Beth Morton is every bit as polite as one might expect the wife of a farmer to be, but not even her country manners could keep her from rushing her husband, Keith, back into the combine.
“I’m sorry,” she said, smiling and squinting against the brilliance of the sun as it set over her and her husband’s soybean fields in Falkner.
“Every minute counts and I know he needs to be harvesting. The Lord has blessed us with pretty weather – for now.”
Beth turned a half circle, surveying the land, and recalled that more rain was in the forecast.
“God will take care of us,” she said. For years she and her husband have walked among their crops, blessing them in the name of Jesus. They’ve also prayed to rebuke storms.
“We won’t tolerate fear in our thinking,” she said. “Fear opens the door for Satan. Good and perfect things come from God.”
Grounding in faith
It’s been said that people who live by the rhythms of the earth, who draw their sustenance from the predictability of climatic conditions, are more conservative and more religious than those who live in cities.
Martha Jo Coleman, director of the Town Square Museum in Pontotoc, said farmers feel a connection to their land that goes beyond simple ownership. It reaches into dimensions of human existence that strike biblical chords, as when God created Adam and Eve from the dust of the earth.
That grounding in faith gives farmers strength to deal with the vicissitudes of weather as well as with the economic triumphs and defeats that come and go as easily as rain and sunshine.
At nightfall in Falkner the rows of shorn bean stalks in Morton’s field showed it had been a good day. He’d harvested over 1,500 bushels and each pass brought him closer to finishing his 1,000 acres.
Throughout the second wettest October in Mississippi history Morton watched helplessly as his beans nearly drowned, but a healthy stretch of sunny days in early November had dried his fields just enough to let him resume harvesting.
On this November morning he’d started cutting as soon as the dew dried, about 11 a.m., and he planned to cut until an hour after sundown, at which point the dew would fall again, causing the beans and pods to clog in the header of his combine.
Morton raced against the darkness and the headlights of his giant machine illuminated the sea of brittle, gray-brown beans as well as, all around them, deep ruts in the mud like the footprints of dinosaurs.
A computer screen in his combine showed that the beans he was harvesting held just over 13 percent moisture, an ideal number for bringing a healthy price at market – around $9.50 per bushel – and he saw the robust yield as proof of the power of prayer.
A few miles south, however, in the small town of Cotton Plant, Calvin White lamented that he was forced to pay many farmers less this year for their beans because of rain damage.
White, who operates the local grain elevator, expects to get his usual 300,000 to 400,000 bushels this year, which he stores and then resells, but moldy, misshapen beans aren’t as valuable.
“They’ve been bringing them in with 16, 17 percent moisture –sometimes more – and they get pretty upset when I have to knock off the price,” he said.
As a man of faith, White doesn’t take any pleasure in shorting his fellow farmers, but the rain in October was as bad as he’s ever seen, and everybody in the industry is hurting.
White, who recently dealt with cancer in his family, said he sometimes scratches his head and wonders what God is up to, but he doesn’t question it.
“We just have to believe it will work out in the end,” he said. “I believe it will.”
The rain has also devastated corn crops. In southern Pontotoc County, Mike Bowen drove his 4-wheel-drive pickup amongst stalks that were as brown and brittle as those garnishing the scarecrows on Pontotoc’s courthouse square. Underneath, the soil was as soft as ice cream.
Bowen peeled open an ear of corn, exposing tendrils that were creeping around the kernels at the base. Overabundant moisture had caused the seeds inside the husk to sprout an unwelcome, secondary growth.
“You can’t sell corn that’s too wet,” said Bowen. Near his shop, stored in large, metal bins, giant fans turned over the thousands of bushels of beans he’d already harvested, drying them.
Bowen figures that over his 5,000 acres of beans and corn he’ll suffer 20 percent loss. That’s mild considering many farmers are looking at upwards of 50 percent loss, particularly those who planted beans early in the spring and didn’t replant.
