Thirty years ago, Robert “Jaby” Denton was just getting his feet on the ground as a farmer in the Mississippi Delta, and he could hardly have picked a more inauspicious time — commodity prices in the toilet, farmers going out of business by the droves in what was euphemistically termed “the restructuring of U.S. agriculture,” and not terribly bright prospects for things to get better.

While he was continuing a farming tradition begun by his great-grandfather in the 1800s, his entry into the business had been rather abrupt.

“I was a junior in high school,” he recalls, “when my father had a heart attack. I was the only son at home, so I got elected to help look after things on the farm.”

He was not exactly overjoyed.

“Three years earlier, Dad had given me three acres of cotton that was totally grown up in johnsongrass. After chopping that stuff all summer, I had resolved I would never be a farmer.

“God laughs at those who make plans,” he says wryly.

Flash forward to 1977, when he returned from Mississippi State University with an ag economics degree and, as his father’s health worsened, began assuming a larger share of the farm’s management.

In 1980, he bought out his father, but it was not a scenario of young-man-gets-a-farm-handed-to-him-on-a-silver-platter.

“It was a terrible year to be buying a farm,” he says. “Dad told me if I hoped to survive, I would have to make the farm pay its own way. Nothing was given to me — not the first acre of land, not the first tractor. He said he’d help with advice, but making it work financially was up to me.

“Dad was very conservative; he wouldn’t sign the first note for me — it was sink or swim, he said. He sold the equipment to me, and I borrowed money from the Farmers Home Administration.”

Four years later, in 1985, Denton had accumulated a wall full of plaques and certificates honoring his farming accomplishments, and had been named the state’s Outstanding Young Farmer by the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

He was farming 1,500 acres of cotton, soybeans, and grain sorghum, and had a pecan orchard with about 400 trees.

In a 1985 article about his accomplishments, he said, “I’ve managed my operation with the determination that I would be successful — or I would get out. My overriding goal is to survive economically. Dad was careful with money, and it must be in my blood. I’ve been very cautious; I hate debt.

“When I started farming, my No. 1 goal was to keep up with every penny that was spent, so I could know at all times whether I was making progress or falling behind. The money I borrowed from FmHA was paid back in three years.”

There aren’t that many differences in the ways good farmers carry out their various management and production practices, Denton said in 1985. “But there are vast differences in how farmers deal with their finances. I don’t make the top yields in the county, and I don’t have the prettiest fields, but when it comes to the bottom line, I’ve always managed to pay my bills on time.”

As a FmHA committee member, he said, “I’ve had an unusual opportunity to see firsthand why a lot of farmers have failed in this environment. In too many cases, they didn’t watch what they spent, they took on non-productive land, they borrowed money they had no reasonable hope of repaying, and they were caught in a vicious financial cycle.

“Even in a good year, with big yields and good income, you can’t feel you’ve got it made. With farming as it is now, if you spend too heavily, the next year can take you to the cleaners.”

Flash forward again. Present day. On a hot, dry May morning, with dust clouds blowing across fields where farmers are trying to plant cotton, Denton is piloting a SpraCoupe across a soybean field.

He’s still farming in Quitman County — he now has 2,500 acres, about 50/50 cotton and grains (corn, soybeans, and grain sorghum) — and despite having to irrigate corn in early May, everything is up and growing well. The pecan orchard of 1985 is history, decimated by the 1994 Ice Storm of the Century, and that land is now in crops. He now is president of Producers Gin of Belen, a co-op facility located nearly.  It’s the only gin left in the county, and processes 20,000 to 30,000 bales, depending on cotton’s fortunes in any given year.

He parks the sprayer at the end of the field and reminisces about the path his farming career has taken since 1985, how well his earlier-era business principles have served him, and how world markets and technology have changed the face of agriculture.