As a young man, Elisha Pullen never imagined he would spend his days on the farm.
Growing up near rural Bell City in southeastern Missouri’s “Bootheel” region, Pullen longed to leave the farm and get an education.
“I grew up in the day and time when we had to do a lot of chopping and stuff like that. Hard labor,” Pullen said. “I’m going to college, I’m getting my degree and I’m going to work in the air conditioning.”
He went to Southeast Missouri State University, where he earned a degree in accounting with a minor in computer science and later got a job with Missouri Utilities Co. Then his brother got sick and asked Pullen to come home and help on the farm.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Pullen said. “He didn’t get better right away, so I ended up buying the farm.”
Pullen lives in a modest white home on his 100-acre farm, where he primarily grows soybeans off of an old dusty county road.
When I visited a couple weeks ago, he took me around the farm and showed me a pair of old trucks, a combine that caught fire a few years ago, and some struggling milo. It’s here on this farm that Pullen is carrying on two family traditions – as a farmer and as a pastor at a church in nearby Sikeston, Mo.
Pullen’s grandfather and grandmother both moved to rural Missouri from Mississippi. His grandfather’s family came in the 1920s and settled near Bell City. He called his grandfather a “devout deacon” in the church.
“He loved the Lord. He loved the song ‘None but the Righteous shall See the Lord,’” Pullen said. “He brought his children up on the fear of the Lord.”
His mother’s family moved to Missouri during the Depression. The move was extremely difficult on her. They nearly starved to death on the journey and the experience had a lasting impact.
“My mother was very slow to throw away anything because it might come in handy,” Pullen said. “It took up some years to get to all of that, to understand why she did some of the things that she did.”
Pullen’s father was a large man with a big, booming voice. He bought a farm of his own and became a pastor in two churches.
“To us, he was just Daddy. But some people said he had a ‘voice of many waters,’” Pullen said. “That’s the description that is given in the Bible about God. The ‘voice of many waters.’ So that was really an honor.”
Even though Pullen does not have any children of his own, a few of his godchildren come by the farm to help him out. But when it comes time to retire, he says he doesn’t know who will take over.
“Most family have gone,” Pullen said. “I only have a nephew that is farming now, and I’m not sure if he’s really interested in it. He’s just doing it because it fell in his lap.”
Despite his early reservations about life on the farm, it’s now hard for Pullen to imagine himself anywhere else. He has grown accustomed to being the only person on his county road where he has room to stretch out.
“It’s just always been spacious, you know. Your neighbor, you wave at him way down, at least a quarter-mile down the road or something,” Pullen said. “To have one close enough to where he could almost look into your house, oh no, I don’t know.”
Pullen has traveled to the Philippines each of the past three years on mission trips. This year, he plans to go to Haiti. The overseas travel is eye-opening and inspiring, but his farm’s gravitational pull is too much to overcome.
“I like the open air, the fresh air. I like the ground,” Pullen said. “I like being able to touch the ground instead of walking on concrete all the time. And you know, whenever I go somewhere, in a few days I’m ready to go back home where I can relax and be free.”
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Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agricultural issues in the Midwest. You can read more about the project on their website.