After 52 (maybe 53) years, Roy Gordon, 73, will be retiring as a manager for Heaton Farms in Lyon, Miss., after the 2018 crop is made.
Gordon considers himself “semi-retired” this year. “I leave the house at 5 and go home at 6, seven days a week,” he explains. “I’m always the first one in.”
Gordon took a short break from land preparation recently, parked his truck in front of Kenoy’s hamburger cafe several miles out in the country from Clarksdale, Miss., and talked about the changes he’s seen during his career.
He cites farm size, equipment size, seed technology, and GPS as the main advances he’s watched over the past five decades.
“When I was a kid, farmers would work 500 to 600 acres of land, mostly with small tractors, some 60 horsepower, but mostly 40s. About all we could get done in a day was 25 acres. With the tractors we have now, in the roughest of rough jobs, if we don’t make 200 acres, something is wrong.”
He recalls working 4,000 acres of the Heaton farm with about 40 tractors, mostly 40 hp. “Now, we farm 13,500 acres with 10 tractors; the biggest are 300 hp. We still use three small tractors to run water furrows and a few other chores.”
He says 12-row planters have replaced the 2-row and 4-row units he recalls when he first started. He says his dad farmed with 2-row planters. “When I went to work for Mr. (Bill) Heaton, he had 4-row planters.”
He says Heaton was always eager to adopt technology. “We had two gins; each would gin eight bales per hour. Now we gin 60 bales per hour. He was a great believer in technology. He wanted the best seed, the best equipment, and he wanted to get the most out of the gin.”
Those old gins pulled cotton out of trailers. “We can’t do that now,” Gordon says. “The new gin will not pull cotton out of trailers; we’re set up for modules.”
Seed technology has evolved, too. “When I was just a kid, we would go to the seed shed and shovel seed into the truck. Mr. Heaton kept varieties separate as best he could. We would take the seed to the field and when the planter ran out we would shovel seed into the hoppers.
“We didn’t have seed drop or hill placement back then,” he adds. “We planted end to end and chopped to thin it. Cross-plowing accomplished the same thing.”
The cost of seed today makes that technique impractical. “New planters can show how many seed are in a field, how far apart they are spaced and how deep they are. The technology in seed today makes seed so expensive, we can’t afford to plant seed and plow it up.
“We planted a lot of seed with the fuzz still on,” Gordon recalls. ‘Now, cotton seed is slick as a newborn baby.”
He says when he buys corn seed, he knows from the tag how many seed are in the sack.
“I have been fascinated by technology, and just fell right into it. I read the books as they came out, and we changed systems as updates became available.”
He says GPS increases efficiency. “Without GPS, we would be wasting hours of time, seed and chemicals every day. We don’t have overlaps. We started using GPS 10 or 12 years ago, and it’s come a long way since then.”
He says fully equipping a piece of equipment with GPS technology costs about $30,000 per unit. But it saves time. He says without GPS, crews take about two-and-a-half hours to get ready to row up. By that time, we will have 60 to 75 acres already rowed up with GPS.”
He remembers early cotton harvesters, “one-row pickers bolted to tractors, then replaced by two-row, self-propelled pickers.” He says when the Case 782 came out, “we bought three,” and recalls they cost about $27,000 each. “Now, the new (round-bale) picker costs $800,000. We ran three of those last year and will have a fourth this year.” Those four units will harvest from 7,000 to 8,000 acres.
He says on-board module builders eliminate module builders, boll buggies and several tractors. “But we put workers back in the fields working land behind harvest instead of waiting until spring.”
Gordon says the people who developed new seed varieties “can tell you what kind of soil they will grow best on, and if they perform better on dryland or irrigated acreage. We have good varieties that take the guesswork out of planting, and with the cost of producing an acre of cotton, we can’t afford guesswork.”
Those varieties, along with other technology, pushed yield expectation up by hundreds of pounds or dozens of bushels per acre. “When I first came to work for Mr. Heaton, if we made a bale-and-a quarter or a bale-and-a-half, it was a good crop. Now, if we don’t beat two bales, we lose money.”
Cost of equipment, labor and seed “have gone sky high,” Gordon says, making those higher yields essential.
Delta Farm Press
He says Delta Farm Press and the Delta Digest have always been integral parts of the farm information gathering system. “
Delta Farm Press is sort of our manual. We use it. And when we are planting, the Delta Digest is in the truck.”
Gordon says Heaton Farms grows cotton, soybeans, corn, rice, wheat and pecans. “We sometimes grow peanuts, and we have planted snap beans, melons, rape and pumpkins. Mr. Heaton looked for ways to make the farm float on its own. We sometimes planted peanuts to provide cash flow until the other crops were in. The most peanuts we grew was 500 acres.”
Gordon says farming “is a way of life for me; it comes natural. I can look at a piece of land or a crop and make a decision on what to do to care for it.” He says the pace of farming has accelerated over the past few decades. “It was slower in the old days. We had time to know the land, the personnel and the equipment, and what condition all of it was in. Now, it all seems to go so fast. The stress is higher.”
He talks respectfully about Mr. Heaton, who at 92 is no longer involved in the farm. His son, Cliff, has taken over the operation of Heaton Farms and has “some big shoes to fill,” according to his sister, Darrah Heaton Pierce, Marketing Manager for Farm Press Publications. She says their father “used to be a sounding board” for long-time Farm Press publisher Bill McNamee about what farmers wanted to see in Delta Farm Press.
“Mr. Heaton is a self-made man,” Gordon says. “He came home from the Navy and started farming his grandfather’s land. At one time, he had a 10-acre plot filled with mules, but he was the first in line to get a tractor.
“He was not like a lot of farmers who drove out in their Cadillacs to look at the fields. He put on a pair of slacks, a work shirt and work shoes and went to the field and worked. I’ve seen him in good times and in trying times; I’ve seen him worried, but never down.”
Gordon says his days on the Heaton farm have been more than rewarding and for more than a half-century, he’s been able to do what he loves. “I love dirt,” he says. “If I go home and I’m not dirty, I’m not happy. I love planting the seed, seeing it come up and watching it progress out of the soil.”
He says in retirement he may “miss doing something I’ve loved to do all my life.”