Billy Goss runs his hands down the sides of deeply furrowed face, stares across the table at his wife Dot, and then slowly holds up two fingers: “I know that God meant for me to do two things in this life. One, he meant for me to marry this young lady. Two, he meant for me to farm. Those are the things I know — and you can’t beat that.”

It’s an early-October day following a weekend of rain and Goss, 82, Lyon, Miss., is unable get in his fields. He’s sitting at his kitchen table and the lull is a burden — almost a physical pain for Goss. It’s not by chance that he sits nearest the door, the closest indoor spot to the soybean field over his shoulder. Physically, Goss looks the part: The stamp of toil, sun, diesel and dust have toughened Goss and given him the appearance of a man who belongs to the land.

 

(For a photo gallery of Goss, see A true American farmer)

 

He turns his head, looks out the window and points toward his farm: “You have to understand. You have to understand that the secret is love. I actually enjoy doing what I’m doing in those fields.”

His words tail off as Dot cuts in. “Every day he’s excited. He’s ready to go to work each day. Even when it gets hot in July or August, is he inside? No, he’s out there on the land — actually in the fields.”

He fingers the brim of a weathered hat, shrugs and nods in agreement. “She’s right and let me tell you why. I think the biggest mistake a farmer can make is not using an open window. You follow me on that? I’m saying don’t let a pretty day go by and do nothing with it.”

Goss pauses and takes a last look out the window, resigns himself to the weather, and begins to tell his tale. With long, lanky arms he clasps his hands together and pours out a story of a life well farmed — and well lived.

 

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In 1931, 100 yards from where he now sits, Goss was born into a farming family in a house long-since gone. With three brothers and a sister, he was established in the pecking order by age seven as the “best hoehand” of the lot, following the path of his father and grandfather. “There was never a time I can remember that I didn’t know I was going to be a farmer. Even as a little boy, I only wanted to farm.”

Was 33 years enough?

At 18, Goss made his first mark in farming, renting five acres and growing cotton. He was working for his father full-time, but the rented five acres were separate from the family operation. Goss borrowed the money for his five acres; worked the land entirely on his own; and hired labor to help him handpick the crop. The five-acre year was 1949 — and Goss never looked back, renting 25 cotton acres in 1950 at $5 per acre. He was slowly building his planted acreage each season — waiting until he could afford to buy.

In 1954, Goss put his farming hopes on hold and served a stint in the Army, returning to Lyon two years later with bride Dot and the quiet confidence of a man who knows what he’s capable of. “I got back to Mississippi in 1956 and went to work on a farm near Roundaway. The second year there was a terrible crop for the whole county — even though we actually had a good one. It came Christmas time and normally you’d get a bonus. Well, I got a billfold that year. Let me tell you, I was excited with getting that billfold, ‘Man, ain’t no telling how much is in there.’ So I opened it up, but there was nothing in there. Not nothing! The billfold — empty — was the bonus.”

 

(For a photo gallery of Goss, see A true American farmer)

 

Goss’ first five acres of cotton came full circle in 1958 when the man he had originally rented the land from recommended Goss to Bill Heaton, Heaton Farms, Clarksdale, Miss. Goss walked into Heaton’s living room on a Sunday afternoon. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m not looking for somebody who can work for a month or two.’” Goss signed on with Heaton as a farm manager the same day — and stayed 33 years as manager before setting off on his own with Goss Farms in 1991. “When I started my own operation, I asked Mr. Heaton, ‘Was 33 years enough?’ and he answered with a grin, ‘I think that’ll do it.’”

 

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All through those years, Goss was building up his own landholdings. He bought his first 40 acres in 1958; land that his home sits on today. From his first 40 acres, he continued to buy in small increments and only what he could afford, as his planted acreage swelled into 1,300 rented and owned acres. “Here’s a lesson: we don’t owe people today, and at my age it’s so comfortable not to owe. On top of that — and I’m very proud of this — the first land we ever bought, we borrowed the money and paid it off early. That’s the way we’ve always operated.”

Never turn back the clock

Goss has been entirely on his own for over 20 years, bolstered by a reputation as a humble man bound to his word. As Goss replays his life in farming, the stories spill out and when he speaks, Goss’ wisdom matches his years: “Keep your reputation and your word. If you’ll do those two things you’ll make it fine in this world. Don’t lie and make false statements because here’s how it will end up: You won’t be able to remember what you said. I’ve been treated kindly all my life by people. In fact, Mr. Heaton in particular was mighty good to me. I just don’t have a complaint.”

In 2013 Goss worked 800 acres of soybeans and will probably drop his planted acreage in 2014. A bad hip hinders Goss and the wear of farm work has slowed him, but “technology and transportation” compensate for his age, and Goss rolls through his fields on a four-wheeler: “I love technology and think it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to agriculture. Listen, on my first five acres, I chopped weeds with a hoe and as a boy I plowed with mules. I’ve always loved any of the new technology and I always want to try it. I always wanted to be the first guy around to try something new.”

