A farmer's profile in courage

In my job I have an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and I get to tell their stories in hopes some of the things they do in their farming operation will help another farmer or farm family somewhere down the line.

From time to time I run across a story that for reasons I can’t explain, I just can’t find the words to tell. Some, I theorize are just too big for me or too big for our magazine, or that I just can’t find the right words to say what I want to say.

Such is the case with the story of Karen and Dalton Dildine. I met the mother and son farming family at a recent tour of Cotton Incorporated. Bobby Skeen, regional communications manager for the Cotton Board, introduced me to the Dildine’s, noting they were and are as best we know, the only mother/son team ever to attend one of the annual tours.

I spent a few minutes with Karen and Dalton during the tour, and I left wondering how any person can dig deep enough into their inner strength to make the life-altering decisions she has had to make in her still young life.

I still don’t know how to write this story, but here goes!

Up until July 2, 2010 Karen Dildine was a farm family matriarch, wife of ultra-successful and ultra-popular Tommy Dildine and mother to young Dalton Dildine, who at the time was getting ready to enter his senior year of high school.

That July 2 morning was about usual at their farm near Blythville, Ark. Karen had been out of town and Tommy was waiting for her to drive to their lake home to celebrate the July 4, holiday with family.

“Tommy said he wasn’t feeling well, but would be fine to go to the lake. Being sick wasn’t a common thing, but it wasn’t so unusual. He has lots of responsibilities and sometimes running such a big farming operation can be frustrating,” she says.

“Typical of my husband, he gave most of the employees a couple of days off for the holidays. He had been out checking some irrigation equipment and was waiting for one of his farm managers to come by to talk about a few farm things before we left for the holiday.

I answered the door and was talking to the farm manager, then we turned to go inside our house. Tommy was walking toward us and just collapsed. The paramedics got to the farm faster than I can imagine possible, and we did CPR until they arrived, but he was gone,” she recalls.

In what, relative to a lifetime on earth, is little more than a blink of an eye Karen Dildine became a large acreage Arkansas farmer, primary owner of a large cotton gin, an elected county official—via her late husband’s post, a widow, a single mom and a woman who had just watched the love of her life die.

Tommy Dildine was not your average farmer—not even your above average farmer—he was by all accounts one of the very best farmers in the Mississippi River Delta. He farmed about 8,000 acres of crops, including more than 3,000 acres of cotton. The gin he co-owned and headed recently celebrated ginning 1,000,000 bales of cotton.

“Tommy was very innovative. He did a lot of work with agriculture companies and with the University of Arkansas,” Karen recalls. He was also well known throughout the Delta for his work with various farmer organizations.

Dalton, who grew up on the farm and farming, proudly points out that their farm had one of the first Case IH on-board module building cotton pickers, In fact, the prototype of the machine Case IH markets today was first tested on our farm,” Dalton says.

Though she lived on the farm all their married life, Karen was never actively involved in the farming enterprise, other than running errands for Tommy from time-to-time and attending meetings with him. “Tommy used to tell me I had the hardest job on the farm—taking care of Dalton and our home,” she says.

After some time to recover from losing her husband, Karen sat down with lawyers, financial advisors and trusted family members to try and figure out what to do next. Virtually everyone advised me to sell the farm and enjoy the memory of a thoughtful and generous husband, Karen recalls.

Though short on farming knowledge, Karen was not short on courage, nor tenacity, nor commitment to her son, and what she deemed would have been the wishes of her late husband. In an earlier life she had been a legal secretary, which gave her some insights into the legal obligations she had for running such a large, diverse farming enterprise.

Neither selling the farm, nor leaving the farm was ever an option, she states resolutely and positively. Tommy and his family had built this business and we had built our home and there was never any thought of leaving it, she says.

No matter how big the pile of chips, I had to ask, knowing that it would have to be a sizable stack indeed. Taking the money and leaving the farm was never an option—never, she stresses.

Even at his young age Dalton was more than willing, and probably able, to take over the farm, but that was never an option either. Tommy and I both stressed early on to Dalton that coming back to work on the farm would be an option, but before that he would have to go to college, get a degree and see a little of how the world works, she stresses.

It wasn’t easy, but with the help of valuable and trusted farm employees and Dalton, Karen got through the cropping year in 2010. Despite floods, drought and record heat they planted and re-planted and in some cases re-planted cotton again in 2011. They got this year’s crop in and barring some catastrophic weather event will get the crop harvested.

Farmers are one big family and she says her farming friends and neighbors have been tireless and invaluable in helping her carry on the family farming operation. Likewise, the employees who Tommy Dildine treated so well and cared for like family, have been instrumental in keeping the farm moving forward through some less than favorable conditions in 2011.

Even with all the room in our magazine, there’s not enough space to tell this whole story. I just hope the farmers who read it will thank their farm wife a little more often and farm kids will appreciate a little more the efforts their parents make to provide a place on the farm, should they choose to take it.

Clearly, if all the men and women who lead our country and our world had the same inner strength and commitment to things important to them as do Karen and Dalton Dildine, our world would be a better place.

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