Gregg Patterson 2017-08-19 00:31:32
Winning farm family bucks the norm You can’t farm if you don’t come from a farming family. You can’t just start farming on your own. You can’t get started farming unless you’re fortunate enough to inherit or marry into some farmland. It’s just about impossible for a young farmer with nothing to get a farm loan. Chris Damron, 35, has heard all that and more. He got started farming his own crops in 2006 after graduating with an agriculture business degree from Arkansas State University. He’s a first-generation rice and soybeans farmer outside of Jonesboro where he now lives with his wife Breanne and their two children, Reese and Mason. He was recently named Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award winner for 2017. The Achievement Award recognizes young farmers and ranchers who have excelled in their farming/ranching operations and exhibited outstanding leadership abilities within Arkansas Farm Bureau and their local community. When asked how he’s beaten the odds and crushed the conventional wisdom when it comes to starting – and surviving – as a newbie farmer, and whether he was even a little scared when he planted his first crop, Damron, with a self-deprecating grin and a shrug joked, “I’m too dumb to be afraid.” The farming bug bit Damron 24 years ago at age 11. A neighbor farmer needed assistance, and he answered the call. He hasn’t looked back. “He needed help putting spills in one week, and I went and helped him and fell in love with dirt, tractors and all that,” Damron said. For several years he worked summers for that farmer. “Never wanted to do anything else,” he said. “I loved farming, and it was my dream to farm on my own.” Damron grew up in a family involved in construction and heavy equipment. His parents told him if he wanted to farm he had to get a college degree, first, to fall back on if things didn’t work out. When he went to ASU, he fully immersed himself in agriculture. He graduated with his ag degree in 2005 and began working as a farm foreman for another local farmer. Breanne attended ASU, too, earning her undergraduate degree in 2004 and her master’s degree in 2006. They married in December that year, and she works as a speech therapist. Daughter Reese was born in 2012 and son Mason in 2015. It was 2006 when Chris approached his parents about the chance to rent some acreage and start growing his own crops. His father put up a certificate of deposit as collateral, so Chris could get his first farm loan. He began with 33 acres of rice, 66 acres of soybeans and 35 acres of wheat, all on marginal leased land. “After my first year, I was hooked,” Damron said. He continued as farm forman for the farmer he’d been working with and added to the leased-land acreage he farmed. It wasn’t the best farmland by any stretch of the imagination. But he networked and talked to older, experienced farmers on how to deal with the challenges the land presented, and he persevered. He improved his financial position by getting a FSA Guaranteed Government loan. When Damron found out another farmer was getting out of the business, he bought his older equipment – three tractors, a combine, multiple headers and multiple tillage tools – and leased an additional 400 acres from him. Damron still worked for the farmer he always had, but eventually decided to go it alone on the leased acreage he’d built up for himself. He made another big jump in 2016 when he leased 1,250 more acres. He now farms a little more than 2,000 rented acres split almost evenly between soybeans and rice. Damron has purchased three grain trucks to haul his crops during harvest. When he’s not using them, he hires drivers and makes extra income with them hauling for others. There’s no quit in Damron even as he’s gone through trying times when the relationship he’d had with the farmer he’d worked with for so many years ended on a sour note. He continues to work to improve the land he’s farming. “I’m 90 percent marginal ground just because I’m trying to get my foot in the door,” he said. “The ground is decent, but it’s labor intensive. I’m doing what the ground allows me to do. It takes a lot more work and hours in the day to do it.” However, he’s OK with that and lives by the motto “If it’s daylight, you ought to be working.” Time and labor are his biggest challenges. Damron is a big fan of talking to the older farmers he rents ground from and picking their brains about how to work the land properly. “That’s very important. These older men have done it for 50, 60 or 70 years, and they’ve seen the changes,” he said. “Everybody says farming is cyclical. It all comes in cycles, and I just like the knowledge and tips they can give me. I’d much rather ask somebody to tell me what they know that I need to know instead of trying to have dumb luck and figuring it out myself over 10 years.” That’s also what he likes most about networking at Farm Bureau YF&R meetings, too. “It provides more networking with people my age and meeting people around the state who are going through the same hardships and challenges, because we’re all in it together,” Damron said, “It’s just nice to meet new people.” His long-term goal is to get better farmland, more fertile and more productive. And he’d like to be able to have a dependable full-time farm hand. He has some part-time help, but reliable labor is always a challenge. Chris says Breanne helped plant a couple of hundred acres of beans this year. “I was thankful and proud of her and told her she gets to drive a combine next,” he said. He lost 90 acres of rice during this year’s spring flooding. “We had it worked, planted, fertilized and sprayed, and then it was underwater for twenty something days,” he said. “I’d never experienced anything like that. It was devastating. I learned real quick how things can turn on you.” Damron says winning the Achievement Award made him feel “good, honored. I’m tickled that they think so much of us.” The Damrons are active in Farm Bureau. Chris is a leader serving on the Craighead County board since 2012 along with several committees, and Breanne is involved with the county Women’s Committee. They’re also actively involved and passionate about raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation during the past seven years. The family attends Central Baptist Church. They won $35,000 courtesy of Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Co. and an expense-paid trip to Nashville in January to represent Arkansas at the American Farm Bureau annual convention. Tyler and Randi McDonald, who raise corn silage, hay and pecans near Lewisville, and Jamey and Sara Allen of Prattsville, who raise cattle, hay and corn silage, were runners-up for the Achievement Award. Both families won $5,000. Chris Damron has beaten the odds when it comes to being a young, first-generation farmer, and he’s certainly proven he’s neither dumb nor afraid. The Damron family of Jonesboro earned the 2017 Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award. Pictured are Chris and Breanne and their children Reese and Mason. Damron has precision leveled approximately 350 acres in the last two years. He’s cleaned out and dug new ditches for tailwater recovery and installed flashboard risers to control flooding on fields and decrease erosion. He’s also rebuilding and modifying his reservoir.
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