When Brad Spencer realized his destiny was to be a farmer, not a veterinarian, he came back to the family’s Mississippi operation to “rejoin the life I’d always loved.”

He had gone to community college to play baseball, another love, with an eye toward an eventual veterinary medicine degree. But fate stepped in.

“Our key employee back at the farm left, and I began commuting back to the farm to help out. Before long it dawned on me that I loved farming more than I did school — that there was no life I wanted more than farming.

“So I came back, married Carla, who I’d met at school, and have never regretted for a minute not becoming a veterinarian.”

He began farming with his parents, Keith and Barbara Spencer, and rented five acres to farm on his own — a historical mirror of his grandfather’s start in farming decades ago here at Vardaman, Miss., the epicenter of the state’s thriving sweet potato industry.

“Grandfather Raymond Spencer came here from Tennessee, bringing sweet potato seed with him, and started farming on just five acres. He paid $25 an acre for the land — now, you couldn’t buy it for $2,500 an acre. My father continued the operation and expanded it, adding a packing shed for washing, grading, and storing potatoes.”

Today, Brad has boosted his owned acreage to 60, and is 50-50 partners with his father in the 1,700-acre Spencer and Son operation that includes sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat.

He has a 50-plus cow herd, and 20 acres of watermelons that he says are a college fund for sons, Hunter, 11, and Justin, 8, who help with related chores, “to teach them responsibility and decision-making and to give them some of the training and experience I had growing up on a farm.”

Brad and Keith are expecting to rent more land this year so they can add to their peanut and sweet potato acreage, he says.

“If that works out, we’ll have another 300 acres, and our crop mix will likely be 600 acres of sweet potatoes, 700 peanuts, 20-30 acres of watermelons, and the rest in soybeans. We rotate land between crops to keep down diseases, and the 400 acres we have in winter wheat could go back into potatoes.

“Dad pretty much looks after the peanuts, and I take care of the other crops and the cows. My mother handles payroll and recordkeeping, and when were going full speed with harvest, she’s out there driving a tractor.” Wife Carla is a teaching assistant at a local school.

Brad’s farming accomplishments, his community service contributions, and his involvement in state and national agricultural issues were factors leading to his being named this year’s Outstanding Young Farmer/Rancher by the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. He placed in the top 10 in the national competition at Honolulu.

The Spencer farming operations are spread across a 45-mile radius in Calhoun and Chickasaw Counties, which necessitates a lot of tractors  — “We have 11, not counting the time I got on the John Deere and Kubota tractors that were part of the Farm Bureau award,” Brad says. “It’s an hour’s tractor drive to the farthest field.

“Dad and I bought a 30-foot no-till drill last fall and will now do a lot of no-tilling of soybeans. The John Deere (award) tractor has a guidance system on it, which will improve efficiency and save time.”

Yields on some of their soybean fields have topped 55 bushels, with an average across all their acres of 35 bushels.