If a screenwriter wanted to pen a script about a former farmer who shook up the ag equipment industry with his custom manufacturing prowess, Dennis Short might get a phone call. Living about 3 air miles from where he was raised, Short, owner and operator of Short Line Manufacturing, has endless stories to tell, and the gears in his mind never stop turning.
His father farmed, and when he told Dennis he was finally going to teach him to drive a tractor, Dennis thought he had died and gone to heaven. “Dad grew a lot of cotton and a little of what he called poverty peas,” says Short. “He was very intuitive, progressive, and was one of the first growers in our area to grow skip-row cotton or subsoil. Farming got in my blood early.”
The elder Short had a two-row picker and would harvest the outside four rows of 4x4 skip-row cotton, pulling the cotton trailer down the four rows not being picked, using the cotton trailer like a grain cart. “The picker would dump and keep going,” says Short, who remembers the family farm’s cotton yields were always in the top two or three in the county. “He once told me I may think I’m smart, but the day I can’t learn from my neighbor or someone else, I’ll be too damn smart to farm.”
Football and School
Short attended school in Shaw, Miss., until he was a senior. The school’s football team was woefully understaffed and unbeknownst to Short, his father signed him up to attend Bayou Academy because he did not want to see Dennis waste his final year. “We went 9 and 0 my senior season at Bayou, scored 327 points and had only 27 points scored against us. I played guard and linebacker. I wasn’t even thinking about college,” says Short.
“I figured I’d go to Mississippi State University, but Jim Randall, the head coach at Morehead (Mississippi Delta Community College) walked up to me one day and in a long, slow Southern drawl asked me if I wanted to come play football for him.”
Just before his first game, Coach Randall asked Short if he could play both offense and defense. He lasted a little over two quarters, but by the end of the year, he was playing offense and defense the entire game and was down to 178 pounds. “I was wearing clothes I hadn’t tried on since high school, and I could run down a deer,” laughs Short. “I was playing against guys 240 pounds, but I was so quick they couldn’t touch me.”
By the early 1970s, Short had been at MSU a few semesters and had accumulated 80 hours of credits toward an engineering degree. One sunny spring day he was in a thermodynamics class when he slammed his book shut and knew what he wanted to do — go home and farm. “To this day I swear I could smell the dirt around our home, and I knew Daddy was in the field,” remembers Short. “Dr. Kent Stiffler asked if I was just going to give up my credits and quit. I couldn’t get home quick enough.”
Short helped finish out that year’s crop. The next year, rain delayed harvest and the pickers left ruts in the soggy Delta soil. His father told him to pick out a farmhand to help disk in the ruts. They did it three nights in a row — all night long. “I might have gotten 8 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I was tired and useless,” says Short. “Daddy looked at me and quipped, ‘…those books at State are lookin’ pretty good right now, ain’t they, boy…’, but I told him he could work me 24/7 forever, but I wasn’t going back to school. I’m doing what I want to do — farm.”
When the 7100 John Deere planter hit the market, the Shorts bought one. It kept throwing chains, and he called the dealer to come pick it up because he was going back to his old International Harvester 8-row 4020 belly-mounted planter. “A rep from John Deere visited the farm inquiring about our dissatisfaction,” says Short. “The local dealer had installed hard-link chains on it. Once we corrected that, I planted 1,700 acres, sometimes planting until 2 o’clock in the morning with no monitors!”
Short had a job one summer overhauling cotton pickers. He was asked if he could weld. The next thing he knew, he had made 13 40-foot cotton trailers. The next year his father told him to retool some cultivators into nine row units for his skip-row cotton. The cut iron was delivered and Dennis started welding. “I thought daddy was watching me, but when I flipped up my welding helmet, he was gone,” laughs Short. “I ended up making three. That broke me in and built my confidence. Daddy passed away in 1975.”
In 1993, Short had made his first “Cotton Vac” that attached to a boll buggy to pick up seed cotton dropped after the picker made its dump. He was slowly going through the patent process when tragedy struck, and his son Matt was killed in a car wreck. “The last thing on my mind was a patent and when I finally circled back, the attorney told me the 12 months I had to apply had passed,” says Short. “I ended up selling a ton of them though.”
Short’s youngest son, Dan, has worked alongside his father since they quit farming. He went to college at MSU his freshman year, then transferred to Delta State University, where he stayed for two and a half years. “I’m about 20 hours away from five different degrees,” says Dan Short. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I took a wide variety of classes.”
Even though those shop walls periodically close in on Dan, he likes the flexibility that farming could not offer. “You can’t beat knowing that you’re able to eat meals with your family at a regular time,” he adds.
Short Line Manufacturing’s busiest time was when cotton really took off after they got out of farming. They built 10 boll buggies their first year. The next year they built 25. After cotton fell off and corn acres increased, they started cranking out liquid fertilizer applicators. “We made four for Sanders one year and the next year we built 10,” adds Dan. “Our busiest year we built 42!”
Choctaw, an unincorporated community in Bolivar County, is a small dot on the Mississippi map, but anyone who has been farming in the Mid-South for any length of time knows exactly where it is because of Dennis Short and Short Line Manufacturing.
When Short first ventured out on his own, an engineer asked him what was his biggest fear. “I told him the only thing that really scared me was being out in public somewhere and having a customer of mine come up to me and tell me something I manufactured and sold him wasn’t working,” says Short.
That mindset is probably the reason Dennis Short found success in the business of farming despite not having planted a seed in almost two decades.