The secret to Frank Melton's longevity in farming becomes obvious once he's in his pickup truck bumping along turn rows looking at his crops — he just plain loves his job.
The 80-year-old farms about 3,000 acres with the help of his foreman George Wise and three farmhands. Melton farms about 500 acres of rice, 300 acres of wheat, which he'll double-crop with soybeans, and 2,200 acres of full-season soybeans. He and three of his six grandchildren, who farm on their own, share equipment and help each other whenever needed.
About 1,600 acres are precision leveled or land formed, a process he began in the early 1970s. The need to irrigate has not ebbed over the years, notes Melton. “If you can't water today, you better get out of the business.”
Of course, there are other reasons why Melton is still going strong in his farming career. Hard work, good management and keeping good credit are paramount.
He learned the work ethic early. He started his farming career “when I got old enough, you might say. My daddy passed away in 1957, but I was working on the family farm before that. Really, I've been farming all my life.”
Melton's father, Fred Lawson Melton, came to Brazil, Miss., northeast of Sumner, when the federal government was selling timberland for around a dollar an acre. He bought 40 acres, cleared it and started farming. He built an operation that would one day be run by his four sons, Frank, Howard, Dillard and Bobby.
“When Daddy wasn't farming, he was logging virgin timberland,” Melton said. “He'd take our farmhands and put them in the woods, cutting timber and hauling it to the mill. Everything was sharecropped back then, and 22 or so sharecroppers lived on the farm.”
Frank was expected to pull his share of the workload, being one of 12 children, and when he was big enough, he got behind a plow and a mule, helped out at the lumber mill, and picked and chopped cotton.
Melton's youth included a number of humbling experiences with the unpredictable, meandering Tallahatchie River within 5 miles of the farm place and the mighty Mississippi River some 30 miles to the west.
Melton was born in 1927, the year of the Great Mississippi River Flood, the most destructive flood in U.S. history. He was 10 years old when the Flood of 1937 converged on the family farm. In those days, governments could do little to provide shelter and food for those driven from their homes by the surging brown water. Every person took the task on his own shoulders.
“Daddy went to Charleston, Miss., and rented a large house for 12 families to live in until the flood waters receded,” Melton recalls. “I had an aunt (who was forced out of her home by the flood) who was lucky enough to take shelter in a boxcar in Brazil. The boxcar was right beside the depot that had a platform that came up to the door. I stayed with her for a week and played on the depot porch.”
Melton recalls the year he harvested corn in hip boots, wading between the rows, breaking off ears of corn and chunking them into a rowboat he pulled behind him.
Those experiences toughened up the young Melton, and by the time he was 21, he was ready to start a life on his own. In 1949, Melton married the former June Jennings of Walnut, Miss, a Southern lady he met while she was a scorekeeper for Melton's opposing baseball team.
Fred Melton bought the couple 28 acres to help them get started. The deed to the property included terms for “an old gray mare named Mabel” and a small house, which they lived in until they built their own home near Brazil, a former railroad stop which never quite made it to town status.
Needing furniture for his new bride, Melton approached a banker to borrow a $1,000. The banker, noting that Brazil's economy was strong enough to support a cotton gin, lent him the money on a handshake.
Like his father, Melton looked for enterprise at every opportunity. “A friend and I bought a John Deere self-propelled combine back in 1952 from the local John Deere dealer. We cut 100 acres of soybeans for a man for a fourth of what he made, which was two bushels an acre. So we got a half of a bushel.”
The hard times never discouraged the young farmer. He and the partner hauled the combine from Tunica County to Glen Allen, Miss., doing custom harvesting to help pay the note on the machine.
One year, when winter came early, he ran a two-row cotton picker through the field as snow fell all around him. “We had to get the cotton out,” Melton says.
When Fred passed away, Melton farmed with his four brothers for several years until each struck out on his own in the 1970s. Melton began building his 1,200-acre farm, renting or buying land, and improving it, putting together a cohesive, manageable farming unit.
His proudest purchase was 205 acres of cultivable land with 100 acres of wooded hunting land. He paid off the loan in five years without a down payment. “It helps when you have some land paid for and you make decent crops on it. I have made 55-bushel soybeans off the land.”
Melton stopped growing cotton in 1996 after he couldn't push yields any higher, and threw his effort completely into rice and soybeans. “A lot of people say cotton paid the bills for them. For me, it was rice.”
The first year in rice, Melton drove a John Deere 4020 with a 12-foot drill. To harvest the crop, he bought a John Deere 6600 combine “with no air and I drove it with a towel wrapped around my neck.”
He and June have kept the farm in the black with good credit and giving priority to paying their bills. “Some months, I wondered if we were going to make it, but we did. Both of us are real tax conscious. We think about it every day. And we manage our money.” Melton also credits his operating lender for getting him through some tough times.
Longevity in farming, notes Melton, is also about good farm management. “I'm not the best manager. I think I do pretty well. And if I have a field that looks good, I've got to go look at it twice. I always know what's going on.”
The hard years behind him now, the “R” word is seldom mentioned in the Melton family. “I think about retirement every now and then, but then I think, ‘what am I going to do if I'm not farming?’ I don't like to do anything else except fishing and hunting,” Melton said.
“‘Frank L.’ was going to retire at 59,” June said. “But he's still going strong at 80.”
Besides, it's hard to think about retiring when there is so much work left to be done. Melton is not one to let age be a deterrent to taking on a new tract of land or an improvement project on the farm.
For example, this is the third year that Melton has planted twin-row soybeans on 40-inch rows. “I like it, but our John Deere planter won't get closer than 15 inches. It scares me that we plant the soybeans so close to the side of the row. It can slide off into the middle.”
Learning new technology is a lot easier when your three grandsons grew up on Star Wars and video games. Melton was in a rice field recently stepping off levees when a grandson drove up on a GPS-equipped tractor and offered to pull levees for him. “He dropped down and pulled that levee as pretty as you please. I had read about it, but I didn't know you could do that. That was a well-earned savings right there — mostly from walking.”
When asked what he loves the most about farming, Melton noted, “You're your own boss and you can do what you want to do. If you want to take off for an hour or two, you just shut everything down and take off. And I still love driving a tractor.”
For Melton, achieving longevity in farming is the same as achieving longevity in life. You may have to pace yourself as you get older, but you never truly retire from what you love to do.