Working his way up the ranks as a nuclear electrician at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard was hard work. Leaving that career was harder work, but becoming a full time farmer, and a successful one, was well worth the wait says Suffolk, Va., grower Mike Griffin.
Griffin grew up on a farm, and learned to drive a tractor long before he learned to drive a car.
He remembers always wanting to be a farmer.
His grandfather, James Griffin, Sr., his father James Griffin, Jr., and his uncle Joe Griffin built a thriving farming operation centered around peanut production. Separate from the family partnership, his grandfather operated a small farming operation. “I did the work for my grandfather, and I did it his way. I didn’t always like it, but there was a very good lesson learned — one I appreciate now,” the 2009 High Cotton Award winner for the Southeast Region says.
I have never lost my passion for agriculture. And, I have never forgotten the many lessons I learned from my father, grandfather and uncle working on the farm, he adds.
When it came time to make college decisions he wanted to attend North Carolina State’s agriculture program, and was accepted and almost went.
“I remember we had a bad drought that year and my family suggested that I at least consider learning something outside of the farm. At the time, I had an uncle working at the shipyard, and I felt like I might end up working there anyway, so I decided not to go to college. I applied and was accepted into the apprentice program at the shipyard, as an electrician,” Griffin says.
“My parents always made sacrifices so that my two sisters and I had the best education possible and could have the things we needed. Our future was and has always been their first priority,” the Virginia farmer stresses.
He started in the electrical program at the shipyard. Being a natural tinkerer and always fascinated by how things work, Griffin was a quick learner and rapidly made his way through the apprentice program.
He later moved into the nuclear program at the shipyard and really excelled in what was then a growing area of work. Griffin got out of the apprentice program early and rapidly worked his way up the management structure. After nearly 20 years, he was senior nuclear manager and well on his way to a long career at the shipyard.
Though he left the farm, he didn’t really leave it. Often after working 12-hour shifts at the shipyard, he came straight to the farm to help his father. He also began working his own farm, acquiring land in some unique ways.
“I spent as much time as I could riding around in this area, looking at land. When I found land that was fallow and not rented to another farmer, I would look up the owners at the courthouse and write them a letter outlining why I wanted to rent their land, how I would farm it and what it was worth to me,” he explains.
"Over a period of years I built up some land and began farming part time, while still working full time at the shipyard and helping my dad.
“I did a lot of my farming at night back then," Griffin laughs. "People at the shipyard asked me how I could go from working long hours at the yard to working long hours on the farm. The shipyard was a job, farming is my passion — totally different than working for a paycheck and benefits,” Griffin says.
In 1999, Griffin acquired some valuable farmland and a very important person in his life. The land came from Thomas Ashburn. As part of the deal, Mike agreed to keep Mr. Ashburn’s grandson, Jeff, employed in the farming operation.
“Jeff is like a son to me. He’s smart, he’s hard-working, he’s honest and honorable — all the qualities you could ask for in a son. He has always had a significant interest in what was going on with the farm and is always trying to learn something new,” Griffin says.
“When I left the shipyard in January 2001, a lot of people — I can’t tell you how many people — thought I was crazy. Not my family — they supported me, and I suspect knew I was destined to be a farmer."
At the time Griffin was dating a woman, Susan Nurney, who is now his wife. “I didn’t quite know how to tell her what I was planning to do, but when I did, she said go for it — do what you love to do. She’s been totally supportive of my career change and is a big reason for any successes I’ve had as a farmer,” Griffin stresses.
In the mid-1990s cotton made a return to southeast Virginia. In 1995, his father grew a few acres of cotton and Griffin saw his first cotton crop. “I remember rushing back from the shipyard to the farm to see my father’s first cotton crop being picked.
"The cotton picker was the most intriguing piece of equipment I had ever seen, and probably still have seen. I knew from the start that I was going to grow cotton."
For the past 14 years Griffin has been a cotton farmer. He grows corn, beans and wheat, but he is a cotton farmer — down to his e-mail handle — cottonpickr.
Now, he grows approximately 1,000 acres of cotton and another 800 acres of grain crops. “We have tinkered with and have demonstrated that we can have a short-term continuous cotton rotation and make it profitable. We haven’t created an ill-effect on the land, and we replenish everything we take from the soil,” he says.
"Still, grain crops are important to us from an economic standpoint and important as crop rotation options. On some of our land, we go one year corn and two years cotton. On different soil types, we can go with wheat and double-crop soybeans followed by cotton. None of our cotton land stays out of cotton for more than one year," Griffin explains.
The science of farming is a constant part of Griffin’s overall farm plan. He had a nutrient management program developed in 2007, which requires extensive soil sampling and monitoring of inputs.
"On a specific farm, where we suspect we might have problems or micro-nutrient deficiencies, we do tissue sampling to monitor what the plant is going through during four different times in the growing season. We recently began using Helena Chemical Co.’s foliar feeding program. My father, my uncle and I use it on all our cotton and soybean acres. There are some varying opinions concerning foliar nutrients, but on our farms cotton and soybean yields have been on an upward trend since we started with the program."
Griffin also began this past year participating in a precision fertility program with Meherrin Chemical Co. There are some cost savings — something in the neighborhood of $35 per acre. "We don’t know if we will save $35 an acre every year, but are totally committed to the program," Griffin notes.
In addition to cost savings, the precision fertility program fits in well with Griffin’s strict adherence to good soil stewardship. He actively participates in efforts to preserve the Chesapeake Bay and Southern Rivers watersheds. "Putting no more chemicals and fertilizers on our crops than is needed by the crops for top production just makes good economic and environmental sense," Griffin explains.
"You have to be innovative in growing cotton. New, better, more cost effective ways of producing a crop are critical to survival."
Among Griffin’s out-of-the-box concepts is conducting variety testing programs in cooperation with a number of seed companies and with Virginia Tech University researchers. “Looking at large blocks of cotton varieties side-by-side gives a much better perspective of subtle differences between the varieties and what will work best on your farm. It’s been exciting to watch the genetic improvement in cotton varieties just in the past few years,” Griffin says.
"There are so many good cotton varieties today, but not all of them are good for us. Phytogen 375 is one that performs amazingly well on our farms. I’m more excited about this variety than any we grow. It looked good in our field testing in 2007, and it performed well in the field in 2008. This past year Phytogen 375 looked outstanding, we had most of our crop split between this variety and Stoneville 4427. I can’t wait to see how it yields.
"Growing cotton for Mike Griffin in southeastern Virginia is a total team effort. People like J.B. Riddick at Helena Chemical Co., Bryan Holland at Meherrin Chemical Co., and the staff at the Virginia Tech Ag Research facility are valuable parts of our team, as are many, many university researchers and seed and chemical company representatives," Griffin stresses. "Cotton crops are all different. Every year is different; that’s one of the things I enjoy most about growing it. The more I learn about cotton, the more I like it,” Griffin concludes.