It's 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and while much of the rest of the world is sleeping in or lingering over a first cup of coffee, the three O'Callaghan brothers have been immersed for some time in last-minute work on a combine that will, they hope, be cutting soybeans a few days hence — if they can dodge the rains that are casting a pall over weather forecasts for a solid week ahead.
“We do all our equipment maintenance,” says Bill, the youngest brother, wrench in hand, while Bob, the middle one, has an arc welder spitting and crackling, and Pat, the eldest, has just come back from running an errand.
“Doing the work ourselves helps us hold the line on overhead,” says Pat, “and in farming today, anything you can do to manage costs puts you just that much ahead. We upgrade when we need to, but we try and get the most use we can out of our machinery.”
The brothers are the third generation of their family to farm hill land in the tiny Fairfield community in Union County, Miss., within spittin' distance of the massive $2 billion Toyota vehicle assembly plant that the state of Mississippi managed to snag after two years of intense negotiations — and which now sits empty while company officials try to divine the future of the auto industry and which model(s) they'll manufacture there if their business finally manages an upturn.
“Altogether, we farm close to 3,000 acres,” says Pat. “The bulk of the row crop land, about 2,000 acres, is in soybeans. We'll grow anywhere from 100 acres to 300 acres of corn that's primarily to feed the cows. The rest of the land is in pasture and hay. We rent about 1,000 acres, and own the rest.
“We used to grow cotton, but we dropped it in 1997, mainly because our equipment was getting old and we just didn't feel we could make the kind of investment needed to replace it and to change over to modules. So, we got out of cotton and concentrated on soybeans.
“We've just never believed in carrying a heavy debt load; most of our borrowing is for equipment purchases.
“We made money growing cotton over the years, and cotton was good to us, but we just didn't feel it was to our best interests to make the big investment in equipment in order to stay with it. And that has proven a good decision. “Only a couple of our neighbors still are growing cotton. When soybeans got to $14, a lot of cotton ground around here went to beans, and farmers got good yields on land that had good fertility levels from years of cotton.
“We've got some good bottom land that we can consistently expect 45 to 50 bushel soybean yields, and on the weaker land about 30 bushels.”
They plant half Group IVs and half Group Vs, and use several varieties in order to spread risk.
“We don't like to put all our eggs in one basket,” says Bob, “so we'll pick several varieties we know will do well, and we also include some of the newer varieties to see how they perform.”
This year's soybean varieties include Progeny 4807 and 4949, Pioneer 94B73, Delta King 4866, Deltapine DPL5634, and Northrup King 56D7. Their corn variety is Pioneer 33M57 and they have a 48-row test plot of DeKalb DKC68-06.
“All our row crop land is no-till,” says Pat. “We don't break up anything. We also changed from 38-inch rows to 30-inch for corn and we got a nice little yield increase from that. We drill all the beans in 15-inch rows.
“The move to no-till was pretty much necessitated by high fuel prices — we were paying $4.50 a gallon for farm fuel at one time and it was killing us.
“The advent of Roundup Ready technology also made the switch to no-till easier to accomplish. It's costly, but it has revolutionized farming. I don't think there's anyone in this area still growing conventional beans.”
Despite a late start because of the cold wet spring, they were fortunate enough to get good rains during the summer and “all the beans are looking really good,” Pat said at mid-September.
They were hoping to start harvesting some of the earlier beans the following week, but a rain front that lingered over much of north Mississippi kept things at a standstill.
Their 100 acres of corn “looks good, too,” Pat says. Last year, they averaged 156 bushels and “this year looks to be as good or better.
“We do our own marketing. We'll usually forward contract about 50 percent of our normal yield, then sell the rest as opportunities occur during the winter. We've got 42,000 bushels of storage, which helps us to market more effectively. We have our own trucks and haul most of our beans to Cargill at Memphis.”
Bill chuckles: “There've been any number of times we'd leave at 3 a.m. to take a load of beans to Memphis and then come back and hop on a combine. Now though, we have someone to help us out with some of the hauling.”
“We try and divide up the work as equally as possible,” says Pat, “but if one of us needs to get something done, we all pitch in. We'll occasionally disagree on something, but we've never got into any Irish brawls.”
Their cows are mostly Angus, with about 120 mama cows.
