Thomas Neblett was 20 years old and carried the weight of 2,400 acres on his shoulders. He was a rookie farmer in a graying game — and literally one of the youngest producers in the United States. He steeled his nerve, kept his balance — and thrived.

Two years later, Neblett is holding tight to the reins of Sunrise Planting Co., Clarksdale, Miss. Now 22, with the average age of American farmers at 60, and with estimates that over half of American farmland will change hands in the next 20 years, Neblett seems all the younger.

He lacks the experience of his fellow U.S. farmers, but not the confidence or drive. Neblett speaks in a remarkably plain manner: “As far as being 22 years old, there’s a lot of guys that work on farms that are my age, but I’m the only guy I know of that’s 22 and running his own farm. I suppose I’ve never been intimidated by people or circumstance. If I know I’m right or I know I can do something — I will go to the mat. Sure, I’ve been knocked down a few times, but that’s just part of the territory.”

As a boy, Neblett knew he was destined for agriculture and no what matter what wind blew him, he kept farming in his heart and on his mind. Neblett has worked on a farm since he was 12, spending each summer working on his father’s (Rives Neblett) land at Allendale Planting Co., in Shelby, Miss.

Out of high school, Neblett spent a year and a half at Ole Miss before the pull of farming became too strong. At age 19, he began working in agriculture full-time on his brother Bill Joe Denton’s farm (B & S Partnership), in Wilson, Ark., about an hour north of Memphis, just across the Mississippi River and off the levee. He spent almost a year in Wilson: “Bill Joe threw me out there and told me to figure out a way to do it. He’s really laid-back and there I was, learning as I went. I worked my tail off 80 to 100 hours a week on a tractor, combine, picker, sprayer, didn’t matter; I soaked up the responsibility and learned.”

 

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.

 

The grind paid off for Neblett. “One day my dad called me. He said, ‘I know this is truly what you want to do. Come home; I’ve got a place I want to rent out and I want you to farm it.’”

When the window opened, Neblett leaped through without hesitation, seizing the opportunity and running. “I had a chance and I wasn’t going to pass it up. I knew I could take a great opportunity and make it even better.”

Young Sunrise trio

Neblett was 20 years old and in command of 2,400 acres. “We started with a big fat loan; got a bunch of equipment and off we went. I’ve loved every minute of it ever since.” At first, it was touch-and-go, with Neblett trying to keep his footing amid the spinning variables of modern agriculture, and each day he was learning something new, tucking the information away, and moving quickly to the next lesson.

He was ready for the boots-on-the-ground work — on the tractor or in the field, he knew what to do. But as a beginning farmer, in control of an entire operation, he admits that physical knowledge is never enough: “There’s so much about some aspects of farming I still have to learn: trying to catch on to the flow of the commodity markets and investing my farm money wisely. When it comes to the outside financial world, I’m still wet behind the ears.”

But Neblett also believes young farmers have a distinct advantage over older farmers — comfort and familiarity with technology. For Neblett, computers, precision agriculture, and social media are a given. There is no learning curve because he doesn’t know any other path. “One thing that makes it easier for a young farmer is technology. Older farmers have had to go back and learn new technology after years of doing without. But as a young person, I’ve come into farming and met technology I’m already familiar with. GPS, iPads, and cellphone apps are all normal to me and common for my generation. I rolled right into precision ag as a full believer in its benefits and worth. Simply put, I’ve not had to change any of my farming ways.”

 

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.

 

Neblett’s supporting crew at Sunrise parallels his age: farm manager Ben Wilson, 23; and Ben Holdeman, 18. “They’ve both been on a farm since they were born and I definitely couldn’t do it without them. They both know so much about farming and I don’t get in the way of that; I just let them know overall what needs to be done. My crew is not afraid to speak up. When they see a simpler way, they tell me. Yes, my decision is the road we take, but when they tell me something serious, I know to listen because they’ve been farming their whole lives.”

It’s not by chance that the Sunrise crew is so young. Neblett’s strategy in putting together his crew was simple: Find competent, tough workers that he was comfortable being around. For Neblett, that meant hiring young people. Wilson had grown up on Due West Farms, Glendora, Miss., where his father managed for many years. Prior to Sunrise, Wilson was farming in Tallahatchie County and was recommended as hard-working and sharp. He was a natural fit. “Ben Wilson handles pressure and gets the job done. I never called him my farm manager until I realized the extent of what he does and how valuable he is. He’ll lay the mud faster than anybody,” says Neblett.

Never a blind move

Wilson admits the young Sunrise trio is an extreme exception: “I don’t know of another farm right now that has such a young outfit; we’re the youngest I know of. In fact, I can’t think of any farm in my whole life where the crew was this young. But let me tell, we work hard. Yes, we sure have fun sometimes, but we get the job done first. It just works.”

Holdeman also had a reputation as an excellent worker. Neblett had heard from multiple sources that Holdeman was a highly capable jack-of-all-trades. “He’s been on a farm since he could walk. Farming is what Ben Holdeman knows and he literally handles any task on the farm, period.”

Combine, grain truck, buggy or sprayer — Holdeman is at ease. “We get on great. Thomas lets us know what needs to get done and everybody takes care of their work.”

Neblett loves the camaraderie he shares with Wilson and Holdeman. “It makes for a great time on the farm and we’re all close to the same age. Both of them have the drive to work harder, work more and show what they can do.”

But what do three young farmers do when they hit the wall? Crops in the ground can often breed indecision and Neblett admits the Sunrise crew is still learning. He never moves blind and often takes questions to producer Bill Steed, 76, who is always nearby to offer advice for the operation. Planting seed, shifting ground, or irrigating — Steed is a well of knowledge.

