“I think I was born wanting to farm,” says Ben Harlow.

“As an only child, living out in the country, there were no neighboring children to play with. Instead of playing cowboys and Indians or playing with toy cars, I had toy tractors.

“We didn’t have carpet in our living room and I ‘farmed’ on the floor. In my play world, I planted crops, cared for them, and harvested them. I got unhappy if someone accidentally stepped on my ‘farm.’”

Flash ahead four decades and Ben is now, he says, “living my dream.” He’s been a full-time farmer in the prairie section of northeast Mississippi for more than a decade, starting with just 200 acres and no equipment, and gradually building to today’s 1,650 acres and a full complement of equipment.

The zinger, however, in his saga of childhood dream to adult reality is that Ben didn’t come from a farming family.

“I’m something of a rarity — a first generation farmer,” he laughs. “My parents didn’t farm, and I don’t know where my innate fascination with farming came from. But as far back as I can remember, there was this compelling desire to be a farmer.

“There were some folks who farmed land around us, in those days with old open-top tractors, and they would let me ride around with them as they did farm work. When I got old enough, I drove tractors for them, and even when I went off to college at Mississippi State University, I still worked part-time on their farms.”

After earning a degree in animal and dairy science, he went to work with MSU Extension doing entomology work, and later applied for and got the position of Extension agent in Calhoun County, Miss.

“I continued doing farm work in my spare time,” he says, “and in 1999 one of the farmers I’d worked with was letting some land go. He helped work out arrangements for me to rent 200 acres. I had no equipment, so he let me rent his, and I made my first crop in 2000.”

He’d also, at the same time, agreed to go to west Tennessee to work with the boll weevil eradication program that was under way there, and as soon as that first crop was planted, he left to go there.

“I commuted home every weekend to look after the crop,” he says. “Unfortunately, that was not a good year to start farming — there was almost no rain, and my crops didn’t do very well. The corn yield was only 78 bushels and soybeans a dismal 9.5 bushels.

“It was a disappointment, but I had a job to help keep me going financially, and with the optimism that seems to be characteristic of every farmer, I looked forward to the next year being better.”

The following year, Ben was able to rent another 66 acres, and purchased his first piece of equipment, a used disk. Things turned out better — soybeans averaged close to 40 bushels, “which is good in these heavy clay prairie soils,” and corn was about 125 bushels.

“I also learned that year that I couldn’t work a full-time job and farm, too,” he says, “so I took the big leap and decided to become a full-time farmer.

“As land came available, I kept adding acres here and there, and with another farm I was able to rent this year, am now up to 1,650 acres, all rented, most on a cash basis, some on a crop-share basis. A lot of the land had been in CRP or in hay; some I got from farmers who were retiring.”