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A Farm in Transition (Part 2)

Through this blog series we would like to bring you along with us to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers. 

In this issue of the series, we will see our family make one of the biggest changes that any farm can make – a relocation.

In the late 1970s, after visiting a daughter in South Carolina, my grandparents, Jim and Anna, decided to escape high land prices and harsh winters and purchased the farm that we currently operate in Chester and York counties.  Gary also moved down in 1980 after selling the Indiana farm and purchasing another farm in Chester County.  The plan was to expand their row crop operation with the main crop being corn.  The first few years were very successful, and they continued to expand even purchasing another farm in York County and had about 1200 acres planted at the peak.

An anhydrous ammonia applicator used to apply nitrogen to a corn crop.

One key to their corn operation was the source of nitrogen they used.  It’s called anhydrous ammonia, and it is injected into the soil with an applicator that has knives fed from a pressurized tank much like a propane tank.  While this method is effective at making the plant grow fast, it also has downsides such as difficulty in handling and the inherent danger of a pressurized gas capable of severe burns.  In 1989, as my dad was transferring the product from one tank to another a hose that he was close to burst.  He had to spend some time in a burn hospital and doctors though he might be blind, but thankfully he was able to make a full recovery.  As we will discuss in another part of this series, one viewpoint that we have developed is that farms should be family friendly.  Chemicals create dangers on farms along with a host of other problems.

Their method also relied on deep and heavy tillage with the thought being that the soil acts as a sponge and the deeper your sponge the more the corn plant can access water.  But no matter how deep the sponge is, you have to have rain for it to absorb.  The inconsistent rainfall in the Southeast eventually proved to be a primary obstacle in relying on a crop such as corn for such a large portion of the farm’s revenue.

By the early 1990s the decision was made that in order to help satisfy the bank and avoid bankruptcy our family would need to sell around 1000 acres and some equipment.  We were able to lease some of the farmland back for a time and transition to another crop that had long been a staple in the south: cotton.  But cotton production and harvesting methods were rapidly changing at this time.  Round-up Ready (genetically modified) seed was starting to be available which would allow the crop to be sprayed “over the top.”  The glyphosate chemical would kill weeds and grass, but the crop would remain unharmed.  Also, many of the local cotton gins were closing, and harvest methods were shifting from wagons to modules which could be transported more efficiently to gins further away.  For us, this meant that some of the recently acquired equipment was going to be obsolete soon.

Some years were better than others, but among drought, the farm crisis of the 1980s, a changing cotton industry, and a number of other exacerbating issues, the Watsons were once again looking to make changes in order to survive in agriculture.  This transformation had to be more robust than merely gearing up for a different crop if Watson Farms was to stay intact.  Some of the changes we will see in the next part of this series are a new venture into contract poultry in the mid-1990s and integrating the next generation into the farming operation.  Stay tuned!

The article and photo below was published in The Herald newspaper highlighting the unconventional practices used by my dad and granddad.

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A Farm in Transition (Part 1)

A lot of what we do as farmers is try to adjust to an ever-changing context in order to stay relevant to customers while still being profitable.  In other words, what got us here won’t get us there.  This is definitely true for us here at Watson Farms, and we would like to bring you along with us through this multi-part blog series to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers.

Let’s start back in the 1950’s when my grandparents, Jim and Anna Watson, living in southern Indiana, were expanding both their farm and their family.  By the mid-1950’s they had 4 children, and like farm families today have to do, they also had to get creative to make ends meet.  Jim got a good-paying job at a power plant across the state, which in turn provided an opportunity to purchase a farm nearby in order to be closer to the plant.  This second job helped the family expand the farming operation which was centered around corn production, but also involved cattle and hogs.

Their methods were viewed as cutting edge back then, and they were untested as to the long term impacts on the environment.  But nonetheless, this was the way that vast numbers of farmers across the country were heading: using herbicides and pesticides, chemical fertilizers, feeding grain to cattle, raising pigs in confinement, etc.

As the children got older, they too became a part of the farming operation and the family moved back to Freelandville, Indiana where they were from originally.  They continued to expand the farm with a major enterprise being a farrow-to-finish hog operation that became a means of marketing cheap grain into a more valuable commodity.  The family also purchased a meat shop in the small town and supplied beef to surrounding communities with their own cattle.  This enterprise was not only successful in its own right, but also served as an excellent learning experience for my dad, Gary as he and I would decades later begin direct-marketing beef once again.

So there is a quick snapshot of several decades of the beginnings of Watson Farms.  Next, we’ll look at yet another incredible transition for the family in order to keep farming even though it meant moving 600 miles away, and then enduring multiple crises in the 1980s and 1990s.

Until then, take a look at an aerial shot of the Freelandville farm in the 1970s complete with a 1000-hog per year farrow to finish operation and cattle feedlot.  By the way, some of the equipment in the photo is still with us today although with a little more rust.