Nobody ever said being a farmer was an easy or glamorous life – especially in north Alabama. But in these rolling hills where cotton’s history is rich and the red clay soil can be as unpredictable as the weather itself, you can also find farmers who defy the odds during every crop season.
When you talk about resilience and a willingness to do whatever it takes to deliver a crop, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than the Darnell family of Hillsboro, Ala.
Clifton Farms and Darnell Farms
In this small community just west of Decatur in the northwest part of the state, you’ll find a farming community unlike any other. Here, it’s all about coping with a history of unforgiving weather, soil variability and a limited water supply.
Conversely, you’ll also find several generations of farming families who have adjusted to new environments and continue to produce crops no matter what obstacles lie in front of them.
In 1968, when Danny and Pat Darnell decided to make farming a full-time career as a young married couple, the foundation was laid for a remarkable family operation.
Coping With Adversity
The Darnells started out with small acreage and grew mostly cotton. Since they always seemed to deal with unpredictable weather, there were plenty of ups and downs through the years. One of the lessons they passed on to their children and grandchildren continues to pay dividends today.
Know your land, make smart financial decisions and be flexible when when the market changes.
Today, the Darnell family farm actually consists of two operations. Clifton Farms is owned and operated by sons Jared and Heath, and they also handle the marketing. Jared’s wife Michelle does the accounting.
Darnell Farms, meanwhile, is run by Danny and Pat, who also handles finances and marketing for this separate operation.
Meanwhile, Heath’s wife Sally-Rae is a full-time school teacher in the area who also helps everyone out in the field if necessary.
Together, the two farms represent 4,300 acres. Through the years, the land was usually divided equally among cotton, corn and soybeans. Cotton was rotated with corn to help deal with the nematode problem, and soybeans were rotated with wheat to achieve similar results.
The Darnells have learned that it pays to be flexible – especially when prices for corn, soybeans and cotton have soared to record levels in recent years. For example, in 2009, neither farm had any cotton. In 2010, cotton acreage increased to 1,100 acres, and that number will inch higher to nearly 2,000 acres in 2011.
Most of the acreage is dryland with only 500 irrigated acres on the Darnell farm, which is located near the Tennessee River.
Hard Work Pays Off
Danny says it’s a case of hard work and attentiveness to details that have helped the two farms survive even during the lean seasons.
Darnell Family’s Friends Call Them ‘A Special Group”
“The good Lord has blessed us through all of these years,” he says. “Even though we don’t have the best land in the world, my sons and I have worked really hard. My wife Pat has been a part of this for 42 years and keeps up with the finances and marketing. I don’t know where we’d be without her.”
When Pat isn’t spending time with her husband, sons, daughters-in-law or three grandchildren – Riley, Makenzie and Jackson – you can find her sitting in front of a computer in the farm office, which actually is a converted carport attached to the house.
She doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but she has absorbed enough information in the last four decades to understand farm finances, marketing and price volatility.
“We’ve used different merchants, cooperatives and mill direct contracts for how we market our cotton,” says Pat. “We have received good service from all of them, but I also have been able to do some marketing on my own.”
The Darnells rent most of their land and are appreciative of the relationship they have with the land owners. Mostly, they are thankful that, as two family farm operations, everyone is committed to doing his or her job with a passion that yields good results.
The Darnell formula for success is fairly simple and straightforward. They try to be as proactive as possible when it comes to production decisions. They were New Product Evaluators (NPE) for Deltapine in 2010 and will plant two DP varieties in 2011 – DP 0912 B2RF and DP 0920 B2RF.
Both varieties performed consistently on their dryland and irrigated acreage with yields averaging close to two bales.
Fortunately, the farm has managed to avoid serious weed resistance problems because Danny and his two sons have aggressively adhered to a residual herbicide application program. Last year they only encountered a pigweed outbreak in one field, and they hope to keep it that way this year.
The entire acreage is in no-till and con-till, and that has been a boost through the years as the area has battled boll weevils, tobacco budworms, plant bugs and a host of other pests.
“Our goals are the same every year,” says Heath. “We pay our debts and when the rubber hits the road, we need to do everything in a timely fashion. We have to move fast and really pay attention to what we’re putting out in the field.
“We also need to be planting the right varieties in the right field. Then, if we do all of those things correctly, we still hope to receive some timely rains.”
That’s the philosophy a dryland farmer needs to survive when water availability is a major limiting factor.
Jared, the older of the Darnell sons, says it’s important for their cotton varieties to be strong enough to tolerate drought conditions.
“As we have said many times here in north Alabama, we’re only about seven days away from a drought,” he says. “We need a good, wet growing season because our ground dries out so fast.”
It’s also important for varieties to be early maturing so that the crop has a chance to develop before the weather becomes hotter and dryer in July and August.
As committed as the Darnells are to cotton, they continue to see production and financial benefits in rotating corn with cotton as well as wheat with soybeans. Last year, the family continued its commitment to these other crops by constructing four large grain bins in a field not far from the main farm office at Pat and Danny’s house.
“I never thought I’d see the day when we would build grain bins, but I see the benefit now,” says Danny. “This helps us become more efficient with our corn production.”
As for the success of three families working together in a farm operation, everyone agrees that it takes a special relationship to make it happen.
Both Jared and Heath returned from Auburn University, and their father always anticipated that they would work on the farm with him. His wishes eventually came true.
“I knew how much they loved farming, and I never doubted whether they would come back and work with Pat and me,” says Danny. “They were always with me in the field when they were growing up.
“We love doing what we do as a family. We’re not rich, but we have made a good living. What’s the key to our success? That’s easy. We never argue with each other. OK, maybe we fuss a little...but not much.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.