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America's greatest generation of farmers

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The World War II generation of American farmers created the most productive agriculture on the planet.

 

They have been called — and rightly so — “The Greatest Generation,” the millions of men and women who left home and loved ones to go to far-flung arenas and defend this country in World War II.

Those lucky enough to come home started businesses, became educators, ministers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, a myriad of professions into which they poured dedication and hard work that gave this country a renaissance of unparalleled progress and technological achievement.

Now, an estimated 1,000-plus of them die every day, among them many who came back to the land to build the most productive agriculture on the planet — giving America not only enviable self-sufficiency in food and fiber, but producing enough extra to help feed and clothe millions in other countries.

Houston Pannell, one of those 1,000-plus per day, died recently.

Except for his time in the U.S. Army, he was a farmer his entire life, rooted in the small community of Ellistown in northeast Mississippi. He started with pretty much nothing, and through hard work and saving (not to mention an innate knack for horse trading), managed to gradually acquire land that resulted in a fairly sizeable farming operation.

All, of course, with the unflagging support of his wife, Sue, who herself had known firsthand the back-aching, long days of dragging a cotton sack down the rows, but still managed, as their farm grew, to keep house, look after children, tend a garden, can and freeze a bountiful store of things she’d grown, cultivate masses of gorgeous flowers, and set a heaping table, including to-die-for cakes, pies, cobblers, and banana pudding. They were married for 66 years.

Because he grew up and lived in a cotton-based agriculture, Houston grew and loved cotton, although he also had beans and corn. He was a good farmer, a good citizen, and as was attested by the hundreds who came for visitation and filled the church for his funeral, a good man.

He loved beagle dogs and coon hunting and, on the darkest night, could instantly distinguish the distinctive barks of each of his dogs. His pastor, Mike Powell, laughingly remembered, “When I was called to this church, Houston told me he knew the Lord had sent the right man because I, too, love beagles.”

And dominoes — the man had a fetish for the game, including a convoluted version called Mexican Train, and whether it was with his buds at the country store or with family or friends around a card table in their den, he played with a quiet cunning that as often as not made him the winner. As always, with his dry humor, there was a lot of laughter.

When he retired and none of his children opted to follow him in farming, he leased his land, but continued to have a keen interest in what was going on in the area’s agriculture.

Though barely 15 miles from the city of Tupelo, the Ellistown community has pretty much retained its idyllic rural setting over the years — until recently. A scant five miles away as the crow flies, on land that was red clay hills, gullies, and kudzu, Toyota’s new $2 billion automobile plant is scheduled to start production in 2011, and already the character of the area is subtly changing to accommodate new homes and businesses, daily commutes for hundreds of workers, and the hundreds of trucks that will bring supplies and haul away finished vehicles.

A proposed feeder road for the plant would not only come through Houston’s land, it would, in a design only a highway engineer could love, go right between his house and barn, a distance of only a hundred yards or so, with vehicles whizzing by 24/7. He, understandably, fretted about that distasteful scenario.

At Houston’s funeral, tears were scarce. He had lived a long, productive life, doing what he loved to do, and those who gathered for farewell were there to celebrate and to honor what he had meant to them and their community. And as is the case with funerals today, with generations scattered from one end of the country to another, it was a time for reunion and a lot of do-you-remember-me?s.

Tommy Vinson — who as a high schooler rode a planter for Houston, keeping seed hoppers unclogged and dropping row markers, and went on to become Dr. Tommy Vinson, with a wide-ranging pastoral career — paid tribute to his former employer and friend, quoting scripture in which the apostle Paul refers to farmers.

Farmers are men of faith, diligence, and patience, Tommy noted: They put seeds in the ground, with faith that those seeds will grow and produce crops, they have the diligence to tend those plants as they mature, and the patience required for them to reach harvest.

By marrying Sue’s sister, I by default became absorbed into an extended clan of salt-of-the-earth, outgoing, fun-loving folks who never met a stranger and made everyone feel at home (as well as welcome at their table). For the decades I’ve been a part of the family, Houston and Sue’s house has been the gathering place for family events, with kids romping all over the place, copious amounts of food, and much laughter and reminiscing.

William Faulkner wrote of the “eternal verities” that undergird life and give it meaning, and it is at times such as these, as we bid these veterans/farmers fond farewell, that we appreciate anew their sacrifice, courage, honor, hard work, and dedication.

We owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude, not just for their service to their country, but for their innate love of the land and of growing things that also made them a great generation of farmers.

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