But Northeast Mississippi has its hands deep in the soil, too, and Bill Spain represents the region as well as anyone.
So well that he was recently named the 2012 Mississippi winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.
He’s the first Northeast Mississippi farmer to win the honor, and will vie for the overall title next month in Georgia.
“There are a lot of good farmers in this part of the world,” Spain said. “It’s really something to be able to represent Northeast Mississippi and the whole state.”
Spain has been farming land throughout Prentiss County for 37 years, following a long family tradition. His father, Billy, started farming in 1968. At 76, he’s still active in the business. Spain’s mother, Marie, at 75, also is busy. Spain’s sister, Laura Harber, and her husband, Jerry, are involved with the farm, too.
One friend of the family, Jack Smith, said Marie is famous for cooking huge breakfasts for the farm workers. The Spains treat everyone like family.
“They don’t come any better than them,” Smith said.
Charlie Stokes, area agronomy agent for Mississippi State University’s Extension Service, nominated Spain for the award. He, too, heaped praise on the Spain family.
“We depend on them, and they depend on us,” he told the Southeast Farm Press. “They are just good people.”
And good farmers, too.
The high yields from the farm’s operations helped Spain win the award. Last year, Spain grew soybeans on about 2,800 acres, cotton in 1,050 acres and wheat on 517 acres. He produced 35 bushels per acre for soybeans, 900 pounds of lint for cotton and 60 bushels per acre for wheat.
Spain said this year he planted 1,500 acres of cotton and 5,000 acres of soybeans, along with a few hundred acres of wheat.
Asked if expanding the business was a possibility, Spain wasn’t quite ready to make that jump.
“Sometimes, you just need to work with what you’ve got and improve the yield,” he said. “That’s easier sometimes than working more land.”
With equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with higher fuel and fertilizer, it makes sense to make the best of what you have.
“I’ve got some older equipment that’s still working, and I have an excellent mechanic who keeps them running,” Spain said. “I don’t know what I’d do without him. I could buy brand-new equipment, but everything’s still working.”
Farmers are at the mercy of nature. They’re always looking at the sky for more rain – or less, sometimes – knowing that certain crops have windows of opportunity. Missing a window could mean the difference between a good harvest or a poor one.
“We’re 100 percent dry land, which means we have no irrigation,” Spain said.
Rain has been spotty this year, but when it has come, it’s been usually at ideal times for Spain’s crops.
But that hasn’t helped the low level of the Mississippi River, where Spain has to ship most of his soybeans to be transported. Because the barges have to be partially filled to avoid getting stuck, Spain and other farmers may have to hold on to their beans for longer periods.
So Spain is overseeing the construction of two 35,000-bushel bins on the farm.
“We’ve been needing them for some time, so we decided to just go ahead and do it now,” he said.
At 56, Spain has plenty of farming left in his blood. But he admits he’s not sure he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He’s really a hands-on guy. ... he’s happy to just get on a backhoe on a Sunday. He likes getting out there,” Spain said. “I don’t know that I’ll still be that active at his age.”
Spain hops on a tractor, too, most often during planting and harvesting. But he’s more often in a truck, servicing the tractors and checking on everything else.
His dad, Spain chuckled, would rather stay in the field.
But make no mistake: “I love what I do and I’m fortunate to do what I’m doing,” Spain said.
He does have some spare time to hunt – he’s particularly fond of turkey hunting – and travel when he can with his wife, Teri.
And eventually, he’ll slowly step away from the business, leaving it in the capable hands of other family members.
His son, William Guy Spain, died in a car wreck two years ago.
“He grew up on the farm like I did,” Spain said quietly. “He rode in my dad’s lap on the tractor. ... he knew the business.”
After his son’s death, his son-in-law, Justin Taylor, filled William’s role.
“He really stepped in,” Spain said. “He was a landscape contractor and had a very successful business, but he just stepped in and started helping. He’s always loved farming and it shows. I’m thankful to have him.”
Justin is married to one of Spain’s daughters, Jessica, who teaches and coaches softball at Baldwyn. Spain’s other daughter, Jennifer, also is a teacher.
“I’m thankful for all of them,” Spain said. “One of these days, I want to be just a helper.”