The Crawford family of Kennett, Mo., is a farm family — but not because they have a certain gross income or number of acres.
Rather, the Crawfords' qualifications are measured in the contributions of its four family members — including farmer Chris Crawfords' teenage daughter, who cuts stalks after school, his son, who can build a cotton module as well as anyone in his third grade class, and his wife, who juggles raising kids, cooking and slinging fertilizer with equal enthusiasm.
Oh, and if you're a member of the Crawford family, you don't have to be asked a second time to come to work. In fact, most of the time, you don't have to be asked at all.
The refreshingly old-fashioned work ethic of the Crawford family began when Chris married Brenda in June 1986, the year Brenda graduated from high school. She went to work for the local Dunklin Democrat, in Kennett, and Chris started his farming career as a farmhand for his stepfather, Jerrus Don Harris, in Kennett.
In 1992, Jerrus helped Chris and Brenda start their own farming operation. Mark Weidenbenner of then Production Credit Association in Kennett provided them with enough financial assistance to plant 900 acres of cotton. (Currently, Matthew Poole of Progressive Farm Credit fills that role.)
Over the years, cotton acreage and the family grew — cotton by 300 acres, and the family by two, with the addition of Megan, now 16, and Chris II, now 9. “After Chris was born, I left my town job,” said Brenda, who by then was working as circulation manager for the newspaper.
A stay-at-home mom she was not to be. Rather, she continued a family tradition started by Chris' mother, Elaine. As a farm wife of the 1970s and 1980s, Elaine drove the bob truck to town and cut stalks behind the cotton picker.
“It was about the labor, and it still is today,” Chris says. Having family members ready to pitch in “saves us from having to hire another hand.”
At first, Brenda handled accounting for the farm and “fixed lunch for the crews, or supper when they worked late.” Later, she started doing the footwork the farm required, running errands, hauling chemicals, water and seed.
All this time, the Crawford children were riding in trucks, cotton pickers, tractors and combines with their parents, feeling as comfortable there as most children do in front of a computer game or television.
After Chris broke his back in a motorcycle accident in 2003, he had to curtail some of his activities. “So he couldn't go day and night like he used to,” Brenda says.
The Crawford children immediately offered to take up the slack during crunch time. In 2004, Megan Crawford became one of the first cheerleaders in Dunklin County to have a job after school cutting cotton stalks. “When's she's not in school, she's on the tractor eight or nine hours a day. That's just part of it. Dad needs her, so she's going to be here,” Brenda said.
Chris II, started at an even earlier age. He can operate the farm's module builder, and will ride in the cotton picker with his father, “as long as Dad can stand it. It's in his blood, too,” Brenda said.
The Crawfords usually start harvest around the end of September, running two John Deere 9950s. “We run strong for four to five weeks and usually finish up in October,” Brenda says.
After harvest, the family moves its harvesters to Chris's stepfather's operation to help complete harvest on about 1,800 acres of cotton. Last fall, the wet weather kept the Crawfords in their own fields a lot longer than they anticipated.
When harvest is complete, Chris starts hipping up ground for his stale seedbed tillage program. After that, he starts maintenance on pickers, tractors and implements, which wraps up around February.
Meanwhile Brenda will start fertilizing. “I get on the tractor and sling fertilizer just like anybody else. That gives Chris time to work on equipment and attend farm sales. I think he wants to upgrade his cotton pickers this year. It's been so rainy and muddy, those pickers we have now just don't want to pull through the mud. We have only about 600 acres of cotton on sandy soil. The rest is out in the bottoms. It's heck to get through when it's wet.”
Sometimes, neighbors have been known to rib Chris when they see Brenda on the tractor, and Brenda admits that some of her friends “give me a hard time. But I'd rather do that than be stuck in a house, especially with the kids in school.”
There is one farm job that Brenda won't try and it's a source of friendly discussion between husband and wife. “I tried to get her to drive the picker, but she says it makes her too nervous, there's too much going on,” Chris says.
“I don't want to kill anything,” Brenda says, laughing. “Besides, there are too many gadgets to turn on. I tried it one time. By the time I got to the end of the turnrow, I was ready to cut some beans.
“She could do it if she wanted to,” Chris says. “She can do anything. I don't have to worry. I know she's going to be careful.”
One cool morning last November, cotton picking was going slowly in one field. “It had had a lot of rain on it and one section got a freeze on it before it was defoliated,” Chris said. “It stuck leaves and hard-locked a lot of bolls.”
Brenda, on the stalk cutter, has caught up with Chris, and is waiting for him to take a break. They don't get many extended breaks during the year, taking off at Christmas and usually for a week during the season.
Despite this year's wet harvest, cotton yields have been doing better the last few years. “Our turnouts have really improved,” said Chris, who plants DP 444 BG/RR, DP 432 RR and DP 434 RR.
Despite the good yields, profit margins continue to shrink for the Crawfords, as they have for many family farms around the country. “It gets harder every year,” Chris said. “Our prices don't go up very much each year, but everything else is going up, especially seed and chemicals.”
“Sometimes you wonder at the end of the year when you look at the bottom line, we did all this work and this is all we get,” Brenda says. “But there is nothing else Chris and I want to do. Overall, we think we've done really well.”
For the Crawfords, the measure of the family's success is more human than statistical — respect for family, the importance of accepting responsibility and hard work are rewards in and of themselves. “This is our way of living,” Brenda says. “We wouldn't do anything else.”