In his tractor, Kent Fann is like any number of family farmers trying to overcome obstacles and succeed from year to year. It's not until you see how he got there, however, that you start to appreciate his story.
Involved in a life-changing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1985, Kent had to relearn how to farm, relying on a big dose of faith, using innovative methods and learning “how to make the most out of what you can do.”
Today, he runs the day-to-day operations of Fann Farms in Salemburg, N.C., farming with his father, Kenneth, mother, Virginia, uncle, Keith, brother, Bennett, and other family members, including his wife, Terri, and their son, Robert. Kent and his wife's daughter is a senior at North Carolina State University. They grow 3,946 acres of cotton and 200 acres of flue-cured tobacco in Sampson County, N.C.
The 17 years since he broke his back in a go-cart racing accident have been ones of growth, both for himself, his family and the farming operation.
Hoisting himself into the passenger seat of his four-door pickup, Fann pulls off the wheel of the lightweight wheelchair and drags his legs into the passenger side as he scoots behind the steering wheel and off he goes to tend to the management of a family farm.
Fann had already been farming for about seven years after high school when he broke his back at his belt line. The accident did more than affect him physically. It left him asking questions about his future on the farm. “I thought farming was out of the question,” he says.
So, he focused his attention off the farm.
He had more than a year of vocational rehab studies at Sampson Tech in eastern North Carolina and was leaning toward pursuing a degree in engineering at North Carolina State University following rehab at the Sheppard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta.
There was just one problem. He could never shake “that love of farming.”
Coming across work at Purdue University with handicapped farmers and ranchers, Fann began to see that there could be a place on the farm for him.
He bought a manual that showed how equipment could be modified “to put handicapped farmers back to work. It made me aware that I could get back in the farming game.” His father and uncle modified combines and tractors that allowed him to operate the controls with his hands, and it wasn't long after that was in the field doing the same chores he had done when he could walk.
Fann remembers those early times in a wheelchair as anything but certain, and day-to-day at best. “One of the hardest things I ever asked myself was, ‘What am I supposed to do with my life?’”
Add the 1980s farm crisis to his already challenging situation and Fann started to think that selling out might be the answer. With that thought, Fann began to realize how much farming meant to him. “When I thought farming was taken away from me, I then realized how bad I really wanted to farm.”
The epiphany of sorts gave Fann back “his desire to farm and helped me become more determined to keep on farming and work those things out.”
“A lot of drive and determination” is how his wife, Terri, describes her husband.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since those early days after the accident. Fann is out of the day-to-day fieldwork and in a managerial role today, a move brought on by an expanding farming operation. The farm has moved away from small grains to completely cotton and tobacco.
Speaking at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences this past January, Fann drew delighted chuckles from the crowd when he told of his brother's innovative on-the-go soil sampler.
A four-wheeler was beating Bennett Fann to death as he went about his soil sampling duties following cotton harvest. Earlier, he had suffered a heart attack at age 39. So, instead of turning the job over to another person, he cut a hole in the passenger-side floorboard of a Geo Tracker. “He came up with the idea,” Kent says of his brother.
“Our innovation was one of the reasons we were selected to go to Beltwide,” says Fann, who was on a panel of growers from different parts of the Cotton Belt.
Fann credits his father, Kenneth, with the innovative spirit on the farm. Kenneth Fann put in his 51st crop of tobacco this spring. “We learned our innovative ways from him, but he also taught us to be practical about it. My father has always been one to start welding on a piece of new equipment even before he got it in the field. He continues to teach us to be innovative, but in a practical way. He says, ‘don't bet the farm on one idea.’”
Ideas abound on the Fann farm. Seldom a year goes by when something isn't tweaked or changed outright for the better.
“This year we totally changed what we had done from last year with strip-tillage,” Kent says.
Keith Fann modified an Unverferth ridge-strip rig. He straightened the blades behind the ripper and replaced the rolling basket with a solid-steel, Teflon-coated roller. Kent calls it, “rip, roll and Roundup.
“We're trying to rip the residue and mash it back down,” Kent says. In between frequent rains this spring, the rye cover crop had headed out by the time the Fanns could get in the field for burndown. “We put a bar behind the roller to knock down the rye as we sprayed Roundup. We got as good a kill as with any boom sprayer that we ran. I won't say this will work every time, but with all the rain we've had, we were looking for anything we could use.” The Fanns made a methodical switch to strip-till in cotton over the years when they saw the problems associated with destroying the cover crop residue and the benefits of leaving it in the field. “I'm a big believer that you have to do something to save your soil structure,” Fann says. A cover crop works well in the Coastal Plain soils of eastern North Carolina.
About three years ago, high micronaire was putting a damper on high yields. Out came the innovation.
The Fanns started mixing two varieties in their hoppers at planting. They plant Delta and Pine Land 451 BG/RR and Delta and Pine Land 501 BG/RR. “We had some high micronaire problems with the 501 on sandy land, but when we mixed the seed with 451, we got the best of both worlds: lower mike and higher yields,” Fann says.
“It seems to us that on sandier land the 501 would out yield the 451,” Fann says. This season, he planted about 2,000 acres of Delta and Pine Land 555 or “Triple Nickel” as it's popularly called. He planted six bags of the variety last season. “Yields were a third more than other varieties.” He uses Delta and Pine Land 5415 RR to fill in the refuge requirements.
Sitting in the farm office with his wife at another desk, Fann sees two forces at work in cotton: First, prices are lower than he'd like; second, the farm bill is going to be a tremendous help as long as “we keep the payment limitations the way they are right now.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has re-introduced his payment limitation bill again in Congress. “Payment limitations would be devastating for us because we're a family farm,” Kent says. He points out that last year's double whammy of low yields and low prices would have been exacerbated under the payment limits that are now being proposed.
“Hopefully this year, we will have this new farm program and yields will be better,” Kent says.
He markets the crop with the Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative in Garner, N.C. “I've been well pleased with the Carolina Cotton Growers Cooperative,” Kent says. “It takes a lot of the burden off us. It takes so much time to produce a crop that it's hard to be there every day and analyze what's happening with the crop and make decisions.”
Fann acknowledges that focusing too much on the farming scene today can lead to depressing thoughts. “Faith has got to be very special for a farmer, especially a cotton farmer.”
He tells a story of a friend in Salemburg whose father owned a hardware store and grew cotton. When the friend got out of college, he did the numbers and told his father there was no money in cotton.
“Cotton is the worry crop, insects, boll weevils and weeds — something to worry about all year long,” Fann says. “If a man or a woman doesn't have faith, I don't see how they get through the year without faith in the Lord. People will spend millions of dollars a year to get the crop to harvest and then could wind up with nothing.”
Faith was important before his accident, but it became even more so in the years after.
“When I had my accident I learned to depend on God,” he says. “I had to believe that God was going to make everything alright,” Fann says, while paraphrasing Romans 8:28 in the Bible.
The accident also taught Fann the importance of communication. “I had learned to communicate with my wife,” he says. “I had to get good at it or I was going to lose my marriage. Before, I had the tendency to withdraw and hold things inside.”
“We had a good marriage before the accident,” says his wife, Terri. “They (at the rehab center) told us that 80 percent of the couples who had to go through the trauma of an accident like the one Kent had would divorce. We decided we would be in the 20 percent that stayed married.”
Fann has been a deacon at the Freedom Baptist Church in Salemburg for the past 17 years. When the Southeast Farm Press visited him, he and another deacon had conducted the funeral service earlier in the day for a church member who had passed away. Their pastor was in Honduras on a mission's trip. “The family had enough confidence in us to carry out the funeral.”