North Alabama’s “Farmer Emeritus” shares rich life expriences with others

It has been noted recently that the overall number of World War II veterans is shrinking rapidly, at the rate of about 900 per day, and as these members of this “Greatest Generation” pass from among us, many of their stories go with them.

In recognition of this, scholars, historians and others are diligently interviewing and talking with surviving veterans to help insure their life experiences are recorded for posterity’s sake, and rightfully so.

No other generation in the history of this country will likely match the accomplishments of World War II veterans, and it’s vital that we have an accurate accounting of their lives.

During a recent meeting in north Alabama, it occurred to me that perhaps we should be making the same sort of effort with what might well be considered the “greatest generation” of farming, those men who have reached the age to where they can now talk with equal experience and knowledge of mules and wagons and genetically engineered crops.

One of these men is Hollis Isbell, a long-time farmer in north Alabama who spoke eloquently of his life experiences during a producer meeting held in Calhoun County, Ala., this past December.

Auburn University Extension agronomist Charles Burmester refers to Isbell as “North Alabama’s Farmer Emeritus,” and it’s a well-earned title.

“Isbell Farms is a five-generation, true family farm, started by my grandfather on 40 acres, where he fed and clothed 10 children,” says Isbell. “My father inherited four acres of that and later bought out the rest from his brothers and sisters. Those 40 acres are still a part of Isbell Farms today.”

Out of necessity, he says, Isbell Farms has grown with each generation and now is comprised of about 6,000 acres, owned and operated by Isbell’s son and two grandsons. But it was a humble beginning.

“My mother and father moved from the mountains to the valley in a wagon with a team of mules and a milk cow tied behind it, all gifts from my grandfather. My father was a hard worker and was quick to adopt new ideas. He had a saying, “’To make a lot of cotton, you need to have long rows and lots of them,’” he says.

Isbell’s earliest memory on the farm was of working after school. “I’m glad to have had the privilege of chopping and picking cotton, gearing up a pair of mules, and following them from sun-up to sun-down, one row at a time. It gave me a greater appreciation of the progress agriculture has made.”

When Isbell was 15, his father had made the change from mules to tractors, and his family moved from a house with no running water to a brick house with central heating and hardwood floors.

In the early 1950s, Isbell returned from Auburn University to join his father and brothers on the farm. “It was a brief stay at Auburn, and the farm was a trade school, so-to-speak, with my father as the professor.”

Isbell’s father started with mules and lived to see a man on the moon, with a lot changes in between. Weeds and grasses limited the size of most farms, he says, and changes came very slow, but the introduction of new herbicides opened a window of opportunity. Then, more progress came to the farm in the form of mechanization, eventually moving from a one-row to a two-row John Deere cotton picker.

“Horsepower increased, equipment got larger, module builders replaced wagons, and average farm sizes began to increase. Yields were pretty good for this period, and gins increased their capacity.”

Later, during the 1990s, Isbell says, “the biggest miracle in my lifetime occurred.” At about 1990, things turned bad on the west side of the Tennessee Valley, he says.

“We had several bad crops in a row — we were on the ropes. People started talking about boll weevil eradication, at $35 per acre, and I opposed it at the time.”

But in early 1994, other farmers helped him to “see the light,” and he joined in the effort to rid the area of the pest. “The program worked well in 1995, but worms hit us, and we had a disaster. In 1994, Bt cotton was introduced and used on most acres in the Valley – the largest test plot I’ve seen in my lifetime with a product we knew nothing about. In 1996, boll weevil eradication was an unbelievable success, and we saw a top crop that easily paid for the cost of the program. We’ve gone from spraying every five days to being weevil-free.”

Boll weevil eradication, Bt and Roundup technology, and the option of no-till all represent big changes in farming, says Isbell, and this fall, he witnessed a John Deere 7760 round bale picker at work on his family’s farm.

“Each change brings excitement,” he says. “When my son asked me what I thought about the round baler, I said it was a beautiful site, and I kept thinking about my Dad…from mules and picksack to this, what a change.”

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