Cultivating the Crop: A Series about the Process and History of Farming in Franklin and Southampton

By E.B. |
Posted on March 18, 2015
| Posted in History & Heritage

We invite you to “Escape to Tradition” in the City of Franklin and Southampton County but many don’t know or understand the historic and modern view of our local farmers. In celebration for National Agriculture Day we are announcing a new blog series “Cultivating the Crop: A Series about the Process and History of Farming in Franklin and Southampton”. This series will provide readers with an inside look into the entire farming process from the view of one of our own, local farmers. We hope you will enjoy learning more about Franklin and Southampton’s farming history as well as the future for our local farmers. If you have specific questions in regards to farming, the process, or a specific season please send them to info@franklinsouthamptonva.com for us to pass along to our farmer to answer at a later date.

Cultivating the Crop: Preparation for the Season to Come

As I sit here pondering my thoughts that will hopefully enlighten and inform readers, I can’t help but notice the beautiful chorus of hundreds of frogs croaking outside. Today is March 18, 2015 and if we are blessed with just a few more sunrises, spring will be upon us. When I arrived home this evening I had to spend just a few more moments outdoors just to absorb the warmth from a brilliant southern sunset. Monday’s high was a daffodil blooming, 70 degrees and Tuesday followed with a grass growing 76 degrees and although the weather is breaking and has been beautiful for several days, there is a silent storm brewing on the horizon. This particular storm will hit Franklin and Southampton with full force in a couple of weeks. The storm I mentioned is only an analogy for the upcoming rush of area farmers to plant their 2015 crops. Each year like clockwork, local farmers are assigned the daunting tasks of: field preparation, fertilizing, herbicide application and seed variety selection which all culminates in planting nearly 100,000 acres of crops. Daunting yes, but far from impossible in the eyes of a farmer. These area crop producers have been awaiting this time of year, every since the last rows of the 2014 crops were harvested. Beginning in April corn, cotton, peanuts and soybean seeds will be consumed by planters and be placed into the earth. Clouds of dust and plumes of diesel exhaust will soon dot this rural landscape. Green and red tractors will trudge back and forth, between turn rows only to pause briefly for lunch breaks and fuel refills. During these breaks, growers will be seen, hunched over rows, scratching the soil with fingers and old pocketknives. This practice will be repeated several times a day, making certain highly priced seeds are placed at the precise soil depth to insure proper seed germination and emergence.

Due to one of the coldest and wettest winters in recent memory, Franklin and Southampton County farmers have been cooped up in their shops with the intent of accomplishing all kinds of service work. This type of work receives little, if any glory but is essential to a smooth operating growing season. As of this date, countless man-hours have been spent changing oil, replacing bearings, checking tire pressure, setting planters, resetting planters and maybe even waxing tractors.

To the layperson, every farm operation is similar but there are significant differences in local agronomic practices that keep some producers peaking over hedgerows to check up on their neighbors. Agriculture, as an industry, is constantly growing, evolving and adapting. Advances in chemistry, genetics and computer technology have tremendously altered agriculture in the past two decades. A Southampton County row crop farm that may have been in the same family for generations is hardly recognizable from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. When I was a child, small family farms dotted the horizon, every couple miles. Each farm raised a few hundred acres of row crops as well as livestock. Farm life was simple then, farm equipment had no computers, making it much simpler and cheaper to work on. Back then, business was done face to face with a handshake and checks took several days to clear. There are still very productive, small operations in our area, but most are tending 600 to 1,000 acres with a few large producers managing a crop schedule quite larger. Animal agriculture still exists on some county farms today but has taken a drastic decrease over the years. Soil conservation has been widely adopted by Southampton County producers, over the last decade. Winter cover crops, no-till and strip tillage practices have greatly reduced the risk of loosing topsoil to wind and water erosion. Success is no longer measured in the amount of dirt on farmers’ blue jeans, but in shrewd management and marketing decisions. Today’s farmers in comparison, are planting a perfectly straight rows, thanks to GPS guidance, while contracting cotton futures and ordering their next pallet of soybean seed via their iPhones.

At best a farmer only gets about 50 attempts at that perfect growing season. All farmers can pour out their hearts, souls and every dollar they have and they can borrow into a crop. That crop can be the most beautiful and healthiest crop and have all the potential in the world and in an instant; Mother Nature can snap her fingers and ruin it. Hail, drought and hurricanes can all decimate yield production in our area. Every year, brings with it another chance at achieving that “bin buster yield”. Each spring, every producer is reflecting on past growing season trying to find that magic recipe for success. Believe me, agriculture is not a “get rich”, way of life, but the rewards of producing a big yield are comparable to winning the World Series. Big crops are few and far between but they are remembered for a lifetime. Farming gets in our blood at an early age. I can only describe it as a fever. This fever only intensifies with age and the only cure for that fever is diesel fumes and late hours in the field. Agriculture in Franklin and Southampton County is not an occupation, it a lifestyle, a way of life, if you will. There are a few who are willing and able to wake up early, every morning, look at the weather forecast, good or bad and make the commitment to produce food and fiber for the masses.

Producers of agricultural products are the only businessmen that purchase all their inputs at retail cost and sell their entire harvest at wholesale. There is great risk in producing crops that rely on fickle weather patterns to succeed. Huge portions of a farm’s budgeted dollars are spent even before those seed ever emerge from the ground. Increasingly high input cost and roller coaster commodity prices can make even the best of agribusiness men scratch their heads.

Franklin and Southampton County farmers, along with farmers all over the Commonwealth and the United States work extremely hard to provide the safest and most plentiful, food supply in the world. Food is not produced in a lab, grocery store or drive through. It is labored over for months in farm fields that hold your Google Earth map together, like puzzle pieces. The next time you and your family sit down for a meal, sit back and take a moment to fathom the hours of work, worry and sleepless nights that made that meal possible. Please take a moment today or any day to thank a farmer, shake their hand and tell them that you appreciate what they do.

Happy National Agriculture Day!

From My Field to Your Home,

E.B.