 

(For a photo gallery of Goss, see A true American farmer)

 

As Goss begins to talk about modern farming technology, he becomes increasingly animated, almost agitated as he describes the changes in his lifetime. Plant bugs, planting dates, weed control, efficiency, and yields — Goss has seen them all change and doesn’t want to set the clock back. “One year, plant bugs ate us up and devoured the crop. We ended up with cotton between 6 and 7 feet tall. Now I’m talking about high cotton that produced half a bale per acre — half a bale. That was the worst hit I ever remember.

 

Check Current Soybean Futures Prices

 

“Another year we had a freeze and the bolls were squirting juice. Now all of this is changed. We’ve got all this technology to control plant bugs and weeds. Technology just keeps getting the crops planted earlier. Listen, I’ve knocked ice off of gates in December to get pickers in the fields. If it got too late, we’d try and get in while the ground was froze up so the vehicles wouldn’t sink.”

Shade-tree engineer

Goss left cotton several years back and now grows soybeans and wheat across his land, but the cotton memories haunt him. Goss’ voice takes a slight drop and he speaks almost in a reverent tone: “I love cotton and it’s my favorite crop. I love just to watch it. The Lord said, ‘The fields are white with harvest,’ and those fields have been white with harvest for me for the longest time.”

 

(For a photo gallery of Goss, see A true American farmer)

 

As the grain market has grown stronger, Goss has gone with the current, riding beans as his strong horse and feels his current crop is excellent. Timely rains and cool summer temperatures have brought him a bumper crop; 250 acres is irrigated and the rest is dryland.

“Let me get back to technology again. Beans and polypipe have made such a difference in my farm life. This polypipe is something that transforms.”

 

(For related, see 100-bushel soybean barrier broken by Arkansan Nelson Crow or Soybean yields skyrocket in Arkansas fields)

 

“A genius. Billy is a genius on dragging that polypipe out. He just won’t say that,” says Dot.

Billy grins and answers back: “I’m a shade-tree engineer when it comes to water. I haven’t yet learned how to run it uphill, but I’m working on that.”

The give-and-take between Billy and Dot is plain testament to 57 years of marriage — the union couldn’t be much deeper. As Billy tells it, she has been at his side every day of their marriage; not physically in the field, but a partner all the same. “We’ve had such a good life and we’re still at. I just wouldn’t change even one thing that happened to us. We have two children, Sue and Tommy. They both made us proud and we love them to death. In this life, if you bring up your family and live with them right; educate them; and prepare them for their future, then you have genuinely accomplished something.”

Dot still handles all of the paperwork and marketing for Goss Farms — she knows how to sell and when: “I’m the one that gets the money,” Dot laughs. “When beans are up and I think it’s right, it’s time to sell. We’re not worried about hitting the high every time; we just don’t want to hit the low.”

The 2013 harvest will end soon for Goss. He’ll plant wheat and then retreat to his shop, preparing his machinery for spring. The fieldwork will end; the planning and waiting will begin. Goss will look out on his fields and burn to get in them, because even at 82, the yearning remains fresh: “It’s pure excitement when the season begins. I want to go, go, go. It’s like a kid at Christmas; that’s how I feel. I’m like that rabbit on television that keeps on going — that’s me.”

Cannot take it with you

During the off-season, Goss won’t let four walls hem him in — house or shop. He hunts or fishes, admittedly at a gentle pace. “Hunting and fishing are my thing, but time has slowed me down. As a boy, I’d hit the fields with a single-shot .12 gauge and my birddog, and that was truly some of the most fun of my life.” Goss also keeps a “backyard orchard” of carefully tended trees — apple, fig, peach, pecan, pear, pecan, and nectarine — and gives the produce away, selling nothing.

Everything Goss loves, everything that drives him, shares a common thread — the outdoors. “If you pay attention, you’ll see God’s creation in everything outside and you’re going to realize that God has given us all these things on the land. I am a steward, responsible in that way to take care of the land. God only lets us keep the land for a certain length of time anyway because I can’t carry it with me and it’ll be left for my wife and kids.”

 

(For a photo gallery of Goss, see A true American farmer)

 

And why? Why the drive at 82?

“I love it as much today as I did when I was 30. That’s the serious truth; I love it that much. I will be doing this as long as the Lord lets me. When he gets ready for me to quit, he’ll stop me and I won’t be able to any longer. But even then, if the Lord will just let me ride up and down the road some, I’ll still enjoy looking on the land.

“I just think that’s God plan. He puts us on Earth to do something and that may be as a mechanic, teacher, or farmer. When a fella goes out on his own and says, ‘I want to do this, this, and this,’ and tries to do too much, he may not ever find God’s plan. You know what? I found mine.”

Billy Goss — a satisfied and grateful man living a life well farmed.

 

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Follow me on Twitter: @CBennett71

Email me: cbennett@farmpress.com

 

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