“In 1997, a landowner in the area offered me some really good ground that would give us enough acres that I thought we could make a living at farming, and I turned in my notice at the plant. For better or worse, I was a full-time farmer.”

There would be challenges still, but Norton says he’s never regretted for a minute the decision he made.

“In 1993, I planted my first cotton crop, and I’ve grown it ever since. My friend, Dan West, who farms near me and is a top-notch farmer, generously shared his knowledge and experience. I wrote notes on everything he said, and kept them in my pocket so I could refer to them.

“In 1995, the tobacco budworm hit hard. By the time harvest came, I had $100,000 tied up in 250 acres of cotton. I was able to save some of the bottom crop and averaged just 400 pounds. I lost a lot of money on that crop.

“In 1996, NuCOTN 33B transgenic cotton came out. I planted 235 acres and averaged 940 lbs. It was a really good crop, and it put us back in the cotton business. But in 1999-2000, we had back-to-back drought years, and averaged only 400 lbs. Over the long term though, cotton has been good to us. It’s drought tolerant and will hang in there and give you another chance when rain finally comes along.

“We bought our first 4-row picker in 1997, which made things somewhat easier. We later added another 4-row machine, but three years ago replaced them with a 6-row John Deere 9996, a really nice machine that makes harvest move quickly. Keith helps me out some at busy times and I hire some part-time help with the harvesting.”

Peanuts were added to the crop mix in 2008, Norton says. “Brian Atkins, manager of Birdsong Peanuts’ Prairie, Miss., buying point, contacted me about putting some of my land in peanuts. I didn’t know the first thing about the crop, but I’d been cotton, cotton, cotton for so long, I decided to give it a try for the rotational benefit — plus, it looked like a potentially profitable crop. The Birdsong folks were very helpful with advice and assistance.

“Our clayey soils are almost borderline for peanuts, and harvesting in the fall can be risky if the weather turns wet or cold. Harvesting peanuts is slow compared to cotton. Some have said we’re too far north for peanuts, but Dan West, who pioneered peanuts in this part of the state, has been growing them successfully for several years now. I had a bit of frost damage on one field in 2011, but there was no significant impact on yield.