Whenever Neblett mentions Steed, he speaks with deep appreciation: “Bill loves farming more than anyone else I’ve ever met — no question. He lives and breathes farming; this is all he’s ever wanted to do. Bill has taught me all the little things I would never have known. It’s pretty simple: I honestly doubt there’s anybody that knows as much about farming as he does.”

 

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.

 

Steed retired a few years ago after working for Rives Neblett for approximately 35 years, but when Thomas Neblett began farming at Sunrise in the fall of 2011, Steed stepped back in the farming ring. “I’m blessed to have Bill Steed working with me. I respect him almost more than anyone I know and he is part of the family.

Steed says the Sunrise outfit is beyond remarkable. “Thomas: He’s smart, not afraid, learns fast, and is a farmer. I’m talking about a real farmer. Ben Wilson: He knows mechanics backward and forwards. Ben Holdeman: That young kid can handle himself on anything.”

All farms have their good fields and bad fields, but the Sunrise acreage is remarkably clean and tight. Neblett is a classic mouthful-of-dirt farmer, swinging a hoe at pigweed or driving a sprayer. From his perspective, it’s simply a matter of what needs to be done. Major or menial, Neblett does the work with his own hands whenever possible.

Look to the father

Neblett doesn’t whitewash the weight of responsibility, particularly for a 22-year-old. He says the amount of work required in running Sunrise is sometimes dizzying — with bills, paperwork, equipment maintenance, scheduling and hands-on work all vying for his time. “I try to do every single thing I can do on the farm — my feet in the field. The busier I get, the harder it is for me to mind everything I’ve got to keep track of — but this is me; this is what I love to do.”

Where does a 22-year-old get the drive and nerve to man the helm of a 2,400-acre operation? Look to the father.

“My dad rides his land every week and picks out the smallest imperfections. No matter how busy I am, if he sees pigweed in the wrong place or grass needing mowing, he lets me know about it. No matter what is going on, he wants to be sure I know what needs to be taken care of. He wants me to be the best I can be; always pushing me to be better and work harder. I think that has a whole lot to do with why I have my work ethic now. I have so much to be grateful for. As annoying as he was when I was growing up, I’m now so glad he was like that,” Neblett says.

Born and raised in Clarksdale, Neblett holds a deep love for the land of Sunrise Planting Co., and considers it his home. But he also recognizes that his hands-on role at Sunrise may change in time as he hopes to follow in his father’s path. “I will have to step up to the plate to help my dad at some point. It’s my responsibility to be the best steward of our family land.”

Sunrise’s acreage is split up in 1,000 soybean acres, 800 corn acres, and 600 rice acres. Neblett planted 580 acres of cotton last year, but followed the grain winds in 2013 and put his cotton money in corn and rice.

 

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.

 

Cotton is what Neblett would love to grow: It’s the crop that his family legacy is built on, but like all farmers, he wants his dollar to go long and he’s confident the grain markets will hold strong for the long-term. He has five storage bins, not including one bin currently under construction. And he’s looking to build more — as many as he can afford. “More than likely it’s going to keep on being a grain world. Storage is crucial; it can be the difference between you making it one year and not. If you can store your grain and deliver it in different months at different prices and different bases, then your storage costs and bins can pay for themselves very quickly.”

In the blood

When he’s not in his fields, Neblett is still not far from his work. His family is immersed in agriculture and his friends, at least in some manner, are all involved in agriculture. “The guys I run with, the guys I hunt or go to the river with — they’re all in farming. We talk about hunting, farming, trucks, and tractors — and that’s just the way it is. I don’t know much else,” he says with a grin.

 

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When the dust finally settles on Sunrise every winter, Neblett lets the farming mantle slide off his shoulders for just a short while. He parks his equipment, shutters the shop, and goes hunting — deer, duck — or looking for sheds.

Then it’s back to what he loves most. “I don’t believe in too much superstition, but I really do believe that farming is in my blood. As long as I’m able to be out here — I’ll be doing it. I know that farming has its good times and bad times, but I want to be here for the long run. I do it because I love it.”

Neblett doesn’t hide his love of farming — because he almost lost it.

At 17, doctors told Neblett he’d need a kidney transplant within five years. One year to the day, at age 18, the forecast changed and the same doctors told him he’d need a transplant within five weeks. Neblett was left reeling, but his friend Matthew Dunn, Clarksdale, was a kidney match — and two weeks later, Neblett went in for surgery. “Six hours after surgery we both woke up; we were fine and Matthew had just saved my life.”

Recovering after his hospital stay at home, Neblett was consumed — he wanted back in the fields, but the doctors put him on four weeks of bed rest. He was torn between patience and pain on one side; work and will on the other. After a single week of rest, Neblett slipped on his boots, grabbed his truck keys and headed for the farm — work and will had won out. “They gave me two prescriptions for pain medication. I took six of the pills and I was done. I mean, damn, after it hurt so bad and so long, I was used to it. I wasn’t about to start laying around.”

He doesn’t want an excuse, crutch or pity, and doesn’t even bring up the kidney transplant unless asked. He simply wants to keep working his farm. “I wake up and think of myself as a worker first. I hit the fields thinking about what I’m going to do myself with my own hands — not what orders I’m going to give.

“I know I’ve been given opportunity and with that comes expectation. Regardless of my lot in life, whether I was working on this farm or not, I’d be working to the bone. I know I fit this farm. I’m doing the best I can today, and I’m gonna repeat that tomorrow.”

See here for a photo gallery of Neblett and the Sunrise crew.