From both sides of his family Joe Edmondson inherited a passion for farming the land around Vardaman, Mississippi. Fueled by the untimely death of his father when Joe was only ten, he began in earnest to assume the responsibility of making the family farm as productive as possible.
In the early days, the Edmondson’s grew cotton, corn, and soybeans. They also owned and operated a cotton gin for over two decades. A couple of years after graduating high school, Joe married Melissa Morgan, a nursing student, who also grew up in a farming family. They were blessed with three children, a daughter, Brandi, and two sons, Trent and Cody.
Joe recalled, “In the first years of marriage, my wife would go out into the fields and drive tractors and supervise and even labor alongside six or eight other hands on our 150 or so acres.”
Today, besides being a devoted wife, mother of three, and grandmother of seven, Melissa is deeply involved in the business side of Topashaw Farms in which she is a full partner. She raises money for and helps plan the week-long Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival that takes place in November. Melissa also is a member of the Mississippi and United States Sweet Potato Councils.
Currently, daughter Brandi works in the office in accounts payable and receivables. Her husband, Shaun Parker, is the manager over the packing warehouse line. Son Trent oversees the planting of the corn and soybeans in the spring and the harvesting of the potatoes in the fall. His wife, Lauren, is a nurse but helps out with minor injuries that happen on the farm. Son Cody manages the planting of the sweet potatoes in the spring and helps with the grain harvest in the fall. His wife, Lindsey, also works in the packing warehouse office and manages H2A paperwork, trucks, and sales. Trent and Cody are also involved with working the farm’s cattle.
In 1995, an agricultural disaster struck the Vardaman area. According to Joe, “Worms hit up here in these hills and we lost the entire crop—everything. That’s when we made the decision to diversify and start growing sweet potatoes, mostly of the hearty Beauregard variety. We were blessed to survive that major setback.”
Today, Topashaw Farms owns 2227 acres, rents 4293 acres, and has 275 mama cows, 13 bulls, 250 calves, and 5 horses. Sweet potatoes have become their staple crop with 2905 of planted acres yielding 490 bushels per acre. Corn is planted on 871 acres with a yield of 146 bushels per acre. Soybeans constitute 2743 acres with a yield of 61 bushels per acre and 910 acres total are irrigated. The storage capacity for sweet potatoes has reached 2,000,000 bushels, with 600,000 bushels under refrigeration.
Their corn is stored in bins at harvest (260,000 bushels storage) and mostly sold to the local feed mill at a later date. Soybeans are stored in grain bins of the same capacity at harvest and then later hauled to grain elevators in the winter months.
Joe commented, “Having our own grain elevators helps increase harvest time due to decreasing downtime from loading and unloading.”
Calves are normally sold in August through September in large groups at 550 to 600 lbs. Sweet potatoes are stored and marketed year round with #1 grade being sold to upper-end grocery store chains and #2 grain shipped to Farmers Markets, restaurants, and other grocery store that prefer a good quality sweet potato at a reduced price. The #1 petite grade potato sales are beneficial for individuals who want smaller potatoes for baking and cooking and the jumbo potatoes (over 3.5 inches) are preferred by many restaurants and/or bakers because that size works well for large baking needs They also market an individually wrapped microwavable potato and a 3lb. bag.
Joe added, “Our processed grade potatoes are made into various cuts of fries, wedges, and canned products with clients including Lamb Weston, Simplot, McCain Foods, McCalls/Bruce Foods, Pictsweet, and Gerber Baby Foods.”
In 2009 another natural disaster happened when twenty-one consecutive days of rainfall started the second week of September. Joe remembered, “We had to leave the entire crop in the ground, and I learned once again that I’m not in charge in the big picture. Catastrophes can, and will, happen in agriculture. All you can do is have faith, endure, and overcome them.”
