Thomas Neblett was 20 years old and carried the weight of 2,400 acres on his shoulders. He was a rookie farmer in a graying game — and literally one of the youngest producers in the United States. He steeled his nerve, kept his balance — and thrived.

Two years later, Neblett is holding tight to the reins of Sunrise Planting Co., Clarksdale, Miss. Now 22, with the average age of American farmers at 60, and with estimates that over half of American farmland will change hands in the next 20 years, Neblett seems all the younger.

He lacks the experience of his fellow U.S. farmers, but not the confidence or drive. Neblett speaks in a remarkably plain manner: “As far as being 22 years old, there’s a lot of guys that work on farms that are my age, but I’m the only guy I know of that’s 22 and running his own farm. I suppose I’ve never been intimidated by people or circumstance. If I know I’m right or I know I can do something — I will go to the mat. Sure, I’ve been knocked down a few times, but that’s just part of the territory.”

As a boy, Neblett knew he was destined for agriculture and no what matter what wind blew him, he kept farming in his heart and on his mind. Neblett has worked on a farm since he was 12, spending each summer working on his father’s (Rives Neblett) land at Allendale Planting Co., in Shelby, Miss.

Out of high school, Neblett spent a year and a half at Ole Miss before the pull of farming became too strong. At age 19, he began working in agriculture full-time on his brother Bill Joe Denton’s farm (B & S Partnership), in Wilson, Ark., about an hour north of Memphis, just across the Mississippi River and off the levee. He spent almost a year in Wilson: “Bill Joe threw me out there and told me to figure out a way to do it. He’s really laid-back and there I was, learning as I went. I worked my tail off 80 to 100 hours a week on a tractor, combine, picker, sprayer, didn’t matter; I soaked up the responsibility and learned.”

 

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.

 

The grind paid off for Neblett. “One day my dad called me. He said, ‘I know this is truly what you want to do. Come home; I’ve got a place I want to rent out and I want you to farm it.’”

When the window opened, Neblett leaped through without hesitation, seizing the opportunity and running. “I had a chance and I wasn’t going to pass it up. I knew I could take a great opportunity and make it even better.”