Editor’s Note: The December ‘Farm of the Month’ article is written slightly different than the others because of the family effort to make the interview happen and the personal nature of the conversation.
I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Merriell and Mike Durrence of Mendes, against their will. After a few weeks of calculated maneuvering with the help of their family and friends in an effort to corner the two, I was able to track down the Durrence brothers who are both too humble to agree to do an interview on their own. I had to play the “Mr. Vernon Dasher sent me!” card to make it worth their while. Once we got started, though, both shared things we will all be better for knowing.
On the gloomy December day I traveled out to the farm, Mr. Merriell was at the farm shop in his white Ford pick-up truck where he sat comfortably in the driver’s seat and smiled slightly as he began to talk about his family history. A few minutes in, Mr. Mike showed up in his Jeep. Both sitting cattywampus in their vehicles, I stood between the two as they shared their story.
They come from a long line of kin in agriculture. Barney Durrence was the grandfather of the Durrence family, but it was their daddy, Herschel, who made the first impression of agriculture on Merriell and Mike. Hershel, was a farmer and ran a service station for seventeen years, but died young at the age of 62. Before his untimely passing, he tended about 75 acres of tobacco and corn, alongside their granddaddy who had about 700 acres of cotton, corn, velvet beans, and often times peanuts while also raising cows. Both grew up working on the farm and learned by doing.
As the oldest, Mr. Merriell, now 76, is the older of the two brothers, so he had the pleasure of handpicking all of the tobacco and cotton. Mr. Mike, who is a chipper 64, is the youngest after two sisters, Dianne Durrence Cribbs and Ruinette Durrence Williams.
Mr. Merriell started farming in 1962 at the prime age of 21, after a stint in the Marine Corps, with just three acres of tobacco and 150 acres of rented land for other crops, but says he always had a desire to go into farming.
Mr. Mike joined the farming operation in 1973 after trying a few other ventures with the State Highway and Porter Trucking in Savannah. He says farming was not his first choice for work. Mr. Mike, married to Mrs. Faye for 45 years now, is father to Brandi Durrence Perkins and Robin Durrence Kirby. Mr. Merriell is now married to Mrs. Danna and is father to three: Kim (Durrence Anderson), Rita (Durrence Sikes), and Herschel
Mr. Merriell planted tobacco for a total of 43 years, reaching almost 150 acres – a feat not many farmers still around today can champion, but together they tended upwards of 1,500 acres of various crops at one point until farming shifted and ‘tending more’ meant ‘making less.’ So they cut back, because it was just the two of them doing everything. They joked that no one was allowed to plow the tobacco other than Mr. Merriell, a joke that was rooted in much seriousness. They quit growing tobacco at the end of 2004 after being bought out, causing them to switch to soybeans, cotton, and corn.
I asked them which year was their toughest, and in unison they both replied, “1990.” In one of the driest seasons ever, they pumped a total of five ponds dry trying to save their crops. They had no pivots, had to lay all of the piping to do it, and the only thing that survived was the tobacco crop. But they kept on.
Another tough thing: Mr. Merriell says the equipment has changed more than anything as far back as he can remember, especially with the GPS technology. “That’s why you see so many straight rows these days,” he said with a chuckle. Experts on straight rows, they both used to stop and look at other farmer’s rows to compare their alignment. Mr. Merriell says they try to keep up with the technology, but also don’t take the time to change out for the newest model every year. They get their money’s worth and then see what is available. Mr. Mike says that’s part of being good with your money and making responsible choices.
The toughest thing about being a farmer Mr. Merriell says is the daily change – and the six days a week of picking tobacco from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. I asked him if it was the toughest thing he did for 43 years – the entire time they planted tobacco – and he replied with a firm, “Yes it was.” But tobacco was the money maker and kept things afloat.
They both take solace in the change of society, culture and community. The days of handshake deals are gone and the families who have resided in the community for nearly a century are dispersing. That brings about a sense of nostalgia for Mr. Merriell and Mr. Mike and what they used to know.
The two don’t seem as tired as they should with all the labor and man hours they have under their belts. And they’re both still willing to offer sound advice for the next generation of farmers: Be willing to work, understand you may have to slight your family to get the job done every now and again, and manage your money.
During the interview, Mike had a nervous laugh about him. He would often defer to Merriell to answer the questions, but when he chose to answer them himself, the honesty was resounding and nearly brought those standing around to listen to tears more than once. Mr. Mike says he is now retired, but Mr. Merriell seems to deny that fact, which is easy with Mr. Mike residing just across the field.
No doubt the two brothers have much in common, but one noticeable trait: they both stare off into the distance to talk about the ‘old days,’ but recall every aspect as if it happened just yesterday. The interview was often interrupted by laughs and personal jokes between the two about things folks on the outside could probably never understand. One thing is for sure: dates don’t get mixed up and memories haven’t faded.
When asked if they fought or bickered, Mr. Mike declined the notion, but went on to say with a laugh, “If Merriell told me I couldn’t do something one way, I would just wait until he was gone and then I would do it my way.”
37 years together. That’s an amazing thing. But Mr. Mike says it’s because he never had to look over his shoulder. He knew he could trust Mr. Merriell and understood the unspoken loyalty. That’s how they lasted. “Would you do it again?” I asked.
Mr. Mike: “With him? In a second. If it had been anybody else, I probably wouldn’t have gone into farming. I trust him. He’s my brother, but I trust him.”
Mr. Merriell: “Without blinking my eyes. But I would probably try to figure out some short cuts.”
Like any family in agriculture, the farming goes far beyond the farmer in the fields and seeps into every aspect of day-to-day life. In trying to get in touch with Mr. Merriell and Mr. Mike, I had the chance to speak with so many kin of both – all of whom have nothing but an unending adoration for how hard both men have worked throughout their lives, but also a hard-earned respect for what all of the Durrence’s had to give up to be where they are today. Both men acknowledged that farm families are slighted because of the long hours – a notion that isn’t easy to talk about. But it isn’t just the farmer’s family that relies on the crops…there are so many more.
Relations: Lon and Tommy Durrence were first cousins to Merriell and Mike’s father, Herschel. Ben Durrence was the brother of their grandfather, Barney.
All On Georgia – Tattnall’s November ‘Farm of the Month’ was Mr. Vernon Dasher of Glennville. He nominated Mr. Merriell and Mr. Mike, who have nominated Billy Jay Durrence, also of Mendes, for the January ‘Farm of the Month.’