter as a child that you never forget.

My grandparents and uncle lived on either side of the shop yard, and my parents were about a quarter mile from the shop. So, I was a quick bike ride from where all the action was. Therefore, during the summer, my grandparents’ house was the place for all cousins to meet up and play.  My grandmother was well known for her cooking, arts and crafts and music. She would prepare lunch every day, which is something I miss dearly. She also played piano, guitar and accordion. Each year, she played accordion in Lake Village, Arkansas, for the Italian Heritage festival!

Growing up in an Italian family, I was able to witness some of the last of the heritage that came over from Italy to farm. My grandparents would have their friends over to entertain and have drinks. Oftentimes, the adults would start speaking Italian, and they would laugh and laugh. I can only imagine what they were laughing at. I bet I would have laughed, too! Both sets of my grandparents farmed. So, as a child growing up in the ’80s I wouldn’t stand for anything else in terms of a career. Like many of us growing up in the ’80s, I fell victim to style trends, MTV, hyper-color T-shirts, mullets, skateboards and Nintendo. But, I always kept my focus on farming.

By the time I was junior high school, my dad had me driving a tractor in the summertime. It was no big deal back then because I had been driving most everywhere since I was 10 years old. That’s just how it was back then. I still think that’s what makes a good driver. If you learn risk aversion, have a few close calls and refine long distance reverse driving skills… on your own, then “you’re good.”

I was operating any, and all, equipment by the time I was in high school and would work after school and on the weekends. I remember cutting stalks until late at night after football practice. After high school, I went to Mississippi State University and earned a degree in ag pest management with full intentions of farming upon completion. I turned down a couple of graduate assistantships and started my first year of farming in 2001. I soon realized I wanted to further my education. In 2003, I enrolled in a Master of Business Administration program at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi. I would work during the day and take night classes for the next three years. Soon after earning this degree, I married my wife, and we started a family with three Pieralisi boys who are about two years apart in age. They still have early memories of me farming, especially the oldest.

2015 was my last crop to farm with my father and uncle. It was a bittersweet decision, but we all knew it was the best one for all of us. Again, I found myself in the classroom with three little ones at home and an unclear future, while I was working on a PhD. I still visit our farm frequently. My dad and I will visit with the family who now rents the land, and I will take my boys hunting in our woods. As I look back on my path and the farm I came from, it makes me proud to work in this role as cotton specialist! Although an unconventional path, I feel blessed and grateful for the opportunities and the people along the way.

— Brian Pieralisi, Mississippi cotton specialist
bkp4@msstate.edu

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