Family farm a longtime labor of love for Vardaman pair
VARDAMAN, Miss. (AP) — Jan Cook grew up following her father around the family farm. And he didn’t mind one bit.
“She hung around me all the time,” Paul Cook said.
Truth is, while his daughter might have liked to parlay her time with her dad into a profession, a female farming for a living just didn’t seemed an option then.
So, she attended Northwest Mississippi Community College, then completed her bachelor’s degree “later in life,” taking classes at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. She completed her degree in business administration at Faulkner University in Montgomery.
She eventually moved to Anniston, Alabama, and worked at a small manufacturing company.
“After a time, I got tired of sitting at a desk all the time,” said the 60-year-old. “I’d go in every day and say a prayer, ‘Lord, do I have to do this again today?'”
Now, Jan Cook wakes up every morning at 5:30 and works all day in temperatures often above 100 degrees.
“And I am so happy,” she said, laughing.
She returned home to Vardaman in 2009 and worked for a time at Sweet Potato Sweets, a bakery of which her mother, Daphna Cook, is one of the original owners.
But the farm beckoned.
“Me and Daddy were riding around and I asked if he knew of any land I might rent to do some planting,” Jan Cook said. “Daddy just reminded me I already had some land that’ll belong to me one day. ‘Farm with me,’ he said.”
And that was all it took.
When Jan Cook speaks of her 86-year-old father, the smile on her face affirms her abundant affection for the man.
The second child of four born to Paul and Daphna Cook, Jan said she’s the only one who was ever remotely interested in the family business. But it could be said her enthusiasm for farming was a byproduct of her wanting to spend time with her father.
“I just always wanted to be around him,” she said.
He’ll be the first to say farming’s not for everyone. One daughter is retired and living in Vardaman; another lives in South Africa.
“And I told my son he could make a living with his brains or his back,” Paul Cook said. “He’s now a pharmacist and doing better than I was doing most of the time.”
Paul Cook started farming on his own in 1952, starting his farm from scratch. Married to his bride for 66 years, he laughed at a long-ago memory.
“The first thing I bought after we got married was a tractor,” he said.
His farming daughter took her first tractor spin when she was about 7, and when she was 12, her daddy turned her loose and let her drive around the field by herself.
“Her mama came out to where I was working and said, ‘Where’s Jan?’ I pointed at her out on the tractor,” he said with a sly smile. “Her mama had a fit.”
Today, the family farm is about 300 acres.
“That’s all we can handle, I promise,” Jan Cook said. “There are some farms that have 3,000 acres in just sweet potatoes. Daddy stayed small because he is hands-on and couldn’t stand for the farm to get so big he didn’t know all that was going on.
“He said that years ago he had to decide to get bigger and go into debt or farm what he had and make a decent living and owe no one. He chose the latter.”
He’s seen a lot of changes in farming through the years, but a few vestiges of the past remain, like an old, rusty tractor he bought in 1958.
“I was on that tractor one day and noticed some young farmers on shiny tractors across the way,” Paul Cook said, his sparkling eyes dimmed only by his shades and the brim of his cap. “I could see they were pointing at me and laughing. So, when I finished what I was doing, I rode to where they were, leaned over, patted the engine hood, said ‘she’s paid for, boys’ and turned and rode away.”
His age has not kept Paul Cook from his life’s calling. Nor has the intense heat and humidity of a Mississippi summer — “I’m used to the heat,” he said. “The cold bothers me more now than the heat.”
If he’s not working, he’s out hoeing, his daughter said of her quiet and gentle father. And he shows no signs of stopping.
“He gets up and goes to the farm,” she said. “That’s his life. And in the winter, we’re repairing potato boxes and getting equipment ready for the next season.”
He’ll not be caught being idle, except perhaps one day a week.
“He does rest on Sunday,” his daughter said. “Rarely has he worked on a Sunday — only if the ox is in the ditch. And he started on his own, had nothing handed down to him. He had to be his own boss.
“Daddy was not one to borrow money. So, Mama went to work at a local garment factory to make money to pay for farm labor.”
These days, a nephew helps out on the farm and there’s one full-time employee. During busy times, the Cooks hire pick-up labor.
Father and daughter work together on the sweet potato crop — often 10-hour days are the norm. From the setting of the potatoes to their maturity and harvesting is about 90 days. That in-between time is when Jan Cook stays busy with her eight acres of sweet corn and 10 acres of peas.
Like her father, she is not one who has an affinity for sitting still.
When the corn and peas are harvested, Jan Cook can be found on the side of Highway 8, just in front of Sweet Potato Sweets, selling from the back of her white Mitsubishi Mini truck from Europe. The sign on the side reads Cook Farm, Paul’s Daughter’s Produce.
“I decided I’m gonna ride on his coattails ’cause he’s got some good ones to ride on,” his daughter said.
On one recent morning, several hundred pounds of sweet corn sold out fast, and she continued fielding calls on her cell phone, taking orders for more. Before long her purple hull peas will be ready.
And she’s got her goats.
“I started with three in 2010 to clear my pasture,” she said. “Now there are 25.”
She sells some on occasion, so she stopped naming the goats — it made it harder (on her heart) to sell them.
Though she’s a certified scuba diver and enjoys hiking, Jan said these days her hobby is her grandson who lives in Oxford with Jan’s daughter, Lyndsey Wade, a first-grade teacher. Six-year-old Walker Wade is her “pride and joy.”
She said she sees no end to her farming days and smiles at the idea that Walker might pick up his “Janma’s” passion.
“Maybe so,” she said. “Walker eats it up. He loves it.”
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