A freak hailstorm 20 years ago resulted in a decision Kevin Kemp regretted for six long years.

“The hail beat a lot of my cotton crop to pulp, and it was too late to replant,” he recalls. “It nearly broke me. I told my wife, Connie, ‘That’s it — no more,’ and I got out of row crops.”

Kevin, who’d grown up a farm boy here in the rolling hills of Leake County in east central Mississippi — “My father, Kendall Kemp, farmed here all his life, and it was in my blood, too” — parked all his equipment “out in the bushes” and started a business that he ran for six years.

But during all that time, the urge to farm never went away.

“Four years ago, the realization just hit me: I missed row crop farming. Once it’s in your blood, nothing else you do is quite the same. While I was out of farming, I was the most miserable man you ever saw. I came home one day and told Connie, ‘I’m going to start farming again. It’s the only work I really like to do. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say I tried. I hope you’ll stay with me, but ...’”

He laughs. “Thankfully, she did. She has supported me all the way. Thankfully, too, we’d had three pretty good years before I got out of farming the first time, and were able to get Connie through nursing school and into a good job.”

With the advent of the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, most of what had been the county’s row crop land was now blanketed with pine trees. Poultry, which was more adaptable to small acreages, was getting to be really big. Chicken houses were springing up everywhere.

“Since 1995, the poultry business in this area has exploded,” he says. “Tyson Foods has a huge plant just down the road that processes probably a million or more chickens a day. I bought four chicken houses, and since then I’ve added more. I now have 12, growing 2 million broilers a year for Tyson. It was a large investment — one house nowadays can cost $250,000 to construct and equip. I’m grateful to my father and mother, who helped me to get started, and First Financial Bank at Carthage for working with me over the years.

“There are many people who have 4-house or 6-house operations, but not many with 12. My two brothers have 22 houses between them, and in this four-county area there are many millions of birds produced each year. Tyson also has egg-laying and hatchery operations; they bring the baby chicks to us, ready to start feeding.