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Cultivating family

This is the season for combines and commitment as the Meltons complete yet another harvest for their seed business.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002


Mark Melton hunches over the steering wheel of his old Massey Ferguson combine and pivots it to avoid patches of weeds, tree stumps and a fledgling meadowlark in the tall grass.

When his eyes stray from the field, they go to the sky, checking to see if the rain will hold off long enough to let him finish this pasture and start on another across the road.

"About the only thing I'm thinking about is what I've got to do next," Melton said.

For the Melton family, during harvest, there is always something to do next.

In the morning, they tow their combines to fields as far away as Arcadia. They harvest seed until the afternoon storms arrive or their trucks are filled. They drive back to barns southeast of Brooksville, dump their loads and spread the seed on drying beds. They clean it, bag it, stack it on pallets and load it onto semitrailers.

Jack Melton, 78, has been doing this for 50 years, harvesting Bahia seed, a common lawn cover and the dominant pasture grass in the South. The farming operation he started shortly after he and his wife, Virginia, moved to Hernando County has grown into one of the county's largest and most profitable.

"If it's not (the biggest), it's close to it, very close to it," said Bill Hill, Polk County's agricultural extension director, who formerly worked in Hernando County.

And though Melton is constantly amazed at how much has changed -- how the county has become more crowded; how anyone who turned a 9-year-old son loose in a field with a combine, as he once did, would now be arrested -- the basic principles of his business are ancient.

In an industry that is increasingly corporate, and a county where agriculture is increasingly a sideline, the Meltons' operation is probably the best local example of a traditional family farm. Business contracts are sealed with Jack Melton's word. And, absent government subsidies, this form of farming is still a gamble -- the harvest a frantic rush for the payoff.

"From July through September, the time I have off, except for going to church, is just in hours," said Stephen Melton, 53, the oldest of four brothers who work in the business.

"We go as hard as we can, 85 to 90 hours a week, through that whole period. It's one of those things we all understand. This is where we make our living, in this time. If we don't make it in those three months, we won't make it."

'This is big country'

Jack Melton meets his sons every morning behind his house in Spring Lake, in the bottom of a bowl-shaped pasture. There is one new, red seed-processing barn on the property and another, with a rusty roof, that Melton built after he bought the land in 1962.

A hangar-sized pole barn houses a squadron of 15- to 20-year-old combines, a sight that seems less impressive once Melton tells you he must have 20 of them on hand to make sure six of them run.

Only a small percentage of the family's annual seed harvest comes from the 1,400 acres the Meltons own along the Pasco-Hernando line and a 2,800-acre ranch they lease in Spring Lake. To gather the rest, they must travel to farms throughout Central Florida.

The plans for this day -- which are subject to change through regular conversations on two-way radio/cell phones -- call for Johnny Melton, 51, to work in Pasco County and Stephen Melton to combine a saturated field that had been carved from the Green Swamp.

Mark Melton, 39, will harvest seed on a nearby, but drier, 2,000-acre tract that he and two employees worked the day before.

The three red combines they had left there come into sight after several miles of driving on quiet, paved roads, several more on even quieter limerock roads and, finally, on a lane so deserted that the truck flushes mourning doves from the grass growing in the roadbed.

Flat fields outlined in barbed wire extend in all directions to stands of cypress on the horizon. When Mark Melton, who is 6 feet 4 and so slim his brothers call him "Stick," emerges from his truck, he is the most starkly vertical object in view.

"This is big country down here," he says.

While greasing the combine's bearings, he explains how it works, which, other than being mechanized, is how harvesting grain has always worked.

A row of teeth across the front of the combine does the job of a scythe. A rake gathers the seed heads. They are beaten by a cleated cylinder as they were once beaten on rocks. In the old days, farmers allowed the wind to carry away the straw. This is now done by a fan that allows the heavier seed to fall on a screen that sifts away the chaff.

The seed collects in a hopper behind the cab, and Melton occasionally looks over his right shoulder at the gradually growing mound as he drives.

If the big threshers in the West and Midwest are sometimes compared to limousines, Melton's is like a Jeep, more agile and smaller -- so small, in fact, that Massey Ferguson discontinued the model in 1987 because it didn't fit in a market geared to larger, corporate enterprises.

"This is more of a family farm combine," Melton said.

He has an air-conditioner that continually drips condensation, but no television, or even a radio. The ride through the pasture, which is pitted with holes dug by bulls, is jarring. Besides steering around hazards, Melton constantly adjusts the height of the cutting head to keep it from slamming into the ground.

The morning is nearly gone by the time he has waited for the dew to dry and can finish cutting the sparse grass in the field he had worked the day before. As he gets ready to move to the next pasture, his two-way radio beeps. His brother Johnny wants reinforcements; Mark Melton wants to start on the next field, covered with a thick layer of olive-green seed heads.

"It's too wet to cut, and it looks like it's going to rain," Johnny Melton says. "It's terrible down here. How long is it going to take to finish up over there?"

"About a week."

"With three combines?"

"Yep."

"Okay," Johnny Melton says and hangs up.

Business with a handshake

The dean of the county's farmers is the son of an insurance agent from Lakeland; he wears a fedora rather than a cowboy hat and relishes handling the book work in the afternoons while his sons are combining fields.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Jack Melton attended the University of Florida on the GI Bill, inspired to study agriculture by a brief conversation he had with a truck driver while working on a state road crew.

"I asked him how much for the watermelon, and he said a dollar apiece. There must have been 500 of them," Melton said. "That was the most money I'd seen in my life. I mean, who ever saw $500 in those days."