That’s when Topashaw Farms came up with another strategy to build a sweet potato packing warehouse to market their potatoes. They opened Topashaw Farms Packing in July 2010 and surpassed their initial goals in the first year. Since then they’ve been expanding and building more storage units with automated, climate-controlled heating and cooling, now at a level of 11,634,000 lbs. storage capacity.
Joe said, “We completed our second packing line in August 2019 to use in peak seasons like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. This line allows us to create more jobs and increase production for processed and fresh markets year-round. We also have our own planer mill and sawmill that allows us to build all our wooden bins for our sweet potatoes and those of other local growers. At present, we’ve built close to 100,000 storage bins to use in our operation.” The farm’s sawmill also provides lumber to build and maintain livestock facilities, the office, the packing warehouse, and all H2A labor housing.
When asked about the biggest challenges of farming in today’s environment, Joe responded, “Technology is definitely one that comes to mind. Big John Deere tractors these days are so technically complex that it takes someone with good computer knowledge to operate them, and those kinds of workers aren’t easy to find.”
He added, “Our other challenge has always been labor because every sweet potato seedling is hand-planted mid-May through mid-June, and every mature plant is then cut by hand. We could never accomplish this without our H2A contract workers, all 229 of them this year. Many have been coming back to us for twenty years and are like family now. We also have thirty-five great full-time employees in our packing shed and eight full-time employees on the farm itself, not including family members.”
Joe Edmondson’s deep commitment to farming naturally spills over into the community where he contributes to Boy Scout activities, the Vardaman FFA program, and the Calhoun County 4-H program. He also serves on the Finance and Building Committees of College Hill Baptist Church and sponsors local little league and high school football and baseball programs. On the state level, Joe is a member of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council and the Mississippi Farm Bureau. He’s hosted many tours for various organizations such as the State Nutritional & Cafeteria Program, the Mississippi Farm Service Agency Leaders, and the Mississippi State University Food Services, among others. Nationally he is a long-term member of the National Cotton Ginners Association, the National Soybean Promotion Check-off Program, and the United State Sweet Potato Council.
Joe is also an active member of the Conservation Stewardship Program through the Calhoun and Chickasaw Counties’ National Resources Conservation Service. One of his goals was to land form all of the privately owned land to-grade that enabled irrigation where surface water was unattainable. Doing this made it possible for him to maintain a water source for each farm so as to manage and schedule crop irrigations. He also built three lakes to supply water for four center pivots that cover 480 acres and furrow irrigation of 430 acres.
Joe noted, “This is the first year we’ll be raising our own foundation seed potatoes, starting with ‘G0’ plants. Our business plan includes building our own greenhouses next year with automated climate control and security measures for the production of more foundation seed potatoes.”
When he isn’t busy with the farm’s multifaceted operations, Joe likes to unwind creatively in his hand-restored, early 1900s sawmill. There he builds tools, arbors, and furniture from recycled wood. He even built a cabin on the lake where family members like to cook breakfast on some Sundays before church as well as enjoy special occasions and holidays. The Edmondson’s also get away occasionally to the beach for vacations at Gulf Shores.
Looking back on his forty-plus years of farming, Joe observed, “I’m so fortunate to be able to do what I love and be surrounded by great workers and my family. I appreciate every aspect of agriculture, down to the hardest and greasiest task. My motto each morning is to say, ‘How can I make this day better than yesterday?’ and then I go about my business and take in stride any failures or any accomplishments.”
Joe Edmondson was nominated for Mississippi Farmer of the Year by Trent Barnett, Extension Agent–ANR/4-H at Mississippi State University-ES Calhoun County. Trent commented, “Mr. Joe has been an advocate for farming and a supporter of many community organizations, festivals, and fairs throughout our area. He’s a believer in a diverse farming operation and has shown wise flexibility and innovation in his decision-making through the years. He’s always welcomed local, national, and international visitors with a ready willingness to speak about agriculture and his profound love of growing things.”
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Joe Edmondson, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, the week of August 10–14. The judges include John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; David Wildy, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016; and Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, the overall winner of the award in 2009.