Marc Shannon stepped into the field in September. The young farmer had a “What can you do” moment. Too many weeds stood tall. Washed out areas pocked it. Plants stunted.

And no wonder. The field spent too much time under nature’s water hose this year, more time flooded than dry.

Shannon, 24, wants to farm. But his second serious year at it had record to near-record rainfall for extreme south Georgia. An average year’s worth of rain hit the area before August ended.

The 25-acre peanut field in Lowndes County, Ga., not far from the Florida line had already received upwards of 50 inches of rain by September. And in a part of the country where the word ‘drought’ rolls off the tongue easier than ‘drowned,’ well, the rain caused problems.

 

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The field’s a good hour and a half tractor ride south from Shannon’s family farm home base in Tift County, but it was the closest field he could find to rent this year, or he could find to call his own.

The day Shannon stepped into the field that September morning, he and his father, Wes, hosted a stop on the 2013 Georgia Peanut Tour. They told the crowd like it was: Too much rain kept the tractors out of the field just way too much. Things didn’t turn out like they’d hoped for it.

“There’d be times we’d come down in an afternoon to see if we could run the next day with fungicide or herbicide and we’d roll out the next morning and get here to find it had rained two or three inches overnight and there would be water standing in it,” Marc said. “And there just isn’t anything you can do about that.”

Giving the next generation 'a leg up"

Shannon’s father, Wes, 53, is a well-known Georgia peanut farmer who has served in state and national peanut advisory positions, including the National Peanut Board. Marc admits he has a good leg up on getting started: the kind of mentor and help a young farmer pretty much has to have these days to get started and to make it work.

The Shannon’s are in a position faced by much of the U.S. farming community. The average age of an American farmer is going on 60. In the next two decades, though, more than half of the farm land in the country is predicted to switch hands, either to the next in-family farm generation or to some other entity.

Wes’s father, Earl, who is 78 now, farmed on the side, but his main job was working on the local land-grant experiment station. With Earl’s help in the beginning and “a lot of people being really good to me and fair,” Wes said, he was married, farming full time and settling into a house by 25.

The Shannon operation isn’t big, roughly 1,000 acres, with only 600 of that cultivated crop acreage. The rest is in timber, hay or pasture.

“There are some ways we can stretch the land we have like with double-cropping with some higher-value crops,” Wes said. “But by and large, we have to expand the operation acreage wise for Marc to come in.”

That’s why Marc is willing to travel an hour and a half to rent and work a good field.

Wes said for much of Marc’s life he discouraged him from going into farming, referring to the ugly times, such as the late 1990s and early 2000s where even good farmers didn’t make it, and the times when Wes himself saw too many “What can you do” moments.

“And Marc saw that,” Wes said. “But (farming) is what he wants to do now. Out of any time in my life, though, right now I feel good about the opportunities for a young person who doesn’t mind working hard going into production agriculture at this time.”

The Shannons look to keep farming in the family.

Marc farms in partnership with his father now, splitting labor and equipment, and that’s the way he wants it. But he’s on his own and making decisions, too, learning and living with them. Got a serious girlfriend, too, and a place to live on his own: a glorified Man Cave maybe, but it’s working for now.

Before giving farming a serious try, Marc went to the local junior college and worked for a local tractor implement manufacturer, thinking about becoming an engineer. Fine work, but he realized he wanted to farm. He’s still working his way through college to have something to fall back on.

“I tell him now, ‘Don’t get in too deep too soon. You have to do enough to make a living, but you don’t need new equipment all the time. Be careful how much you spend on rent or you can get caught up with too much in inputs and rent and you can work and end up not make anything,’” Wes said.

Record rainfall didn't wash it away

This year, Marc’s got 37 acres of peanuts and 20 acres of cotton of his own. He’d like to double that acreage next year, maybe even more.

“I’m trying to branch out as fast but as responsibly as possible. I’m kind of lucky to be in the situation I’m in and be able to grow step by step, which is what I’d like to do and not get too big too fast,” Marc said. “But I’m definitely looking to expand.”

Back to the peanut field: It was planted in Georgia Greener variety, Marc said, because it was the only seed left available to him. Though they’ve had good luck with that variety in dryland situation, he said he might have preferred another variety, but with what the field went through this year, variety wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

The field had good potential. It was planted in cotton for more than a decade. No peanuts had been planted on it in recent memory. The soil’s rich and dark with good water-holding capacity, especially for south Georgia.

It would have been a good find, considering most Georgia summer’s come with plenty of dry sunshine mixed with sporadic afternoon thunderstorms. But who’d a figured record rainfall hitting it this year.

“Yeah, it would have been nice to get a bumper crop out of this field but what I really hoped for was to be able to make a little money. And it still has some potential, but we’ll see. The bumper crop would have been nice,” Marc said.

“I’ve seen what daddy had to go through in bad years and know that you really can’t take anything for granted and never say anything is for sure.”

Lesson learned. What lesson? The “What Can You Do” lesson.

Hey, he wants to farm. And like all farmers, young or old, you plan a little and pray a lot (or maybe that’s the other way round). Maybe 30 years down the road the story about his second crop year, or that 2013 summer where it just rained way too much, will be one of the stories he tells to another young farmer having his own “What can you do” moment.

brad.haire@penton.com

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