Melton moved to Hernando County in 1950 to work for Wayne Thomas, whose family still owns the ranch the Meltons lease, and began building his own operation. He gradually acquired land, equipment -- always used -- and the trust of the people with whom he does business.

In his office, inside his house, he opens the cloth-bound ledger where he records his dealings with each landowner. Many are old friends, including his longtime neighbor in Spring Lake, Olan Batten, whose account is listed under "Olan."

All get the same deal: They provide the field and the Bahia; Melton cuts it, cleans it and sells it. The proceeds are split in half.

Bennie Rivenbark, a cattleman in northern Hernando County, said he has never signed a contract with Melton, and has never asked for an invoice from the distributor in Georgia who buys Melton's seed.

"He's a man of his word," Rivenbark said. "I've known him for 50 years, and they don't come any better."

With no phone, pistol shots had to do

Though the family has sold portions of its land near State Road 50 for development and will certainly sell more, the Meltons have no plans to get rid of the farm or to leave it.

"If you can make a living off it, why sell it?" Johnny Melton said.

The sons have stayed partly because they have as much trust in their father as his business associates do and partly because there is room for them. Access to the Thomas property gives the boys space to pursue their own farming interests, they said. The three oldest have herds of cattle. Joe Melton, 37, works only part-time with the family so he can grow oranges and work on a new business: producing seeds of native wildflowers, including phlox and coreopsis.

But the main reason the family continues to work together may just be that it is habit. For the Melton sons -- as well as for daughter Becky, who now lives in North Carolina -- there were few other people around besides family members when they were young, and there wasn't much to do except work.

When the Meltons moved to Hernando, Interstate 75 was still 15 years away from being built, and large ranches covered most of the land from Spring Lake to Trilby. During her early pregnancies, Virginia Melton said, the family had no telephone, and when she needed to signal her husband to take her to the hospital, she fired three pistol shots in the air.

"We were really in the middle of nowhere," she said.

As small children, they bagged and stacked seed. As teenagers, they operated combines -- in fields much farther away than they travel now. And, before the current automated system was in place, they shoveled seed from the trucks to the drying beds.

Johnny Melton said he can remember combining a field south of Lake Okeechobee and, on the way home, seeing a clock in Clewiston that gave the time as 8 o'clock.

"I knew that meant I wouldn't get back until midnight and I'd be shoveling seed until 2 in the morning," he said.

15 tons of seed for the drying beds

This growing season, so far, has been a disappointment.

Heavy rains have stripped some of the seed from the stalks and, on several days, forced the sons off their combines. At the same time, the market is glutted by seed producers, many of them from Texas, who were encouraged to expand by prices that crested about two years ago.

In 2000, the Meltons harvested about 1-million pounds of seed and received nearly $2 a pound for Argentine Bahia, the variety used for lawns, and more than $1 per pound for the Pensacola Bahia used in pastures. Not only will their harvest be smaller this year -- though Jack Melton won't say how much smaller -- they are receiving less than half as much per pound.

But two weeks ago, on one of the few sunny afternoons of the season, the family had its best day of the year.

All three of their trucks came back brimming with seed, about 5 tons each. Mark and Stephen Melton returned from their fields by 5 p.m. and, with the help of workers, had spread the seed across the drying beds by 6 p.m.

After leaving to check on his cattle, Mark Melton returned to help his brother Johnny, who had spent the day at a ranch in Pasco, in the same field he had first been trusted to combine by himself as a 13-year-old.

Johnny backs his truck into the barn and dumps the seed into a large hopper. Employee Refugio "Cuco" Caro sweeps out the back of the truck with a birdlike attentiveness to every grain of seed.

A conveyor carries the seed over the drying bed, which is divided into a dozen bins -- 12 feet long, 6 feet wide and a foot deep. The Melton brothers and Cruz Chavez, another worker, balance on a board that runs over the top of the bed and direct a chute that pours a pile of grain into each bin.

Under big, round lights that have begun to shine as the sun sets outside, they rake the seed smooth so it will dry evenly. That the brothers work together efficiently and quickly is no surprise, Johnny Melton says.

"We've been doing this since he (Mark) was about 6," he says.

'That was worth the wait'

Jack Melton rarely operates a combine any more, but still visits the seed barn several times each day and is always on hand to supervise when his sons return.

After the last load has been spread, he walks to the north end of the barn to a propane-fired, fan-driven drier that, when switched on, resembles a flaring booster rocket.

As the heat sifts through the damp grain, steam rises in the barn and gathers under the roof. "That was worth the wait," Melton says with satisfaction.

Cleaning the grain and bagging it is usually done during the day, and, now, mostly by employees rather than family members. But as he waits for Johnny to return, Jack Melton turns on a wooden cleaner, coated with what appears to be 40 years of accumulated cobwebs and dust, that extends almost to the ceiling of the old barn.

It shakes like a giant sewing machine and begins sifting the seed and blowing away chaff -- grasshopper heads, dried legumes that look like coffee beans and seeds infected with a fungus that breaks them open like popcorn.

The pure seed -- disk-shaped and not much bigger than grains of sand -- flows through a chute and into red-and-tan bags, the trademark of the family's Argentine seed. Melton, surrounded by 25-foot-high towers of the bags, fills a few and loads them onto a pallet.

He works partly to help out, but mostly to savor the sight of the bags, which to him sum up what the harvest is all about.

"That's what's so interesting," he says. "The seed in these bags. That was growing yesterday."

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