A bit over two years ago, I walked in the door of Don Self’s home for an interview and found him teaching guitar chords to his young grandchildren, occasionally interspersed with an enthusiastic hip-wriggling impersonation of Elvis Presley.
I’d never laid eyes on the guy before. It was, to say the least, a unique introduction. We ended up talking for nearly three hours and then nothing would do but that I join him and his extended family for lunch — a lot more camaraderie and laughter. I left feeling I’d known him for a lifetime.
That’s who Don was. The word “stranger” wasn’t in his lexicon. I’m convinced you could’ve dropped him in the middle of the deep Amazon jungle and before you know it he’d have befriended the natives and started teaching them how to be more efficient farmers.
Whether he was in the middle of a Mississippi peanut field or in the marble halls of Capitol Hill, he was flashing that room-lighting smile and winning everyone with his impish country boy charm.
But beneath that aw-shucks demeanor was an innate inquisitiveness about all things agriculture. Although he and his father were for years mostly cotton and soybean farmers, when a peanut company was looking for growers in northeast Mississippi, he signed up — despite a lot of naysaying by those who warned peanuts wouldn’t do well so far north.
Dan West, who also farms in Monroe County, was the first to grow peanuts, the Atkins family, William Dean, Allen, and Brian, also in Monroe County, were second, and Don was third. All proceeded to prove that, yes, peanuts could not only be grown that far north, they could produce high yields.
Don continued to grow corn and cotton, but his passion became peanuts. The other crops just provided a good rotation for the goobers.
“A lot of what I knew from my years of growing cotton, soybeans, and corn I had to throw out the window,” he said. “There was a real mental adjustment. I studied peanuts night and day, read everything I could get my hands on, talked to every grower and every specialist who would give me time. And every year we grow the crop, I learn something new.”
He brought that same intensity and dedication to his work with the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association and the National Peanut Board.
“Helpfulness is catching,” Don said, “and I made a commitment that I would do the same, that I’d help any grower I could with advice and the benefit of my experience with the crop. You can face some real hardships with peanuts, and if I can be of assistance to another grower, that’s what I want to do.
“I’m not a farmer because I farm — I’m a farmer because that’s what God made me,” Don said during our 2012 interview session. “I was blessed to grow up on a farm, with loving parents who taught by example. My wife, Lisa, and I have been blessed to raise three fine children here, and now we’re blessed to have grandchildren growing up on the farm.
“There’s no better place to raise a child than on the farm. Every day they see God’s handiwork firsthand, and they learn so many lessons that will be valuable to them throughout their lives. It’s hard to put a price on that.”
Don was killed in a tragic farming accident Oct. 1. He will be muchly missed.