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Steele becomes Farmer of the Year by following his father

Passing it on

Claude Gibson “Gibb” Steele III says in order for someone to get a firm start in the agriculture industry today, he or she needs an edge, and there are two main reasons to heed Steele’s advice. One, he was given that edge back in the 1970s from his father. The second reason is what Steele has done since that help, achievement that landed him the honor of being named the best farmer in the state last year.

“It’s tough to get into this business because you don’t make money every year,” said Steele, whose farm lies just south of Greenville near Hollandale. “You have to have some good years so that you can survive the bad ones like we’re seeing now.”

Steele grew up in Greenwood on his family’s small sheep farm. While raising livestock was rewarding, there was one aspect he did not like.

“I was envious of the row farmers because they got to ride on tractors,” he said with a big laugh.

Steele would eventually earn his education at Mississippi State University, which seems likely considering his field. But just as his father pushed him toward farming, he gave Steele more than a little nudge when it came to his education.

“My grandfather and father both got their degrees from Mississippi State,” Steele said. “But, I decided I was going to go to Ole Miss. I was already signed up, had a roommate, everything. My dad retired as a land appraiser working for the Federal Land Bank, and he was on the road a lot. One day, he got back home and we were sitting at the dinner table when my father asked where I was going to college. I said Ole Miss. And, he said, “Really? Who’s going to pay for it?’ That’s how I ended up at Mississippi State. I guess you could say that decision was made for me.”

Steele’s family would subsequently sell the Greenwood land, and started farming corn and cattle on 500 acres in Calhoun City.

The senior Steele eventually swapped his Calhoun City acreage for the farm’s present-day site, and Steele joined him as a partner in 1973.

Keeping it in the family, Steele’s brother joined the operation in the late 1970s, and the two men would acquire most of the farm’s land in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Steele and his brother are joined by two sisters and other family members, including Steele’s son, Gibson IV, who is also a Mississippi State graduate.

“In 1973, my father was about the same age as I am now when he retired and turned the farm over to me, and my son is about the same age I was then when he did that,” Steele said. “So, it just felt like the right time. It is very rewarding to see him take over the day-to-day operations.” He added with a laugh, “It’s also nice to not have to work so hard now.”

The Steeles’ farming operation is certainly no small affair. The former Calhoun City farm encompassed 500 bought acres and another 500 acres of rented land. Today’s operation near Hollandale totals 2,300 acres of owned land and anther 5,000 acres of rented acreage. The farm’s rice, soybean and wheat yields have been very impressive.

This has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, Steele was named the 2008 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Mississippi Farmer of the Year. The honor took the unassuming and self-effacing Steele totally by surprise.

“My first thought was, ‘Why? Who thought of me?’ After I got passed that, yes, it was a real honor. I was pretty proud,” he said.

Returning to the need for an edge, Steele had nothing but praise for two entities that he says have been pivotal to his success. One is the Delta Council, the economic development organization that is based in Stoneville. Years ago, he made a trip out to California for a meeting of rice producers, and his peers expressed their envy that his area had an organization like the Delta Council working on his behalf. Steele promptly got involved in Delta Council, and currently serves as a vice president of the organization.

The other plus is Delta branch Experiment Station, also in Stoneville.

“I have salesmen come by the farm all the time trying to sell me something,” he said. “I tell them to take it to Delta Branch Experiment Station, have them test it, and if they say it’s all right, I’ll buy it.”

Steele feels blessed in so many ways, and is eagerly anticipating the birth of his first grandchild.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen 10 or 12 families go out of business. Once again, it goes back to that edge. You have to have that critical mass in order to make it. My dad gave me that edge. He was the driving force. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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