Danny Cunningham grew up on a sixty-acre dairy farm in Calloway County, Kentucky. At thirteen he learned to drive an old pickup truck to school on back roads because his dad figured that by letting him drive, he could get home at least an hour earlier than if he took the bus. And that hour could be spent on farm chores.
Tasked with a lot of the milking, Cunningham wasn’t thrilled about that part of agricultural life. He recalls, “I loved working the land, so I started renting ground for row cropping and growing tobacco. I bought my first farm in 1964 and built our family farm house in 1967. My wife, Judy, was my number-one hand on the farm. She could do anything I could do—drive tractors, combines, and grain trucks—while doing a wonderful job of raising our three daughters.”
The Cunningham girls were active in 4-H, softball, church, and school-related activities and automatically helped with farm chores. Judy, who passed away in 2016, had been a member of the Calloway County Farm Bureau, a 4-H leader, a Girl Scout leader, a Sunday school teacher, and a member of the Calloway County Homemaker Group.
Family has always been the heart and soul of this enterprise. Oldest daughter, Deana Cunningham Chadwick, maintains the farming books. She is the bookkeeper, payroll manager, and the purchasing and accounts payable manager. She also weighs the trucks and completes the receipts. Her husband, Ricky Chadwick, works full-time on the farm, driving tractors and trucks. Middle daughter, Dana Cunningham Martin, works with marketing and publicity for the farm. Her husband, Terry Martin, is the regional sales manager at H&R Agri-Power; he oversees the purchasing and leasing of equipment. Youngest daughter, Denese Cunningham King, is responsible for the technology equipment used by the farm and is the assistant payroll manager. Brad King, her husband, provides assistance during planting and harvesting season, driving tractors and trucks as needed.
Cunningham currently rents 4290 acres and owns 75 and has been farming now for nearly sixty years. He grows 2400 acres of food-grade white corn with a yield of 156 bushels per acre; 1900 acres of soybeans with a yield of 48 bushels per acre; 25 acres of dark tobacco with a yield of 3850 pounds per acre; and 400 acres of wheat with a yield of 80 bushels per acre. He has the capacity to store 300,000 bushels of grain, storing everything he grows and shipping corn throughout the winter to the mill.
He also does his own marketing, saying, “The basis is already set with corn, making it easier to market independently. Now, with smart phones and computers, technical help and information is at your fingertips. White corn garners a $1.00 premium that has helped keep the bottom line healthy.” He can sell in 5000 bushel corn, soybean, and wheat contracts. His dark tobacco crop is labor intensive (80 to 85 percent of the work is by hand) and is grown with the help of H2A labor.
Cunningham has been dealing with ADM Milling, one of the largest grain buyers in the world, since 1989. He started with 75,000 bushels and today produces 255,000 bushels. He adds, “We are on a field to market bookkeeping system. Buyers are aware of the fertilizers, chemicals, and seed we use and the good soil and healthy products they go into.” Besides his contracts, Cunningham notes that the local ethanol plant has been of great value to him and other growers with overages. His dark tobacco is sold to Conwood, now known as the R.J. Reynolds Company.
About the tobacco crop, Cunningham says, “All of my daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren have assisted with the tobacco crop, either by preparing the land for tobacco, pulling tobacco plants, setting tobacco, hoeing tobacco, oiling tobacco, suckering tobacco, cutting tobacco, firing tobacco, stripping tobacco, or hauling tobacco.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth row to hoe, however. Back in the 1980s, when interest rates topped 18 percent, Calloway County lost around 50 percent of its farm operations. Cunningham recalls, “Friends and neighbors of ours had to forsake their land to go find work in nearby towns just to survive. And the weather was a major factor because of droughts in 1978–80, 1983, and 1985. You can plant and fertilize as skillfully as you’re able, but it takes rain to make a crop.” Luckily, Cunningham was able to hang on by selling 300 acres of land to keep the family farm of 75 acres. The next day he leased back the same 300 acres, land he still farms to this day.
Through the years Cunningham has practiced good stewardship of the land. He constructed waterways and placed filter strips around creeks and streams. Since 1978 he has been a no-till soybean farmer; today he is at 95% no-till. Cunningham also has a drying facility to dry 100 percent of the corn he grows and a 300,000 bushel grain facility so that he can handle 100 percent of the grain he produces. He harvests the entire crop with one large combine, a 40-foot header for bean and wheat harvest and a 12-row header for corn harvest on a class 8 Case I-H combine.
