Putting all his eggs in one basket has never been Mike Robinson’s way of farming. At 52 years old, he has one of the most diversified and successful operations around Belvidere, Tenn., and those two facts alone more than justify his being named state winner at the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern 2017 Farmer of the Year awards.
“All famers realize trials and tribulations come with the job, but the ones I’ve faced never dampened my resolve or passion for farming,” says Robinson. His first farm-related job was milking cows at a small-scale dairy and peddling the milk to neighbors down the road. He eventually bought the dairy. With his grandfather’s financial help, he purchased 18 acres of land while in the 11th grade, which put him on track to becoming a full-time farmer.
“As a child I dreamed of farming, and eventually knew I wanted a wife that shared the same love for the land as I did,” says Robinson. “When I met my wife Krislyn, I knew I had found the one for me. We’ve been married since 1985, and today have four children, Kaylee, Callie Pearl, and identical twins Kary and Tracy, who all handle various on-farm responsibilities.” Krislyn has always been active in community ag-centric organizations and associations as well as in efforts to educate school groups about farming and agriculture – something to which the entire family is extremely dedicated.
The Robinson family manages over 3,000 acres of rented and owned land where they grow full-season, and double-cropped soybeans, corn, oats, hay, timber, and maintain 125 head of Angus beef cattle that produced 120 calves in 2016. He operated a Grade A dairy with 150 cows from 1996 until 2004, and realized he needed to either expand his operation or quit – so he let the time-intensive dairy business go. “Our twin sons were 11 then and I wanted them to experience other aspects of the farm so we picked up our row crop business,” said Robinson. “Unlike milk, where you take what you’re given for it, I can put beans and corn in bins and put my marketing consultant to work.”
He rotates soybeans with corn to prevent yield drag. In 2016, he placed third in both no-till irrigated and dryland categories of the National Corn Growers Association’s state yield contest. Robinson recently purchased an additional farm on a bend of the Elk River, a tributary of the Tenn. River. He took the judges there when they visited his farm to evaluate him for the Farmer of the Year award.
He irrigates that entire farm with a traveling gun irrigation system that sprays water in a 300-foot swath. “It’s a beautiful place; the travelers work well there, and the river supplies all the water we need,” he says. “It’s a lot of work but we sometimes see as much as 50 bushels an acre difference in our yields.”
Robinson has a few farms where he cannot plant soybeans because of the high deer population. They eat the tops out of the young soybeans, and it gets worse when the beginning of the growing season is especially dry. A few farmers go to the trouble of getting permits to legally reduce the numbers, but you pretty much have to do it at night,” says Robinson. “It almost becomes another job, and I’ve got plenty of jobs right now as it is!”
The entire family loves the community-related events they periodically host at Sugartree Farms. From the tug-of-war over a water-filled pit Mike dug with his backhoe, to the antique tractor caravan or old equipment day when neighboring farmers brought out their old plows to show how it used to be done, the events capture and epitomize the comradery that is pervasive throughout the Robinson family and their farm.
When the farm allows, Mike and the twins love to ride their Polaris Razor all-terrain vehicles at various mountain trails across the Mid-South and Southeast. We all enjoy the mountains, getting out and seeing nature. It’s a small diversion from the farm,” says Robinson. “I guess when I’m up there my mind isn’t always on the farm – as much.”
His most difficult years farming were the first few when he had hardly any working capital, land or experience. He cut his first soybean crop with a Model 66 Allis Chalmers pull-type combine. It cut 66 inches of soybeans at a time. He paid $200 for it. “It would have cost me $200 to pay someone to cut those beans. After I was done, I sold it, made a little money on it and got my soybean crop out too. I was happy,” says Robinson.
When asked if he would do anything differently, looking back on his life to date, he admits he would have spent more time strengthening his leadership and public speaking skills through participation in events like the Tennessee Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers. “The last year we participated, we were runner-up for the Achievement Award. I think we could have won it had we been a little more consistently active,” he says. “I was milking cows back then though, and it was hard for us to get away from the dairy.”
Robinson looks forward to the end of every harvest, when the corn and soybeans are in bins, equipment is under the shed, and the various baskets in which he chooses to put his eggs are fewer.