What does it take to build a farm from scratch these days? According to 29-year-old cotton producer Lonnie Gibson Jr., the recipe begins with equal amounts of a good plan and the right frame of mind. Add a few gallons of sweat, the milk of human kindness and a heap of help from above. Then, stir the pot with perseverance and you just might make it.
Gibson, who farms 2,100 acres of cotton, 40 acres of soybeans, 80 acres of watermelons and 15 acres of cantaloupes with his father, Lonnie Gibson Sr., in Arbyrd, Mo., wasted little time pulling all these ingredients together shortly after graduating from high school, in 1991.
His first job was working on his father's farm for $275 a week. Two years later, in April 1993, he bought a house and got married in August. He started the foundation for his own farm that year, too, renting 24 acres of dryland cotton on two fields — an 18-acre field and a 6-acre field surrounding a church. It was a small step for Gibson, but he was already living, breathing and sleeping farming.
In 1994, he increased his cotton acreage to 359 acres. “That year, I went to the Farm Service Agency to the FHA side and got a young farmers loan to buy a tractor, a 1992 7120 Magnum. I also got a direct loan to farm on.”
Gibson's father had offered to sign the note on the farm, “but I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize (his operation). He had been working all his life. I didn't want something bad happen to me and have that affect him.”
He soon had his sights set on another 120-acre farm for sale in Leachville. “I wanted to buy it because it joined my dad's farm. I knew if we got the farm, we could put a center pivot on it.”
Gibson hoped that Leachville ginner and landowner Boe Adams would buy the land in return for Gibson financing a center pivot through Adams and ginning his cotton at Adam's gin. Adam's reply? “He asked me why I didn't buy the land. I told him I couldn't because I didn't have the money and I didn't want my dad putting the money up or tying up his farms.”
Undeterred, Gibson told a friend, “I wish you would pray for me to get this farm. We prayed about it and I said to myself, ‘whatever happens, fine. It will either work out or it wouldn't.’”
Those prayers weren't answered but that very year, the farm he wanted Adams to buy suffered a devastating drought and only harvested 275 pounds of cotton per acre. If Gibson had gotten his wish, “I would have been out before I got started.”
Meanwhile, young Gibson had apparently made quite an impression on Adams.
“The next year, in late winter, we went to Boe's open house for his gin. After we ate, we were on our way back to our truck and Boe pulled up alongside us and asked us if we needed a ride.
“It wasn't that far of a walk and Dad said, ‘That's okay, we'll walk.’ Boe said, ‘Why don't y'all get in because I want to talk to you.’”
Adams asked the younger Gibson if he'd like to borrow the money from Adams to buy the 120-acre farm on his own without his father's help. Gibson quickly agreed.
Gibson worked out a loan with Adams with equal principle and interest payments, “because I wanted to build some equity early. I didn't want to pay all interest up front.
“My main goal is to own land,” Gibson explained. “At the end of the year, instead of having a tax deduction from the rent I pay someone, I'd rather incur a little more tax liability and have some equity in a piece of land.”
This advice was passed down from Gibson's great, great grandmother. “She used to say that a farmer who didn't buy land wouldn't amount to much. I don't think there's anything derogatory about someone not buying land. But over all the years she watched people farm, the farmers who bought land had more longevity. If they didn't, they didn't have the equity and couldn't make it through the tough times.”
Gibson builds equity in two other ways — paying down the debt whenever he can and finding that perfect farm-buying situation.
“I look for opportunities to buy a farm at below-average prices,” he said. “Some people may not want a farm, but we'll do a lot of work on the farms to get them irrigated to build up the production.”
Adding irrigation has added 250-350 pounds to average yields on some farms. “We proved 800 pounds on one farm that had a projected yield of less than 400 pounds.”
That adds up to an increase in land value — and equity. “I bought land at $1,000 an acre 10 years ago. After we did dirt work on it, got it irrigated, it appraises out at $2,500 an acre.
“Equipment won't do that, farm shops won't, trucks won't. There were a couple of years when I came up short. And if it hadn't been for the equity that I had built, I wouldn't be doing this interview. I'd be working in a factory or would have had to go back to school. I wouldn't have been farming.”
The equity “let me look good on paper.”
Even with a good plan, the farming life can be like living in a pressure cooker. But if you can't take the heat, you don't need to be in the farming business.
“It's tough. It's a can-to-can't situation every day,” Gibson said. “Right now, I can think of a 100 things I need to get done and a 100 different ways to do them and 1,000 different outcomes. At night, you can't turn it off. I probably need to, but I can't. If I'm duck hunting, I'm sitting in the duck blind calling back to the farm on the cell phone.”
As to the government program, “Everything has to be set up right — your entities, your taxes, LLCs — or you start leaving money on the table here and there and then you can't pay your bills.”
But when asked if he enjoyed farming, Gibson let out a big grin, “Yeah, I really do. I live it, eat it and breathe it and sleep it. There's a lot of stuff I don't like to put up with, but I wouldn't want to miss the dance.”
Gibson credits God, his father, FHA, Senath State Bank and Boe Adams as instrumental in getting him started on the farm. But it took vision and perseverance on the part of Gibson, too.
For example, Gibson tries to look at farm and equipment purchases not for what they are, but what they could be.
A 1963 International Harvester 806 tractor that Gibson has refurbished is a case in point. “When I first saw it, I didn't see the rust. I saw it all painted up and clean. It's the same way with implements and any farm that I buy. If I can see what a farm could become, I'll go for it no matter what anybody tells me. If one lending institution doesn't like it, I'll go to another one.”
His perseverance has paid off. Today, Gibson's part of the family farming enterprise is about 1,350 acres, most of which is cotton. He owns 350 of those acres as well as 11 center pivots which provide water for about 1,000 acres of cotton.
There is another talent that has served Gibson well. “You can tell I like to talk,” he said. Truly, Gibson does have an opinion on just about anything.
These communications skills landed him in a position on the district school board and on Arbyrd's board of aldermen. Recently, he became acting mayor of the town when the elected mayor passed away.
Those are a lot of irons in the fire for a young man, but Gibson has a strong foundation at home including his father and mother, Alice Gibson, his wife, Lynette, and daughters, Julia Leanne, 4, and Jenna Faith, 23 days old on the day of the interview,
Gibson offers one last piece of advice for any young farmer starting out. It might not be bad advice for older ones either.
“I tried those years when I didn't live right either and I can tell you it works out better if you live right. When I would come off a bad year, and I tried to live like God wanted me to live, things would go good. As soon as I got puffed up thinking it was me again, then the carpet would get pulled out from under me. That's the truth.”