The More Than

“Damnit Ed. Our job is to shoot fish in a barrel, preferably with the water drained!” stormed Munger, as he kicked the tractor with the heel of his boot. It’s a good thing we aren’t in the office for this conversation, Ed thought to himself. The fifteen-thousand-acre farm near Tallulah was one of ten such farms he and Munger owned throughout the Delta, west of the Big Muddy.

“We’ve always agreed on the necessity of growing our capital base as efficiently as possible. That is how we compete and win in the marketplace. If we don’t do that, we’ll lose our hard-earned credibility, and we won’t have the resources to do anything else we want to do.

“Why fix what isn’t broken? Our returns speak for themselves. We lead all benchmarks in our industry. You’re talking about reorienting our entire operation, quite literally from the ground up. What do you mean by, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘yield’? Based on our returns, we are extraordinary. And who cares about yield? More than anyone, you know our focus is return on equity.

“And by the way, what are you doing taking soil samples? Don’t the agronomists handle that?”

Their partnership had been remarkably profitable for almost twenty years, with little conflict. Edward Hutch was the creative deal maker, who could see the end from the beginning. He had a knack for identifying and retaining talented operating managers and staying out of their way. Munger Parks, for his part, ceaselessly sought to control as many variables as possible, while deftly managing risks and allocating capital. Together, Ed and Munger had transformed Hark Seed from a struggling, independent seed business into a large, AAA-rated, diversified agriculture conglomerate.

            Growing up, Ed and his three brothers worked summers on the family farm in De Witt. It was run by their grandfather, Pops, with what some called a peculiar focus on soil health. Otherwise known as JB Hutch, Pops was tough, but fair. “Act like a man, work like a man and I’ll treat you like a man,” was his management philosophy. For the boys, this meant freedom, if they could stand it.

Pops’ crucible was fifteen hundred acres of black, loamy dirt between Highway 165 South and Haller Lake. Pops and Grams lived in an old, cedar-clad farmhouse painted white with a red metal roof. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small living room and a relatively large dining table in a quaint kitchen. The four boys slept in two steel-framed bunkbeds, all in one bedroom. Each had a dresser drawer for all of his earthly possessions. Another bedroom was used as a study and office and the spare bedroom was for guests in need of lodging, food and, often, work. Some stayed only a night, others longer if they could stand under the weight of freedom.  

Businessmen from all over, then and now, descend on this area of the Delta just as the crisp fall air arrives—not to work the harvest, but to escape their responsibilities in backwoods lodges and early morning duck blinds. Pops saw no yield in such escapades, and the boys knew it. And so it was that the Hutch boys, though they could splinter a marble in the sky with a .22 Peacemaker, never shot a duck.

            A gun was a tool, and Pops believed in being a workman approved. The boys were all master shots by age 12. Such skills were sometimes needed on the farm for rattlesnakes in the barn or coyotes in the henhouse. All Pops would say about duck hunting was, “I recommend working the land, boys.” Pops would, however, by himself harvest a few ducks to serve at Thanksgiving, which he and Grams hosted every year.

Each spring, the Saturday after school was out, Pops welcomed the boys back to the farm with a hearty meal of rice, beans and just enough cured ham to ensure no extra salt was needed. Over dinner, Pops reminded them of the necessity of soil health and how it was the focal point of the entire operation.

“Invest in the root if you want the fruit,” Pops would remind them, lean and steely eyed under the shade of his strawed Stetson as the boys, drenched through with salty sweat well before the sun was overhead, shoveled steamy manure, hay and food scraps into massive compost piles. The compost would be spread over the fields post-harvest to replenish nutrients and increase its saturation capacity.

“The root won’t take if the soil ain’t healthy. If the root doesn’t take, what more are we doing than others? Might be a crop, but there won’t be anything extraordinary about it,” Pops would say as he grabbed a pitchfork with calloused hands and joined in with such vigor the boys never dared to challenge the old man, even when their tempers flared from the demands of the job in the blazing Arkansas sun. They respected and admired him. He never asked them to do anything he wouldn’t do.

