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Looking Back on a Grand Life

Longtime High Plains cotton farmer has witnessed dramatic advances in his field

Ed Smith was born and raised about 18 miles east of Lubbock in Lorenzo, where he began helping on his family’s cotton farm as a child. It’s the only life the 84-year-old has ever known, which is why he still keeps a hand in the family operation by helping his son, Eddie.

He still remembers his first tractor, which he bought new in 1951. It had only a four-row planter. “Really, there was only so much it could do,” he recalls. But four rows soon grew to six, then eight, and ultimately to the much-bigger computerized tractors with 16 rows, guided by GPS, that his son uses today.

“When I was farming in the 1950s, I had one employee to farm three or four hundred acres, or I did it by myself—most of us did,” Ed says. “It’s necessary to farm a lot more land today because of the cost of all the equipment, which is much bigger and more complex.”

He used to irrigate by digging ditches with a tractor. Wells provided enough water for the small amount of land despite a six-year drought during the 1950s. Harvesting was done by hand, with the U.S. government running a program for braceros, or migrant farm workers from Mexico, who came to work seasonally. Pesticides and herbicides were nowhere near as effective as today’s chemicals.

“Education has to improve along with the improving technology,” Ed notes. “The technology has gotten past me at my age, but these younger guys are all able to handle it because they learned from U.S. agricultural experiment stations and from going to Tech and A&M.”

Indeed, Ed doesn’t even climb aboard a modern tractor with GPS because out of habit he always handles the steering wheel, which sabotages the calibrations and requires them to be computed again.

One substantial result of all this technology is that ag financing has changed drastically for farmers. “I never had any money when I was a farmer because everything I made went into equipment, and it’s still pretty much hand-to-mouth today but with much larger figures,” Ed says. “We had good years and bad years but we always managed because we didn’t have as much expense. The amount of money you have to borrow now, you can lose so much you’re out of business in a year, and it’ll take five or six years to get back in it.

“But it’s still a grand life,” he quickly adds. “Your community, your church, your family, you’re all involved together.”

John Morthland is an Austin writer.