Jack Grills stood on his back porch, pointed past a John Deere combine idled in a cornfield that lapped up to the yard, picked out a point near a stand of trees, and offered landmarks to the left and right. “We have about 22 acres in this plot,” he said. “It was the Mulherin farm, and it’s been in the family since sometime in the 1800s.”
Jack’s grandmother on his father’s side was a Mulherin.
Jack’s sons, Rusty, 36, Hunter, 31, and Cody, 28, are the ninth generation to farm this land, a privilege and a responsibility, they say.
Jack and Rusty considered sitting on the back porch to chat about the legacy of the farm and the practices they have employed generation to generation to make it better, but the sun was hot, the humidity high and the temptation of air conditioning too great to pass up. We went inside to wait for the other brothers.
We spread out around the dining room table where Jack’s wife, Ann, met us with freshly baked banana nut bread and a smile that lit up the room.
“Do you care for a slice?” she asked. “It would be rude to turn it down,” I said.
We chatted about the enterprise mix: corn, soybeans, triticale and a cow/calf herd. We finished the banana nut bread. Talked a bit more about the farm history and prospects: Prices are not favorable. Crops look good. “Corn is off a little from last year,” Jack says. A summer dry spell set it back. He thinks the beans will be good.
He used to plant cotton. “I don’t miss it,” he says.
Rusty agrees. “Every time we got a scouting report on Friday we ended up spraying all weekend.”
Cody came in, with Hunter not far behind. Rusty’s wife, Christi, brought their daughters Hadley, 7, and Jaxie, 4.
The girls like the farm, too. “What do you like best?”
“Riding the tractor,” they both admit, but with different brothers. Jaxie prefers Hunter. Hadley, more diplomatically, says, “with everybody.”
The conversation changed course as often as the farm to market roads change direction in this hilly spot in west Tennessee’s Dyer County. Brothers picked on each other. The two without children vied for the honor of favorite uncle with the nieces. They discussed their sister, Jodi Keeling, who teaches second grade, and wasn’t available to defend herself. Her husband, Jon, is a minister in Wynne, Ark.
They discussed health issues. “I’m the healthiest,” boasts Cody. It was a typical family gathering.
The underlying truth evident in the good-natured ribbing, the stories, and the memories is that this is a close-knit family that reveres the opportunity to farm and to take care of what they consider a legacy passed down from eight generations. Evident, too, is that farming is in their DNA.
“I knew I wanted to farm since I was a little boy, when I got my first Blue Diamond cotton picking sack,” Jack says. He says his dad came home from the Army and went to Memphis to work. “I think he took a bus to Memphis and retuned on the next one back,” he says.
“The day after I graduated from high school, I went to the field. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Ann grew up in the city, knew nothing about farming but always knew she wanted to marry a farmer or a preacher. “I got both,” she says.
She says when Rusty was little she often couldn’t find him. “He was off with his father and grandfather somewhere on the farm.”
“We are blessed to be able to spend time with family,” Hunter says. “A lot of families say that’s what they want. We’ve always done that; we grew up that way.”
Farm Work Preferences
The brothers say they have farm chore “druthers.” “I do most of the spraying,” Hunter says. “It’s just easier for one person to keep up with the chemicals. Rusty does most of the planting and keeps the seeds straight.”
Cody works three nights a week as a radiologist for a hospital in Ripley, Tenn. He received a degree in radiology, mostly online, from East Tennessee State University. He graduated at 20, boosted by dual enrollment (college and high school courses) his senior year in high school. His wife, Jessica, teaches.
“Each one of us is capable of doing anything on the farm,” Hunter adds. “Dad doesn’t like driving the trailer truck,” Rusty says.
They all drive the combine. “It helps us to switch off,” says Hunter, “so we can take a break.”
“Doing anything for 10 hours straight, you’ll burn out,” says Cody.
Ann says the boys were tested a few years back. Jack had bone cancer and was laid up during harvest.
“They didn’t miss a lick,” said Jack, cancer-free for seven years. “I got to drive the combine on the last day of harvest, but they took care of it.”
“It was a blessing, really,” Ann says. “The Lord made it evident to the boys that they could handle things.”