92-year-old harvesting icon Jessie Small says he would do it all again
Blood on dirt and bone over iron. Jessie Small is the soul of American agriculture.
A giant in his time, Small is stepping down from the box after 92 years and has etched his tale into countless grain fields from the Gulf of Mexico to Montana. Simply, if there was no Jessie Small, fiction would create him.
When farming opportunity arrives, it often only knocks once. Miss the window and rest assured, the chance will be snatched away by competitors. When combine technology screamed forward as pullers became pushers, Small rode a wave of transformational change in U.S. agriculture. In 1950, he scrambled aboard a 12' John Deere combine, never looked back and drove into the pages of farming history.
True character can’t be hidden and Small is testament to the maxim. With a heat index pushing 112°F on a July afternoon, he is moving with the ease of a man 20 years his junior, performing surgery on a combine parked under a pecan tree to help with repairs for a harvest he won’t cut. Besides a baseball cap, jean shorts, T-shirt and tennis shoes, Small wears a permanent tan from years in the outdoors, once combining with no cab or even the simple protection of an umbrella.
Small backs away from the headers, sits down in a yellow recliner pushed between the combine and pecan tree, and wipes his brow with the four fingers of his right hand, the thumb lost to a combine fan years before. With a wide grin, he reaches in his pocket and pulls out a bent 4" cigar. When the brown Roi-Tan hits his mouth, Small’s pale blue eyes jump and he winds up a gravely Southern drawl: “This ain’t about age and there ain’t no secrets.”
Born in the belly of a bottom in southeast Missouri in 1923, in a one-room, 24'x24' log cabin between the St. Francis and Varney rivers, Small was raised with a mouthful of dirt on 160 acres of dense forest. Mosquito plagues, panther screams and no electricity were daily fare. A single wood stove provided warmth and a wick dipped in kerosene offered a dim black glow.
It was a primal environment, anchored by the 10'-diameter trunks of bald cypress trees rising 120' in the air. Small walked six miles to school each day until the fifth grade and worked alongside five brothers and one sister. He loved the insular world under the cypress canopy, but couldn’t shake his natural curiosity; he read everything he could get his hands on.
“Storybook, dictionary or Bible. If it had words inside, I was desperate to read it and learn,” he remembers.
His father initially worked timber, intent on clearing the homestead acreage to later farm. A single 12' cypress cut required an eight-wheel wagon and four stout mules to move. The five brothers hauled the logs to the banks of the St. Francis, lashed them into 10-piece rafts and roped the sections together in a
massive chain. Small rode on the pilot raft, armed with a long pole to push off the bank during the three-day journey downriver to a saw mill.
Gradually, 10 acres at a time, the family cleared enough land to scratch out a few rows of cotton. Small picked white fiber and cut timber until he could no longer fight the urge to see beyond the cypress woods.
“I was born with a non-stop desire to learn something new, some kind of incurable urge toward curiosity. It was almost like a burden, but it sure helped me later in life,” he says.
At 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and built trails for a dollar a day. Within several months, he saved enough money to buy a $75 Model B Roadster with a rumble seat. Fortune forever around the corner, young Small fired down the open road to New Orleans, working small jobs far from his cloistered cypress bottom.
“At 17, I met and married my wife, Mary,” he says. “At 18, I was drafted and sent to Pearl Harbor just after the attack in 1941. I reckon life sped up.”
When World War II ended, Small returned to the Missouri farm, now entirely cleared of timber, and grew cotton and soybeans. In 1950, with a pod-heavy soybean crop sitting in his fields, Small looked at his two-row puller combine and made a bold choice for a 27-year-old: $3,500 for a 12' self-propelled John Deere combine.
After all, the age of puller combines was over. He was paying a steep price, but pushers were dramatically altering agriculture and Small was going to be part of the change.
West of Missouri, from Texas to Canada, a sea of wheat waited and Small smelled opportunity. He had heard $2,000 could be made cutting grain in a single season. He rented his combine to a brother cutting in Oklahoma, and then purchased a second machine.
