“It hasn’t been easy,” says Steve, “but we’ve hung in there. My family has been very supportive. My mother continued to keep the farm’s books, as she had done for 50 years, until she recently turned that over to my wife [Leigh, who is manager of the Mid-South Farmer’s Co-op at Ashland, Miss.]. My good friend and neighboring farmer, Matt Ormon, has been there for me with help and advice, as have others — and that has meant a lot.”

READ ABOUT STEVE'S FRIEND: Matt Ormon took a chance on a farming career

Steve’s stepson, Larry Mason, who worked for Coldwater Cattle Company for several years, has been working with the farm for about two years, and Steve says, “I’m hoping he will want to continue to be a part of the operation. Larry’s 12-year old daughter, Hannah, likes to do things on the farm with us — she’s a real delight.”

One thing Steve has done since his father’s death is to slightly scale back the operation.

“Daddy and my uncle, Bud Skelton, started farming together 50 years ago. They had no land, were just sharecroppers. When I got out of school in 1986, they were farming 2,000 acres of row crops, mostly rented land, plus about 1,400 acres they owned that was primarily pastures.

“I started out farming on my own, but we were all sharing equipment and doing things across all of the farms, and it was just aggravating to try and keep things separate, so we formed a three-way partnership. In 1999 Daddy and I bought out Uncle Bud, who later died. We were growing cotton, corn, soybeans, and had pasture land and cows.”

Now, Steve says, he has 1,600 acres in row crops, about a fourth owned, the rest rented, plus pastures and cows.

“I was farming some land across in Tennessee [the state line is only 25 miles away], but rents were much higher there —$130 to $140 per acre for dryland — and that just wouldn’t pencil out, so I turned it loose. I also let some other land go here because deer were so bad I couldn’t make crops.”

Benton County, where Steve is located near the town of Ashland, is the seventh smallest county in the state, with a population just over 8,000. Much of the land area is taken up by the 55,000-acre Holly Springs National Forest, plus a lot of private timberland. There are also a number of small hobby/weekend farms owned by residents of Memphis, Tenn., many of whom don’t want deer killed. 

“I’ve counted as many as 75 deer in a field,” Steve says. “They can absolutely wipe out a stand of soybean seedlings or corn. Wild hogs have not yet been a problem for me, although people in adjoining counties have had trouble with them, and it’s probably just a matter of time until I get them, too.”

Steve’s operation includes 36 different farms, spread over a 35-40 mile radius, and 10 different pastures, scattered in all directions. “It takes a lot of travel,” he says. “There are years I’ll put 100,000 miles or more on a pickup. And moving equipment is a challenge on our hilly, narrow, twisting highways.”