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Fifth-generation farmer

Dewey Gilliam continues his family’s tradition of farming land in Sweeten’s Cove
Story and photo by: Sarah Geyer 4/25/2019


Dewey Gilliam, 79, checks his chart while filling his fertilizer spreader. He is the fifth generation to farm this land in Sweeten’s Cove, located on the outskirts of South Pittsburg, Dewey, in a joint operation with son Randy and grandson Stanton, raises soybeans, corn, wheat, and sorghum. The three generations also live with their families on the treasured family farmland.
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Dewey Gilliam’s family tree is filled with farmers whose roots are anchored deep in the soil of Sweeten’s Cove. He is the fifth generation to farm this land located on the outskirts of South Pittsburg.

The 79-year-old spent his early years helping his father, Ivan, work the farm using mules and a horse. Dewey was 10 when his dad purchased the family’s first tractor, a Ferguson TO-20, and he says both father and son were equally excited to drive it.

“If you would have told me then that one day there’d be self-driving tractors and combines that can figure your bushels per acre, I’d probably compare you to the Jetsons,” he says. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about agriculture, it’s that change is guaranteed. To survive in farming, you have to be willing to change, too.”

Following high school graduation, Dewey married his high school sweetheart, Jan. The farm was home to the couple and later their children, Randy and Angie, but Dewey chose to find full-time employment off the farm with a tree trimming company.

He also farmed a little, raising row crops on his portion of the inherited 100 acres he shared with his brother, Jim. Dewey knew he needed more acreage, so as older farmers in the area stopped working their land, he offered to rent it. Ten years later, he was raising crops on 500 acres, enough land to provide a decent income. He quit his job with the tree company, bought Jim’s portion of the family land, and began farming full time, raising corn, wheat, and soybeans on 600 acres.

He and Jan then added hog production to the farming operation. Jan took on nearly every aspect of the business, which provided a good income for about 10 years.

“It was a good opportunity while it lasted,” he says. “But there came a time when you had to get real big or get out, so we got out.”

Even as a 30-something farmer, Dewey had developed a reputation among his peers for his sharp business sense and was asked to serve on the board of Marion Farmers Cooperative. Over the years, he has been elected to several terms and currently serves as the board’s chairman.  

Son Randy, who shares his father’s penchant for business, spent nearly two decades juggling the responsibilities of running his own construction company while maintaining a small farming operation.

Randy and wife Celena live and on the family farm where they raised their three children, Preston, Erica, and Stanton, who from an early age had expressed the desire to farm full time. Today, Stanton is married and he and wife Brianna also live on the family farm with their three-year-old son, Easton.

“About 15 years ago, Randy and I decided the timing was right to combine our farming operations,” says Dewey, adding that his daughter-in-law plays an active role in both the construction business and the family operation. “When Stanton graduated from high school a few years later, the three of us formed a joint venture.”

Together, the three generations farm about 1,800 acres, typically growing 300 acres in wheat, 600 in corn, and the rest in soybeans. A few years ago, they added sorghum to their crop lineup, double cropping it behind the wheat. The farming trio raised canola and sunflowers for a short time, but the market wasn’t there to make money. As far as the specialty market for sorghum, so far so good, says Dewey.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities,” he says. “And we are willing to give most anything a try. If it’s profitable, we go with it. If it’s not, we move on. Usually, if you don’t get greedy, an opportunity will come along for you to make money. You’re not ever going to get rich, but you can stay in business.”

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