In 1951, he went west with his combines and Small’s Harvesting company was born. Two more combines doubled the fleet in 1952, and Small transformed a school bus into a living quarters and kitchen.
“This was a real chance for farmers and all you had to do was work hard. The new combines didn’t just bring new technology. They brought opportunity if you moved fast,” he says.
Small’s family outfit grew larger, a caravan of combines and grain trucks moving north from Texas each year. With sideboards pulled off of flatbeds and combines hoisted aboard with the 12' headers stuck over the cab, they headed for wheat fields at 25 mph.
The buccaneering life captured a unique moment in agricultural history, the start of the wheatie combining wave. “Rolling north with the wheaties was my life,” Small recalls. “We were a combining army.”
Small’s Harvesting continued to grow as more family joined the operation. Four combines became nine, then 15 and later 20, all running in the fields together. During the 1980s, 30 Small combines were churning over grain ground. They cut for the same farms for 30 and 40 years.
Each May, like clockwork, the caravan swung out of the Missouri Bootheel and across Arkansas for Texas. “People in small towns would gather and wave from the roadside,” Small remembers.
By September, the convoy would return from Montana and head for the Mississippi Delta for cutting until December. Today, drive south from Sikeston, Mo., to Mississippi, or cross the Mississippi River and drive back up the Arkansas side, and it’s unlikely there’s a field along the highways that hasn’t been cut by Small’s Harvesting.
Time magazine approached Small in 1978 and planned to put him on the Sept. 4 cover—until he was bumped to the second page by Pope John Paul I. “They stuck me inside, but that ain’t bad,” he laughs.
Small’s son, Joe, 65, grew up a wheatie and compares the family’s combining days to a traveling band.
“Sure it was a job, but it was also about family and we were so close-knit. It was a tremendously great way for a child to grow up,” he notes.
Sleeping in the field, cutting all night and watching the sun come up, or building fires under combines to melt ice, the Smalls embraced it all and thrived through 65 years of continuous operation. Even at 92, if it weren’t for Jessie’s dimming eyesight, he’d still be cutting in the box.
Jessie refuses to speculate how many acres he’s rolled across, but he often eclipsed 50,000 in a single season. Extrapolated over the decades, the numbers reach phenomenal levels, particularly considering the capacity of equipment during his initial years.
As the last of the old boys, Jessie has no health secrets and takes no medicine. Every year, when cutting season ends, Jessie heads for Florida for five straight months of bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee; six days a week, standing up in the boat. “I got plenty of sitting time in a combine for the other half of the year,” he says.
It’s an experience that tends to stay with any farmer.
“I worked on an ocean,” Small says. “I’m talking about driving onto a hill and staring across five straight miles of wheat. Very few people know the awe of driving through a gate and cutting 10,000 acres of wheat with no roads.”
Keith Rapp grows wheat in western Nebraska and has rich memories of the Small’s barnstorming operation. “They took extra special care and worked first for me and not themselves,” he recalls. Rapp says Jessie’s performance was outstanding: “He was a phenomenal worker and there were days he made the young guys look terrible,” he says.
Arnie Johnson of Chappell, Neb., hired Small’s Harvesting to cut his crops for more than 20 years. “Across the entire farming country, in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of people that know and love Jessie and Joe Small,” Johnson says.
Joe says his father’s journey over the years can be used as a good road map for young producers. “My daddy rode a technology wave to success and there are more of those waves coming,” Joe says. “If a young farmer keeps his eyes open and gets in early, he can get hold of opportunity.”
Back on the farm one recent summer afternoon, Jessie raises his mangled cigar stub and points toward the combine cab, nodding his head in affirmation, “I’d do it all again.”
He slowly places the unlit cigar back into the corner of his mouth and smiles as his eyes flashback to fields gone by: “And I really wish I could do it all again.”
There’s something special about farmers. This story is first in a series featuring farmers who bring this special quality to life, the quality that lies at the heart of a farmer.