When Shirley Dunnahoe retired from her job as a quality control manager for a hospital goods manufacturer in 1993, it didn’t take her long to find another job — working with her husband, Jamie, farming cotton.
Since then, two things made the husband and wife farming team a success — their commitment to efficiency and a hands-on approach to the job.
Jamie handles the nuts and bolts of the operation, driving the tractors and pickers and keeping equipment in top shape. He’s strictly the one in the field “where the rubber meets the road,” he says.
Shirley does what many farm wives do — keeping the books and running for parts. But she also scouts cotton during the season, and at harvest, runs a module builder and tarps and tags modules.
Shirley’s words have the feel of someone who has been there. “Sometimes it’s so bad at harvest that you’re eating dirt all day long. But it’s better than the mud. You have to convince yourself of that every time you take a bite of it. I remember when we had to wait until the ground froze before we could get the pickers in the field because the ground was so muddy. Those weren’t the days.”
The Dunnahoes built their cotton farm from scratch to 4,500 acres over a 31-year span. “We didn’t start off with anything given to us,” Shirley said. “What we have, we earned. We did it the hard way. There was no quit in Jamie.”
“We made it work,” said Jamie, who started off in 1976 with 40 acres, a 4020 John Deere tractor, a borrowed four-row planter, a cultivator and a used two-row cotton picker. For a while he was working two other jobs — including a winter job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Stuttgart, Ark., from which he retired three years ago. Early on, Shirley traveled the Mid-South for Superior Surgical.
In the days before Shirley joined the operation full-time, a lot of the child-rearing was left to Jamie. Sondra, their oldest, helped during the tough times — driving a tractor and working in the fields. Their youngest daughter, Stephanie, usually spent the day in the field with her daddy.
They survived the drought of 1980 and the loss of a home to fire and they managed to stay ahead of the rising cost of doing business by steadily increasing yields through irrigation. When Shirley came on board as a farming partner, too, it was clear what she needed to do.
“Jamie wanted nothing to do with office work. He doesn’t have the patience. And I guess that’s why we work it out. It gives me enough to do.”
Shirley also keeps records on yield-by-variety on the farm, and helps Jamie plan for the upcoming season. It’s always a team effort.
“We are constantly studying varieties trying to find out what works best for us, what works best on our ground,” said Shirley. “We do the same with the chemical companies and new technologies. In the winter, we are trying to figure out what we’re going to use and where we’re going to put it.”
Shirley is not involved in planting operations, and prefers to keep it that way. “I learned a long time ago, before I was ever involved on the farm, not to try to talk to Jamie a whole lot during planting and harvest. If there’s something you’re planning or want to have done, just put it off for a while. Farmers won’t listen to you very much during those times of the years.”
During the growing season, Shirley scouts cotton, runs parts and errands, does the payroll and handles all the paperwork. On scouting, she says, “I’m probably a little more cautious than some. If we have an insect out there and it doesn’t get sprayed, we might not have a living that winter.”
Their common goal at harvest is to keep their three John Deere 9996 cotton pickers running. Jamie works with the ground crew while Shirley runs a module builder. “Jamie and I will have radios and we direct the traffic when the boll buggies come in to unload. If you’re not careful, you’ll have all of them full at the same time and a boll buggy will be coming in with no place to dump. The goal is to never let that picker stop. Jamie jumps about two feet off the ground if a picker has to stop. You don’t want to have anything to do with that.
“It’s a full-time, heady job,” Shirley said. “But whatever needs to be done on that turnrow, we do it. You either call your modules in or fax them to the gin so they can put you on a schedule to get you picked up by the gin.”
On a big cotton farm, every minute saved is a dollar earned at harvest. “It’s important to me to get that money in, get it turned over and stop that interest from accumulating at the bank,” Shirley said. “They do a good job at Dumas Gin.”
“We want to be efficient,” Jamie said of the harvesting operation. “We have four full-time people running a 4,500-acre farm. We have to make every lick count. We have to be productive.”
When they do disagree over something on the farm, “We discuss things,” Jamie said. “She keeps me tightened up by asking questions. One day, I told Shirley I had lent my neighbor a tractor for three weeks. When she asked why, I told her that we really didn’t need it. She said if we don’t need why are we keeping it.”
“Jamie told me that if one tractor goes down during a crucial time, he has to have one right then. He can’t wait. I understood that,” Shirley said. “But he did scare me to death one time when a picker went down at harvest one year. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to town to get a picker. I said, ‘Do what!’ Well they decided that they could fix the one that broke down pretty fast, so he didn’t. But he would have.”
A cotton farm isn’t the only thing the Dunnahoes built from scratch. Three days before Christmas, in 1988, the Dunnahoe home — an old gray cypress and stone house carefully moved to the farm and remodeled in the early years of their marriage, burned to the ground.
The fire, which started in a laundry room, still evokes bittersweet memories for Shirley. “When we got home, all that was left was the fireplace standing there. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning with nothing.”
They were able to salvage Shirley’s car and a box of pictures of their newborn granddaughter, which Shirley had taken from the house the night before.
While the new home was under construction, Bill Baxter, their major landlord, let the Dunnahoes move into a house he owned. Then he let them have their pick of furniture he had stored in another town.
Even the best farming team can point to a friend who lent a hand along the way. “Mr. Baxter has been a good friend to us for years,” Shirley said.