When you stop in to see Kevin Deal on a weekday, it’s easy to feel at home in his humble office with his inviting demeanor. The green plaid shirt and khaki shorts he is sporting are just as welcoming as the office adjacent to his store, Crossroads Outdoor Center, where reruns of an old Wild West show play on mute.
Kevin Deal comes from a long line of farmers and sharecroppers. His father, Charles A. Deal, was his prime mentor and farming example from the time he could walk. Together, they established a partnership that, at its peak, totaled nearly 4,000 acres in Bulloch County.
My primary purpose in meeting with Kevin was to learn distinct differences in farming today versus when he and his daddy got started, but it’s not that simple to just regurgitate the facts and move along. With every question I asked Kevin, he had a heartfelt family story to share alongside the information. It was easy to see how much of his life has been engrained with the purity of farming.
It was 1985 and Kevin was just one quarter away from graduating when he left ABAC to
return home. He rented around 300 acres to tend, which quickly accelerated to 1,200 acres a year later. Using his dad’s equipment, Kevin began growing corn, cotton, soybeans and hogs. Three years later, in 1988, Kevin and his father officially started their partnership.
It wasn’t ten minutes into the interview that the topic of technology revolutionizing farming dominated the conversation. In many industries, technology has accelerated output, increased efficiency, and reduced labor costs – and that’s true with farming, too – but it has also brought increased barriers to entry, significant government reliance, and stifling mountains of debt. American farming continues to change every day.
His dad, Charles A. Deal, purchased a tractor, a cluster, a plow, and bottom plows all for just $1,700 when he started. When Kevin purchased his first tractor in 1985, it cost him a whopping $120,000…without any equipment to go along with it. Each equipment piece adds an additional $30,000 to the bill. If you consider the top of the line tractors today, it’s no struggle to top $240,000 plus $100,000 for necessary equipment. It used to be that water was the most expensive input, but not anymore. Except maybe in California.
You see, the average cost of an acre in 1986 for Kevin and his father was $150. Now, it’s upwards of $400-$450 per acre.
Consider this example:
A new grain combine has a retail price tag of $250,000. After a down payment and a few monthly payments, you sit at $135,000 and your annual payments total $55,000. Divide that by 600 acres and it costs $91.67 per acre with equipment, excluding the cost of seed and other input costs.
To put it plainly, in 1986, $150,000 would get you everything you needed to tend to 1,200 acres. The same acreage now would cost you $750,000. That’s most damaging to those who were tending to land before the surge.
Some might say it’s just like a car and farmer should buy used, but that’s rarely an option. Used equipment is often unreliable and any down time and additional funds used repairing parts during high times can further threaten cultivation and bottom lines.
In line with his respectable demeanor, Kevin has always chosen to tend to his own land on Kevin Deal Farms, none of which is irrigated. He does it all himself for cost reasons, and because he loves it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
He’ll also tell you that back then, a farmer could afford to ‘lose’ on crops every 4 years or so. Now, one major loss every ten years is crippling.
The once profitable business of hog farming also tanked. Kevin and his father quit selling hogs in the 1990’s. When the local industry dropped to $0.04/per pound, only big agriculture businesses survived and it was cheaper to absorb the loss than to carry on.
Unfortunately, in 2007, Kevin lost his father and mentor in a tragic boating accident on the Altamaha River. He’ll tell you it was easily the toughest year in his life, and even worse when you consider that it was one of the worst droughts since 1954. Coming in at a close second was 1986-87 when they worked to beat yet another drought (without crop insurance as it exists today) and almost stopped farming altogether. After his dad passed, he purchased his half of the partnership and brought his acreage total to nearly 4,000 acres. Quite the feat.
The hardship seems unending. Over the years, Kevin has lost more and more of his land. Sometimes, it’s just more cost effective to sell. Now, he grows peanuts, corn, cotton, and soybeans on just over 1,100 acres.
Because of the nature of farming, Kevin also now owns and operates JB Anderson Peanut & Grain Co. where he buys peanuts for shellers in Virginia and Southwest Georgia and grain which is sold to ADM and third parties. The individuals he deals with come in to buy chemicals and fertilizers as well. The retail store, on the Monday afternoon I visited, was just buzzing with drop-ins and calls, most on Kevin’s personal cell phone.
We took a trip out to his property in the late-afternoon just before a heavy storm moved in. In his 4×4 giant diesel truck, we talked about the politics of farming and social stigmas associated with it, both of which have no chance of affecting how Kevin feels about his farm. It’s easy to understand that when you take a look out the window. The perfectly-lined crops surrounded by several acres of woods, dirt roads, and various structures all deeply-rooted in family history make it difficult not to feel the same love for the farm that Kevin does. Generations have grown, sweat, and developed there and it’s something to be cherished.
The future of farming in the eyes of Kevin Deal? That’s still to be determined. A “small farm” has surged to a whopping 3000-4000 acres and will likely only continue to grow. The minimums needed to be sustainable are through the roof. Cotton farmers have to average 1,200 pounds per year. For a newbie, he explains, the hurdles to get started would be immense. The 1,200 acres for a single family farm isn’t viable anymore and the independent small farms are nearly a thing of the past. It takes many more who are willing to put it all on the line, and then some, for farming to continue in perpetuity.
After listening to the trials and tribulations, the hardships and the heartache, I couldn’t help but ask Kevin why he still does this. Farming is the most thankless job in the country. It takes more than elbow grease, it’s stressful, and no one has your back…so why do you do it?
With a slight chuckle and a glow on his rosy cheeks, he said, “I love the gamble. And there’s something about the watching something you care for develop. I love it.”
Kevin was responsible for nominating All On Georgia – Bulloch’s September ‘Farm of the Month.’ He selected Jack, Jackie, and Wayne Brannen along with their sons, of Brannen Farms.