Pops, with some help from the boys, won the Arkansas rice, corn, cotton and soybean yield titles eight, ten, twelve and fifteen times each, respectively, for a total of 45 titles. He cared not at all for such accolades, but he did care about sharing his hard earned and valuable knowledge. He wrote a monthly column on soil health for the University of Arkansas Journal of Agriculture and spent countless hours teaching visitors his ways. Nevertheless, to his chagrin, no other Arkansas farmer before or since has won more than eight yield titles. 

In the late evenings of the hot summer months, Pops would sit with the boys on the back porch, slowly rocking. He didn’t say much, and neither did the boys. They were exhausted. As visitors came and went, however, Pops would lament the fact that most others never seemed to sufficiently commit to soil health to enjoy its yields. Those that did usually did not last. When Jack, Ed’s brother, asked what he thought was the reason for this, Pops said he suspected others considered the cost too high.

“These dog days are exhausting, but we know the joy of such labor and the taste of victory each fall down in Little Rock, when y’all bring home the yield titles.

“There are easier ways to farm, and y’all know this. Other methods may be more profitable in the short run, but they aren’t as fruitful. And in the long run, such practices won’t be profitable at all. The soil will be completely depleted. At that point, it won’t be good for growing anything. It will be worthless to a farmer. Maybe some road builder could use it. Cars could trample along it, but it won’t grow anything except maybe a few weeds.”

Pops’ fervor would build as he said these things. The boys, tired and longing for sleep, dared not ask more questions. They knew he would be up at four o’clock in the morning and expected them to be out the door with him by five. To calm down, he reminded himself and the boys, “There are a few out there who have persisted, and their yields are impressive. It’s a scattered bunch, mostly outside of Arkansas. They come see me now and again and sometimes send letters. But they are few indeed. Especially considering how much I’ve written and how many I’ve tried to teach.

“Ed and John, wake-up Luke and Jack and all of you get to bed. I suppose that’s enough for today.” 

Now 42, Ed longed for another evening with Pops on the porch. Three months ago, Pops died in the field—apparently, from a heart attack incurred while taking a soil sample. He was 90. Grams found him when he didn’t show for lunch at noon, as he always did. Pops counted many expert agronomists as friends, but he insisted on taking his own soil samples. “The health of this soil is my responsibility,” he told them.

            Isabell, Ed and Sarah’s youngest child at eleven years old, was known for her curiosity and surprising insights considering her age. She loved spending time with both Pops and Grams and was at the farm more than her many cousins. She enjoyed a unique relationship with Pops and seemed to understand the man more than most. Neither said much. Both were more prone to listening than talking. But the few words Pops said and the things he did, Isabell treasured.

            When Pops passed, Grams asked if she would speak at the funeral, on behalf of all the great grandchildren. Shy and not the oldest of that generation, she was surprised by the request.

Her knees shook as she stood before the many in attendance. She nervously adjusted the microphone, which shrilled in response. She had worked tirelessly on a speech she planned to read. Unexpectedly, she began without referencing it. Her squeaky, nervous voice slowed to a calming cadence. Her knees stopped shaking. With poise, she explained much of what she thought Pops had hoped her generation would grasp from his work and his words. She said more than she thought she was capable of—and certainly more than she had written.

            The night after the funeral, Ed and Isabell stayed with Grams to provide company and to help her sort through all the insurance and estate paperwork. Isabell slept in the bunk room, and Ed retired to the guest room. Sleepless, he slipped through the creaking, spring loaded screen door to the front porch and sat in one of the old, thatched-bottom rocking chairs. He thought about how much life had changed since his last summer on the farm, after his sophomore year at the University of Kansas. He thought about all that Isabell had said. He thought about what Pops had been trying to teach them about priorities, soil health and the more than. And he pondered the yield of Hark Seed.

            Though it was late, he called Munger. Munger knew it was either Ed or a family member. Those were the only numbers that would ring through his after hours, do-not-disturb settings.

While Ed calling at such an hour was no surprise, almost everything else he said caught Munger off guard. Detecting the conviction in his voice, Munger decided it best to postpone the conversation until they could meet in person.

“Who knows, in the meantime he may come to his senses,” Munger said to no one.

They agreed to meet to discuss the future of Hark Seed early the next week, at their farm near Tallulah, where Ed was planning to take soil samples himself. The samples would inform seed selection for the coming year. It was time for Hark Seed to germinate.