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A Year In The Life Of A Farmer

Life along the Mississippi shapes the Davis farm

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Life along the Mississippi shapes the Davis farm

Bill “Fox” Davis and his grandson, Tyler Davis, review a binder full of soil tests they take every three years across the fields they farm. They either own or rent a total of 8,000 acres that they plant in corn, soybeans, rice and cotton with Bill’s sons, Drew and Marty, Tyler’s dad.

Follow the Davis family throughout the entire year. Each month, look for updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.

MCCLURE, Ill. — On this particular day, it was pounding rain for the third day straight, fields and roads were flooded and the river was rising fast. All Tyler Davis could think about was when he would ever get into the fields to get the hipping done.

“And there’s a lot of fill work to do, too,” said Tyler, 27. “We’re very far behind. Everybody is … from Grand Tower to here.”

Yet it was his grandfather, Bill “Fox” Davis, 77, with his six decades of farming, who commented: “The way we farm is different from most people. You just can’t go out there and drag an implement and plant. You just can’t do that. So we have to go hip our ground if want to run water through it, right Tyler?”

Farming in deep southern Illinois along the Mississippi River bottoms requires different kinds of agriculture practices. The Davis’ and their farming neighbors talk about what can grow in their sticky clay “gumbo” soil instead of that rich, black and quick-draining morainal soil found in the north.

That’s only one reason they raise a diverse range crops — corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. But Fox is quick to note that “what we do is what we want to do.”

In the coming year, AgriNews will explore the challenges of running a three-generation farm with the Davis families.


The oldest acreage of the farm was bought in 1948 when Fox’s parents, Howard and Gladys Davis, moved their farming operation from the Chaffee area in the Missouri boot heel. They bought 1,000 acres for $80,000.

“I looked at my dad later in life and asked him in a fun, teasing way why he didn’t buy more,” Fox recalled, adding that his parents put down half with all of their savings “and they knew it would take them 20 years to pay it off.”

The original farm was typical of a self-sustaining operation of the day — row crops, livestock and pasture.

Fox recalls the F14 tractor on steel wheels that his father used to pull 6-inch discs.

“You didn’t have to feed it, there was no harness and it didn’t need to rest. Even so, that tractor didn’t do that much but it went all day long,” Fox said.

Howard died at age 89. That tractor now sets in front of the weekend flea market at the intersection of Illinois 3 and 146.

Fox and his brother, Tom, started farming with their dad in the 1960s. When Howard stepped back, Fox discovered his brother was “the best partner I could ever have because he was kind of the opposite of me.”

While Tyler described his uncle as “calm, cool and collected,” Tyler said, “if Mother Nature is up to something, Grandpa is going to try to stop her.”

Speaking of Mother Nature, Fox is convinced of climate change based on his farm experiences alone and has a unique respect for water, especially with all of the river levees snaking throughout their farmland.

Actually, Fox said the two brothers knew there only could be one boss and he was not only five years older and a natural born decision maker, “I wanted to do it.”

The farm changed when Tom died about 10 years ago. Fox’s own sons, Drew and Marty — both born on Fridays the 13th and 13 months apart — were integral to the farm by then. The livestock was sold off and about that time they also quit wheat.

“It used to be that people around here grew wheat to help pay with their property tax bills,” Fox added.


Today, the Davis farms are a family operation with a combination of acreages owned by the four of them and rental properties in Union and Alexander counties. All told, they farm upwards of 8,000 of mostly irrigated acres.

While many farmers in southern Illinois rely on wheat as a cover crop in a double crop system with soybeans and rotate corn with beans, the Davis farm uses a variety of other farm practices that work uniquely for them.

One is for water management, including hipping that forms up beds between furrows and a variety of irrigation needs from flooding rice fields to setting up pivots for corn.

Their ground also can sustain years of back-to-back soybeans with notable yields. To say the least, they soil test regularly and use precision ag tools to their advantage.

It’s only been in the past seven years that they added rice to their crop mix after the neighboring Gerard Blake farms started with it and last season was their first foray into cotton, an idea suggested by Drew.

Upon graduation from the University of Illinois, Tyler joined the operation two years ago.

“We’re very fortunate to have three generations getting along to do this farming,” Fox said with a knowing glance at Tyler.

Tyler’s first child — William Archer — was born on Jan. 23, 103 years to the day of his great-great-grandfather Howard. William Archer joins Tayler, Drew’s 2-year-old daughter, as the potential future faces of the farm.

“I think my dad accomplished a lot. I’ve accomplished a little bit. And I think my boys and my grandson are on the same road. As a matter of fact, they’ll probably accomplish more than my brother and I have,” Fox said.

Karen Binder can be reached at 618-534-0614 or Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Binder.


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