July 28, 2004
Taylor County, GA-- A sunrise means more to some people than others. "I like to see it because I'm able to look at it. A heap of folks can't see the sun. They are sick or gone," says J. W. Miller, as he walks down a row of sweet corn, just as the sun rises over pine trees in the distance.
At first light he checks on his crops. "Yeah, that's ready to go to the kitchen," says Miller, after taking a bite out of an ear of corn and carefully chews it.
Then, he checks on his 16 cows, before working with his pride and joy-- a new tractor. "I've worn out three," says Miller, as he fires up the green tractor he bought five months ago.
He expects it to do twice as much field work as one of his older tractors. "This one got more power," says Miller, but doesn't have what many feel are necessities. It doesn't have a cab, a radio or an air conditioner. "That's too much. Too fancy to go in the field," says Miller, a no-frills farmer with a second grade education who looks much younger than his age.
And what's his age? "98!" he says.
Yep, he's ninety-eight years old, fiercely independent and modest. "I'm just a common man," says Miller, who has outlived most of his farming friends.
"Don't know any at 98, the age of me, in this territory," says Miller, who takes a lot of pride in working his farm by himself, but on occasion will hire someone to left those heavy bags of fertilizer and seeds.
He participates in as many government support programs as he can, filling out all the forms himself to sign-up at his Farm Service Agency (FSA) office in nearby Butler.
"Very, very alert and sharp," says Carol Streetman, county executive director of the agency who often works with Miller. "He takes pride in keeping up with our programs, handling all his business himself. He keeps up with the latest rules," says Streetman.
J. W. Miller is firmly grounded in economic reality. "It costs seven dollars to spray to kill these weeds," says Miller, but believes he can control them much cheaper by harrowing them as small plants before they leave their seeds for the next crop.
To him any weed, large or small, robs him of a potential profit. "If I don't kill the weed seeds, the weeds might kill the cotton or the corn," says Miller.
He works 60 acres of farmland that's been in his family for more than a hundred years. "Seen ups and downs all my life," says Miller, who started farming at 15 after his father died in 1923.
But in the past few years, he has seen more economic downs than ups. "It was better a few years ago."
Now, he wonders if the farming economy will ever turn around. "Fuel gone up; Fertilizer gone up," says Miller, but the prices he receives for what he grows haven't kept pace to off-set higher production costs.
He plans to tough it out. "Farm as long as I'm able," says Miller.
If history is an accurate predictor of the future, then J. W. Miller will keep his family's farm legacy in tact one sunrise after another.
The USDA says we're losing an average 2,311 every year nationwide, since 1990.