On June 30, Paulus Shelby, University of Tennessee cotton and small grains specialist, and Wayne Flinchum, UT corn and soybean specialist, passed their passion for education to budding Extension stars, yet unnamed, and retired to their garden and farm, respectively.
When the men arrived at the West Tennessee Experiment Station in 1973, there was a slower, but surer, pace of life. But at the same time, both men realized that they stood at the cusp of some very significant technological advances in agriculture.
And they helped to bring those changes to west Tennessee. “The biggest change I've seen in corn and soybeans has been the conversion to no-till,” said Flinchum, who was raised on a tobacco, corn and small grains farm in North Carolina. “When I first started in January 1981, Tom McCutchen (late superintendent of the Milan Experiment Station) and I discussed having a big meeting on it. We filled up the 4-H dining room and over 500 people attended.”
The decision to move the meeting outside was actually the beginning of the Milan No-Till Field Day, which started that July. Flinchum admits that early on, growers were a little skeptical of whether or not no-till would work. In fact, he often heard the phrase, “No-till, no-yield.”
Flinchum, however, was sold on the concept and to spread the word he pulled a no-till drill around the countryside for several years showing farmers how it worked.
“In the beginning, no-till was people looking for shortcuts,” Flinchum said. “Then all of a sudden, things changed and it became attractive to those people interested in doing it as a way of farming.
“Then the herbicides, planters and the soybean varieties all came together. Today, no-till is more the standard in soybean production rather than the exception.”
Shelby wanted to see the boll weevil retire before he did and just about got his wish. Weevil eradication is now under way in the state. He also wanted to see the introduction of perhaps cotton's greatest achievement, pest-resistant plants. He did.
On the other hand, there have been not-so-good times for the two specialists. The worst for Shelby personally occurred during a three- to four-year period “back in the mid-70s when I still pretty young,” said Shelby, who grew up on a corn, cotton, hay and livestock family farm in Decatur County, Tenn.
“Cotton yields went out the window, 300- to 400-pound averages, prices were around 25-30 cents a pound. It was hard to keep your chin up and encourage people who were battling that situation. We had government payments, but without that, it would have been a total disaster. The good thing back then was that soybeans were starting to pop and there were some good price years.”
“I'd say the last two to three years have been the toughest,” Flinchum said. “There are no profits out there. Farmers are not as happy as they normally are. It's tough seeing what they're going through, to lose a family farm that's been in a family for three generations. I personally believe that farmers are the greatest people on earth. County agents are second.”
There are also moments that Shelby and Flinchum recall with a smile. “I remember one time in Memphis, about the time people really started moving out to the country on these 5- to 10-acre lots, there was this older lady living with her daughter up around Shelby Forest,” said Shelby.
“The older lady called in wanting somebody to spray some multiflora rose that was coming up all over their place that they weren't doing anything with.
“I tried to tell her how to control it with chemicals, but really what she wanted was somebody to come out and do it. I wouldn't recommend anybody because at that time, there wasn't a lot of that type of work going on and sometimes people could take advantage of you.
“I reckon she got kind of aggravated with me and she told me, ‘You're dumber than hell, aren't you?’ It struck me funny. I said, ‘yes'am, but it sounds to me like that makes two of us.’ She said, ‘Yes, but you get paid for it.’
“I regretted for a time that I did not go on out there and visit her, because she was bound to have been a riot,” said Shelby, in his usual self-effacing style.
Flinchum says that he had some funny phone calls and visits, “but I never did laugh. They were serious people wanting answers.”
But sometimes it was difficult to keep a straight face.
“I had an elderly couple come in who were wanting to plant some corn, but they could not find any seed. I called the co-op and they said, yes, they had some rounds. I related to them in my office that they could get a sack of corn rounds.”
The couple was confused and kept asking questions of Flinchum. “Finally, it dawned on me that they thought if they planted round corn seed, they would only get round corn back. So I had to explain to them why you have rounds on the end of the cob, and that the rounds actually germinated and had a little better energy than a flat seed.
“After I explained it them, they were happy as they could be.” And after they left, Flinchum couldn't help but to chuckle a little bit.
Both specialists were recently recognized for their accomplishments in agriculture. Shelby was named Cotton Specialist of the Year by his co-workers two years ago. Flinchum received an award from the Tennessee Agriculture Production Association for his lifetime work with farmers.
Flinchum and Shelby gave credit to their mentors for making sure they had all the tools to succeed.
For Shelby, that was the late E.S. Permenter, a county agent who guided Shelby prior to his move to Jackson, when both were in Memphis.
“He gave us a city map and pointed to several roads that fanned out of Memphis. He said when you're not doing something, go down one of these roads until you get to the county line and see what's on it. If you see farmer or an ag business, go in and introduce yourself. Get to know the people and let them know who you are.
“He was a real fiery individual, but he wouldn't let the sun go down before he would get back with you. That was impressive on a young fellow,” said Shelby, in his mid-20s at the time. “He was true and honest, and he wasn't back-biting. He expected you to work and expected you to be responsible.”
Flinchum says he was most influenced by the late Gilbert Rhodes, the father of Neil Rhodes, currently a UT weed control specialist.
“He could come in your office to talk to you and about two hours after he left, you would realize what he wanted you to do, and you couldn't wait to get it done to satisfy him. He was one of the best bosses you could ever have.”
After retiring, Shelby plans to spend more time with his wife, Neva, and tend to his 7.5-acre garden and numerous coon dogs and squirrel dogs. They have three children, Paulus Jr., Beverly and Philip, “who wasn't big enough for two ls in his name,” and a granddaughter, Rebecca.
Flinchum will return to his native North Carolina with his wife Frances to work on the family farm. He has a daughter Renee and a son, Todd.