He also put in place the first set of terraces to help control water run-off and help conserve the soil. He installed natural gas lines to grain dryer ad bins to decrease cost and seeded a cover crop on the land in the fall to decrease soil erosion. The farm also uses tractors and semi-trucks with emissions standards to decrease air pollution.
Cunningham has been a long-term member and office holder in the Calloway County Farm Bureau, an organization that named him Calloway County Farmer of the Year in 2018. He says of this association, “They do a remarkably fine job of advocating for farmers in this county, state, and country. I’m very grateful for their hard work on behalf of families like mine that just love raising the best crops possible, no matter what the economic fluctuations might be.”
As to certain farming stereotypes, Cunningham says, “Some people think farmers are like the old Mr. Greenjeans character on the 1950s TV show, Captain Kangaroo. But we aren’t caricatures. Equipment, fertilizer, fuel, and feed all cost money, so we have to be careful business people who keep a close eye on everything. And it’s a good idea to not overspend in the good years because you know the lean ones may be around the corner. Debt can quickly become unmanageable, so it’s not always the best option, in my opinion.”
Cunningham’s biggest reward has been raising his family on the farm. His six great-grandchildren (five boys and one girl) love to come to fish, hunt, ride horses, and help out when they’re needed. He says, “It’s a joy to watch them doing healthy, active things and not sitting on a couch glued to a laptop or a smart phone.”
Since losing his beloved wife, Judy, in 2016, Cunningham taught himself to cook so that he could continue the family tradition of Sunday dinner on the farm after church, Westside Baptist, where they are involved in Sunday school teaching and efforts to provide food assistance, financial aid, and Christmas assistance to families in the local community. As to the Sunday meal, Cunningham says, “I don’t do desserts (one of my daughters is great at that), but I can fix just about anything now: ham, meatballs, greens, potatoes, and fresh corn we put up every year.”
In his spare time Cunningham, a movie buff, loves to watch action films—anything with Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, or Tommy Lee Jones. He also attends various regional vintage car events and shows his restored vehicles: a 1961 Dodge cross ram, a 1962 Dodge Polaris (with a 413 wedge motor), a 1958 Chevrolet Delray, and a 1941 Chevy Coup. He comments with a chuckle, “But I may be about done with NASCAR. They’ve taken the redneck out of it and made it a little too white collar for my taste.”
Danny Cunningham counts among his proudest accomplishments his loving, 54-year marriage to Judy and their parenting of three cherished daughters. He says, “Our first date, between seventh and eighth grade, was when I asked her to go on a hayride. Our marriage was the best partnership anyone could hope to have. Judy shared my love for the smell of fresh dirt, newly cut hay, and honeysuckle in spring time. I was fortunate enough to find my true vocation early on and never wanted to do anything else. I love that God granted me the responsibility of sharing with my family the importance of farming and caring for his creation.”
Cunningham was nominated Kentucky Farmer of the Year by Don Overbey, co-owner of Overbey Farms of Murray, Kentucky and, at the time of Cunningham’s nomination, president of the Calloway County Farm Bureau Federation Board. He says, “Danny is an outstanding farmer and person. A dedicated family man, he has always stayed strong in his Christian faith. As with all farmers, he has had years that weren’t as good as others, but he always came through with a smile and a positive attitude.”
As the Kentucky winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Cunningham will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Cunningham is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through their partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Kentucky farmers became eligible to compete for the Farmer of the Year award in 2006. Previous state winners from Kentucky include Sam Moore of Morgantown, 2006; Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek, 2007; Loretta Lyons of Tompkinsville, 2008; Doug Langley of Shelbyville, 2009; Joe Nichols of Cadiz, 2010; Jim Sidebottom of Greensburg, 2012; Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek, 2013; Ray Allan Mackey of Elizabethtown, 2014; Jack Trumbo of Simpsonville, 2015; Keith Lowry of Water Valley, 2016; and Mike Batch of Owingsville, 2017; Darren Luttrell of Beaver Dame, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Cunningham Farms, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.