Normally, farmers would have most of their beans and corn harvested by Halloween. As of the first of November, Bowen figured that even if it didn’t rain another drop he wouldn’t finish harvesting until mid-December.
He knows some farmers who’ve given over to despair, but as a man of faith he’s keeping his chin up.
“The farmer sees first-hand that God is in control, not us,” he said.
For three generations Bowen’s family has operated the B and B Cotton Gin in Randolph. Because of the soaring price of start-up materials like seed and fertilizer, and because of the low price the crop brings on today’s market – about 50 cents per pound – nobody planted cotton this year in Pontotoc County. For the first time since 1929 Bowen’s gin is silent.
At the Pontotoc County Museum, Coleman held a cotton farmer’s picking record and calculator booklet, published decades ago by Phillips Gin Co. in Calhoun City. There was an entry for every day of the week except for Sunday, the day on which the Bible says to rest.
“You can’t be an atheist and farm,” said Reginald Odom, a member of the historical society.
For Bowen, the disappearance of cotton from the fields of Pontotoc, just like the abundant rainfall of recent months, reflects the mysterious relationship between man, God and the earth.
“Well, God has given us enough good years to outweigh the bad,” he said, smiling.
As the weather continued to hold throughout early November, combines crept through the fields of Northeast Mississippi well into the night.
Bowen rented an additional combine and managed to finish harvesting well ahead of what he’d expected.
Some farmers, like George Watson of the Strong community, finished then went to work helping others beat the rain.
Watson, 73, said that without a grounding in faith and a lot of patience a man needn’t bother getting into farming.
“I’ve known several to carry their keys to the bank and give them over, say ‘It’s ya’ll’s,’” he said. “This will be the first time a lot of these youngsters have had a really bad crop.”
When Watson’s children were small they used to perform a mock rain dance in the back yard to help their father. On a recent Friday, Watson helped his son, G.F., work on a damaged combine. As happens with many farmers, this mechanical failure was costing him at least half a day’s work.
“Unless you’ve got somebody to help you, it’s hard to get started farming,” he said. “The banks won’t lend the money like they used to and folks today don’t have the patience they used to.”
A few miles down the road Brad Judson and his assistant, Lance Watson, stood in the middle of a half-picked bean field digging mud out of the header sections of a John Deere combine.
The two 33-year-olds have known each other since kindergarten. Usually by November they’re getting ready to go deer hunting but with almost half of their 2,400 acres of beans still in the field, recreation had to wait.
“The Bible says you can work on the Sabbath if your ox is in the ditch,” said Judson, turning a ratchet with one hand and scraping mud with the other. “Well, the ox is just about in the ditch.”
Watson used to work for the power company and lost his right hand repairing damaged lines after Hurricane Katrina. As the clock neared 11 a.m. he looked at his arm, then looked at the combine and across the wet field.
“It would be real easy to blame it on the Lord,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. God wasn’t done with me, and he’s not done with farmers, either.”
In Falkner the lights of the nearby football field came on for a Thursday night game. Morton made one last pass through his beans and noticed headlights approaching down the field road in the distance. He pulled the combine alongside the bin so that the auger and spout were perched above it, then he pushed a button and the beans flowed into the bin in a heavy stream, rising quickly and nearly spilling over.
Beth pulled the pickup close and Keith removed his Bible from behind the seat of the combine and read Psalm 65. “You care for the land and water it…and bless its crops,” Keith said. “Your carts overflow with abundance.” He paused, then laughed.
“I didn’t mean for it to overflow,” he said.
The Mortons live modestly, in a double-wide trailer, but they tithe robustly, and they’ve even paid to build a home for a poor family in Brazil.
“We believe in sewing blessing into other people’s lives,” said Keith.
Beth climbed the ladder up the side of the combine, wearing a jacket against the cool of the evening.
“We’re blessed to be a blessing,” she said. “God gave us his word to use in everyday life. Each day is like Thanksgiving to us.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal