Humidity rolls across fields of tobacco in Murray, Kentucky like beads of sweat sliding down the neck’s nape after a long run. The oppressive, southern sun of late summer beating down as Craig and Joanna Carraway scout a crop of burley.
“It looks good,” says Craig from across the rows of oversized, light green leaves draped in heat.
“The leaves look good, but I see a little bit of worm damage,” she says. “It needs water.”
The chance remains, this may be Craig’s last crop.
Images of Arizona Senator John McCain fill news feeds this week following his death, and fill the secret fears of this young Kentucky farm couple. The unrelenting killer, a type of brain cancer known as Giloblastoma. Just a few short months saw McCain sliding from the Maverick of Congress into the memorials of hero’s lost, the indestructible man beaten by an unrelenting foe.
According to the Mayo Clinic this rare but aggressive cancer occurs in the brain or spinal cord and treatments are often aggressive and unsuccessful.
It’s taken the lives of other prominent figures like Beau Biden and Ted Kennedy. Beyond the lights of Washington, two hundred thousand people a year are diagnosed with Glioblastoma. Craig Carraway is one of them.
Carraway Family Farms
The two join hands and continue to scout the field while in the distance a water cannon sprays life-preserving water across the crop. The cannon’s wheels slowly being pulled across the mud as the Carraway’s irrigate one more time.
"This tobacco has grown just since I sent you the picture the other day,” says Craig. “It's grown a lot."
They see signs of success from another season’s handiwork as the Carraway Family Farm continues to make strides in the right direction, thanks to some forethought about a decade ago after attending a conference.
“We just got a notebook out,” says Joanna. “I said what are some things you want to see on the farm? What are your goals? What do you want to do?”
She started writing, the duo filling the notebook page with their hopes and dreams for their new family farm. Those words were written, set aside and then lost for ten years.
Then just a few weeks ago Joanna stumbled across the list.
“I found that notebook and I got it out,” she said. “I told [Craig] you have got to look at this!”
“She started reading them to me and I said, well, we've done that and we've done that,” promptly responds Craig.
“We have done every single thing on the list but three,” says Joanna.
That accomplishment started nearly two decades ago when the pair met working in ag retail after college.
“By the time we went on our first date, we were basically planning our future,” says Joanna. “We both knew we wanted to farm.”
Joanna says settling on a career path was easy but the logistics required to make it a reality were much different. In the mid-2000’s the young couple walked away from their safe, comfortable careers.
“I gave up the company truck, a company cell phone, benefits and a good salary,” says Craig.
Even as a young man the sacrifice wasn’t lost on him.
“We both agreed that we would never let money rule our life,” says Joanna. “You have to have money to live but you can live on a whole lot less.”
They decided they were willing to live on less if it meant getting to farm. Craig and Joanna partnered with his parents, buying out his grandmother. They created a lease-to-own payment plan to help make it work financially.
“That helped her with taxes and it helped us to transition in,” says Joanna. “We were able to make payments over five years.”
“It worked really well for us,” says Craig.
Their very first year as co-owners was 2006. The growing season was nearly perfect and Carraways harvested what they considered a bumper crop. The next year, 2007, was not the same. Kentucky experienced heat, a lack of rain and severe drought. It was a complete crop failure.
“I will never forget, we had soybeans that made 11.7 bushels to the acre as an average,” says Joanna. “I thought our technology had surpassed that, and I just didn't think it could ever get that bad.”
Pouring through the already tight financials it was clear these young producers needed a backup plan. They needed a plan B in order to keep things running and not lose their house in the process. That lifeline ended up being a Kentucky classic: tobacco.
“We realized that tobacco we could irrigate on a small scale,” says Joanna. “That could be our plan B because we could control the water.”
Controlling the water helped to control the yields. Guaranteeing a crop helped the Carraways guarantee an income. All of their farms other financials start with this one assumption.
“What I always tell people is it doesn't have to be tobacco,” says Joanna. “It can be anything from chickens, hogs, or any premium crop in your specific area.”
Beyond Their Means
Following the disaster in 2007, the family learned to button up their finances. Joanna created spreadsheets capable of tracking, estimating and budgeting every corner of the operation. It became a lifestyle.
“We didn't live above our means,” says Craig. “We didn't spend a lot of money extra money.”
“We realize that every dollar we ever spent went towards something to make money,” echoed Joanna. “As far as purchases go, we never bought boats, four-wheelers, ATVs or did any kind of extracurricular activities if it didn't make money.”
That philosophy came to a screeching halt two and half years ago, in 2016, when Craig was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Through tears and breathless voice Joanna explains that isn’t the case today.
“Once he was diagnosed, we realized that maybe [focusing solely on work] wasn't always the best choice,” she says.
Fighting Against Cancer
Given less than 14 months to live, Craig was told initially to go home and get his affairs in order. Joanna doesn’t live life by someone else’s direction.
“When everybody is crying the blues I always stay optimistic,” she says. “All the way until it slaps me in the face.”
She began searching for answers and hope. Joanna called MD Anderson and was able to get Craig into a cutting edge medical trial. Following two surgeries and chemo, the chance of recovery remains small, but the team is keeping it in perspective.
“Before his first brain surgery we sat down and it was not about the farm,” says Joanna. “There was no conversation about I wish we'd have farmed more acres, we’d made more money or we built more barns.”
She says those things were not on their minds. It was family and focusing on every moment together that filled their time. Crops and machinery took a back seat to helping Craig heal.
Two and a half years later, Craig is still here and still facing the future with his family.
“It just really changes your mindset a lot,” says Craig. “Daily I get up and just thank God that I'm waking up and I'm still here for another day.”
“We didn't get there with just focusing on the end,” says Joanna. “We got there focusing on what we’ve got to do today.”
Today that means savoring every moment as a family. The Carraways now take weekends off, they go to ball games and even bought a camper for trips to the lake.
“We realized that maybe now we know our time is a lot shorter that we need to focus on some things of enjoyment,” says Joanna earnestly.
Those goals scribbled into a notebook ten years ago and their plans for disaster proofing a business are on pause as they wait to see if another round of chemo releases them from cancer’s grip. Originally given a blank 14 months to live, Craig has doubled that. Several of his tumors have disappeared but others are still present and growing. There are no guarantees this latest round of chemo will save him.
“Nothing's impossible,” says Joanna. “You have to be positive and think, it's not that things are impossible, these are just things you work toward.”
Work, a job, a hobby, a lifestyle and now a path toward healing for this Kentucky family. Like the start of each growing season, the future remains uncertain but like that field of burley, the potential is priceless.