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.

Survival of the fittest

“In 1985, U.S. agriculture was in the midst of tough times,” he says. “With rock bottom commodity prices, surpluses, and not much demand, everyone was just barely hanging on. It was survival of the fittest. I was young and had few resources, so I had to devise a bare bones plan and stick to it.

“I look around now, and not many people who were farming in this area in 1985 are still in business. I’ve taken over the operations of several small farmers — all were my friends, guys I saw every day.

“I probably would take on more acres today, if land became available at the right price, but getting bigger isn’t that important to me. I’ve been about at this acreage level for 20 years now, and things have worked well. I’ve never tried to be the biggest farmer around; I have just enough land to keep me busy. Over the years I’ve bought some land, and in hindsight I wish I’d bought more when it was under $2,000 an acre. Now, land prices are off the chart.

“I still operate pretty much on the same philosophy as I did then. We’re farming now in very volatile times, with extremely high production costs. I try to keep myself in a position that I can walk away if I should want to. I don’t ever want to put myself in a financial vise.

“To me, it’s as important now as it was in 1985 to always know where I stand financially. Every farming year has to stand on its own. If I have a good year, like 2011, I see that as an opportunity to add to reserves, because I may need that cushion the next year.

“As was the case when I was just starting, it’s important to be aware of your entire financial picture — not just the farm itself. You can do an outstanding job of farming and still over-spend personally. I’ve never liked to over-extend myself, or take advantage of credit even when it’s easy. I pretty much take the position that if I can’t pay for it, I don’t need it.

“Most farmers in business today are in a pretty sound position. Time has taken out those who didn’t follow sound business practices. I’m very impressed with today’s farmers.”

Denton still believes it’s important to build relationships with dealers and suppliers and to be on a sound financial basis with them. “Knowing they’re going to get paid on time helps cement those relationships,” he says.

Unlike 1985, when he used no outside accountants, he says, “I do rely on a CPA now to help me with my tax returns; there’s no way I can keep up with the thousands of pages of IRS regulations related to taxes. But, I still keep my own books. And at the beginning of each year, I set up a farm plan that I feel offers the best chance for success, and then I adjust it as the need arises — sometimes on a daily basis.

“I rotate between cotton and grain crops for the yield benefits, to help control diseases and weeds, to help soil organic matter, and to diversify my risk exposure. Acreage of these crops in any given year will depend on the price outlook and what fits best with my rotation program.

“I was going to plant my cotton on stale seedbeds this year, but there was no moisture at planting time, so I had to drag off the beds. The cotton came up to a perfect stand — but, that’s just another example of how I have to alter my plans to suit conditions at the moment.”

Denton markets his cotton through different cooperatives, he says. “Marketing is still a wild card for me — it’s so difficult to know all the ins and outs and to keep up with the lightning-fast changes in today’s global markets. I feel I need some professional insight, so I have advisors to help me.

“There is so much volatility in markets nowadays. Risk management and marketing are keys to survival, and can make the difference between winners and losers.”

He says $1.50 cotton “is one of the worst things that has happened to the industry. U.S. cotton lost markets, and the high price hurt merchants and end users — plus, there weren’t many farmers who actually got $1.50.

“It will be interesting,” Denton says, “to see how cotton survives if the new farm bill does away with direct payments, as everyone expects. I think grains will continue to be looked after in the farm bill by the Midwest interests, but cotton growers will have to find ways to be even lower cost producers.

“We’ve always dreamed of dollar cotton, but now that it’s here, it’s not all that we thought it would be. Everything we purchase — chemicals, fertilizer, seed, equipment, repairs — is horribly expensive. We used to think soybeans were a low cost alternative, but not any more.

“In 1985, all the cotton I grew went to North Carolina mills to be processed and made into products that would be consumed in the U.S. Now, our cotton goes overseas and comes back as finished goods from China or Bangladesh or who-knows-where. Farming isn’t just about Quitman County, Miss., any more — it’s about the world.”

Denton still makes do with minimal labor. “There are three of us working in the farming operation,” he says. “We all do whatever task is necessary at any time, from driving tractors, sprayers, and pickers, to grabbing a hoe and chopping out weeds.”

In 1985, he was just beginning to do landforming and irrigation. Now, most of his fields are landformed and about 80 percent of his acreage is irrigated, mostly furrow. “As costly as the crop is, dryland cotton is pretty much a thing of the past,” he says, “and I wouldn’t dare plant corn without irrigation.

“The worms we were fighting in 1985 are pretty much under control now, thanks to Bt technology. But now we’re fighting plant bugs — it’s a constant battle with them.

“Roundup Ready and other weed control technologies have been a game changer, but now we’re dealing with weed resistance. One of the most important tools we’ve gone back to is the hoe. If I’m not busy with other chores, I’m checking my fields to chop out pigweeds and other weeds. I’m also alternating chemistries to try and hold off resistance. I used a mix of preemerge and postemerge herbicides this year as a resistance preventive measure.”

In 1985, Denton says, “I had old worn-out equipment. It wasn’t unusual to walk into my shop and see a tractor all split apart, trying to get it in running condition. It was a red letter day when I bought my first tractor with a cab.

“Now, we have air conditioning, auto-steer, and other electronics, and we’re fortunate that today’s equipment is so much more reliable. But, it has become so sophisticated and complex that, if repairs are needed, they have to send out a technician with a laptop to analyze what’s wrong.”

While Denton says he doesn’t have enough cotton acreage to justify the cost of a module builder picker, “I may consider partnering with other growers in buying one. I think there are opportunities for custom harvesting with these machines, to give growers the benefit of greater efficiency without having to make that large investment.

I don’t have a combine either — I use custom harvesters for my corn and soybeans.”

There have been some amazing changes in farming since he started, Denton says.

“But as impressive as these advancements have been, I think we’re just on the threshold of what technology is going to do for agriculture. You can never quit learning in this business. Changes are coming so quickly, you have to stay on top of them.

“Whatever we’re doing today, you can bet that five years from now it will be vastly different.”

Looking back on his three-plus decades in farming, Denton says, “I’m glad things worked out as they have. I still enjoy what I do. I hope to be out here, driving these tractors, for many years to come.

“And,” he says, “who knows what other opportunities might arise in the next 30 years for me to serve a greater cause?”