“We feed the calves to 600 to 700 pounds and then sell them,” says Pat. “We'll usually sell about 100 head each year through one of the area buyers. We don't do artificial insemination; we just try and keep good bulls.
“We'll harvest 600 to 700 round bales each year. In some years, that'll carry our cows through the winter. Other years, we have to buy supplemental hay. Last year, we had to buy 100 bales. We've got a lot of hay on the ground right now that we can't bale because it's too wet.
“Our father believed in having cows; he'd send money home from his Navy pay to buy more. His advice to me: ‘Son, always keep some cattle; they'll help you make it through tough times.’ There've been a number of years when money from calves has made our land payments.”
Although the huge Toyota plant isn't in operation, the impact on the area has been considerable, and the O'Callaghans expect that will be more the case when production cranks up.
“The plant got 300 or so acres that we'd been farming,” says Bill. “Some of it really good bottom land, and we lost some land we'd been renting for hay. They also took quite a bit of other land in the area to build a big pond to relocate beavers.”
When the announcement was made that the plant would be built in this quiet, rural area north of Tupelo, “Folks went kinda crazy about what it might do to land values,” says Pat, “and there was a lot of speculative talk. But it has settled down quite a bit, given the uncertainty about when the plant may get into operation.”
A planned access road from the Toyota plant to one of their suppliers in a nearby town would get parts of three of their farms, maybe 50 acres, Pat says.
“The biggest thing would be the constant traffic noise. This has always been a really quiet, peaceful area, and the road would change all that.”
One of the biggest impacts, says Bob, has been in moving their farm equipment on roads.
“With all the traffic related to the plant construction, moving a big planter or a combine on a narrow two-lane road is a real problem. We hate to clog up traffic, and people shake their fists at us. We try to move at times when traffic is lightest, but there still will be times we have vehicles stacked up behind us. We just keep our insurance paid up and hope nothing happens.”
A lot of the land the O'Callaghans own was handed down from their grandfather and father.
“When my wife and I married, we bought more,” says Pat, “and we've added more over the years as the opportunity arose. We were lucky to get it when we did; I don't know how a young man could get into farming today if he had to purchase land and equipment — everything is just so expensive and the risks are so great.”
One area of concern about costs is health care.
“I was paying $15,000 a year for coverage for myself, my wife, and our daughter,” says Pat. “That was with a $10,000 deductible and high co-pays. And every year the premium would increase.”
Now, each weekday, early morning and mid-afternoon, both Pat and Bill leave what they're doing and go to the nearby East Union school to drive big yellow buses full of kids to/from classes.
“By driving a school bus, Bill and I can qualify for the same health plan that the teachers and other school employees get,” says Pat. (Bob gets health care coverage through his wife's insurance with her employer.)
“The money we earn from driving the bus just about covers the premiums for the insurance — but it's a lot better than when we were having to try and buy it on our own.
“We're fortunate, too, that we have good substitute drivers who can take the routes when we need to be doing things on the farm, planting or harvesting.”
“Because we're a family farming operation, and don't have a number of employees that would help us to qualify under a group plan, we were pretty much on our own for health care coverage.
“And in today's medical environment, when a major illness can cost thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands, we just can't open ourselves to that kind of situation.”
The O'Callaghans say they're pretty much at their comfort level in terms of land to farm. “If we got bigger,” Pat says, “it would take more equipment and more management than we really would want to put into it. I'm at the point I want to spend more time with my family and my grandchildren.
“While we're the third generation on this land, when we're gone that's probably going to be it for the O'Callaghans as farmers. None of us has sons, and the girls don't want to farm.
“Our father died in 2004, but he was out here driving a tractor into his 80s — he just wouldn't quit. He enjoyed farming and working with us boys.
“Farming has been good to us. We grew up in it, and we can all recall the days of Daddy putting us in the fields to hoe cotton. Since I was the oldest, he put me on a tractor when I was 10 years old, raking hay and doing the lighter stuff.
“He bought a new two-row cotton picker in the early 1960s and had me operating it when I was 14. It was one of the first in this part of the state and we did a lot of picking for other farmers.
“It was all hard work, but we learned the value of that hard work, and farming with him was a lot of fun — a happy, loving, Irish family. My brothers and I have been fortunate that he made the necessary provisions for the farm to stay in the family, so we could keep working together.
“We're not getting rich at farming, but we watch our pennies and we manage to keep going.”