Teach a boy to farm and he feeds others for a lifetime. As a young farmer learns the ropes, small steps cut the path toward continuation of a family legacy.
When 12-year-old Evan Kirkpatrick climbed into the box and cut his first five acres of soybeans in 2017, the harvest represented a big link in a chain connecting past and present. What is the right age for a farm kid to really learn the trade? Every farming family is unique and every child has a different maturity level, but for Evan, 12 years is prime time.
“Driving the combine at harvest was the most exciting thing,” Evan exclaims.
After delivering his bushel bounty to a grain elevator outside of Dumas, Ark., Evan stared down at a shiny dollar figure on a crisp, sharp-edged check. Alongside his parents, Wes and Vonda, Evan walked back to the family truck and climbed into the cab, clinging tightly to the payment. Time to seal the lid on the season? Not quite.
Variety selection, planting, scouting, treatment and harvest were complete. But as the Kirkpatricks crossed the flat Delta fields of Desha County in southeast Arkansas and reached home not far from the tiny town of Kelso, one big task remained. On the kitchen table, Wes and Vonda unraveled the tale-of-the-tape: a spreadsheet. Pencil in hand, Evan began scratching away to reveal the realities of farming and possibly his biggest lesson of the season: Money from a crop sale goes to bills before pocket. “Evan was so pumped at harvest, but we did a spreadsheet together to make sure he understood you can’t multiply bushels by sale price,” Wes says.
“We included the actual details of production costs specific to the five acres, and not estimates of budget numbers off the Internet,” Vonda notes.
Evan hails from a deep-rooted agriculture heritage. His look-alike grandfather, Steve Stevens, grows soybeans, cotton and corn on predominantly buckshot ground in Desha County. Steve also operates a Discovery Farm and is a major conservation proponent. In addition, Wes served as a University of Arkansas Extension agent for 14 years before joining Steve on the farming operation.
Evan’s 5-acre field, part of the original 60 acres owned by Steve's grandfather, sits across the county road from Steve's home and shop headquarters. The home and shop are located on the 160 acres homesteaded by Steve’s father in 1937, cleared with Kaiser blades and axes.
Under the feet of Wes and Steve, Evan has been raised around farming and machinery, but 2017 became his year to lay down a marker. Evan was involved from the get-go, helping to choose a disease-tolerant variety before planting in mid-May with Wes in the buddy seat. Alongside Wes and Vonda, he scouted the crop as it progressed. A herbicide program hitch left a small portion of the canopy open and ripe for a weed invasion. “One thing for sure, I learned to hate grass and there was still a little in the field when we harvested,” Evan explains.
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With a particularly sharp eye for weeds, Evan has won the regional 4-H weed identification contest in Forrest City for two consecutive years. “I’ve studied up and won twice. You have to identify a bunch of weeds and also take a written test,” he explains.
By late September, Evan was behind the wheel of a John Deere 9870 equipped with a 35’ header, cutting 38 bu. soybeans. For the first time, he had skin in the game and was excited to be in command. “Driving that combine and harvesting was the most fun thing,” he describes.
And next year? Maybe track hoe lessons. “These are stepping stones,” Wes explains. “We might put Evan on the bottom of the field with a track hoe to clean the ditch and make the field drain better. We want him to learn to adapt and change before the next season.”
Evan’s grandmother, Darlene Stevens, says there’s no room for pressuring a child into farming: “We’re going to follow this pattern and let him see how he likes it. We’ll put the option out there and the rest will be up to Evan. Don’t push a child; just provide the knowledge so they can make their own choice.”
“Don’t be afraid to let your kids make farming mistakes,” Vonda echoes. “Give advice, but let them see what happens with their choices.”
“Make sure a kid is properly exposed to farming,” Steve adds. “Never force them, but if they’re interested, give them exposure. Later, I highly recommend a degree in agriculture or business. Farming used to be only a way of life, but now it’s also a business. If you’re not careful to treat it as a business, it won’t remain a way of life either.”
As the 2018 crop season approaches, Evan will be ready to put another small notch on his farming belt. “We’re looking forward to next year, but I won’t forget 2017,” Wes concludes. “Evan had a big hand in his plot all year and I got to watch him run the combine across his five acres wearing this huge grin. I was just so proud of my son.”