The turnip, having had its chance, obviously isn't going to set any gustatory worlds on fire, but it saved Don Kendall's career in farming and probably saved his farm as well.
Along a creek bottom on his 123-acre farm here in the steep hills of west Tennessee, Kendall has an audaciously profitable little turnip patch that says as much about agriculture these days as it does about turnips.
Other farmers around here grow soybeans and cotton as principal crops and grouse about the money they lose. Kendall gave up on soybeans after the erosion they caused nearly ruined his farm and he found he could make good money from turnips.
Bruce Calhoun, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil conservationist in Obion County, is helping Kendall repair his scarred land. He's excited about Kendall's creative effort to free himself from the grip of the soybean.
"His success with turnips shows that with some imagination a farmer can make a go of it and protect his land at the same time," Calhoun said. "Most of the hills around here are just too steep for the soybean."
Experts like Norman A. Berg, head of the Soil Conservation Service in Washington, point to the rise of monoculture on American farms as a major element in increased erosion. New strains are put on the soil by less rotation of crop varieties and by less resting of the soil between crops.
Kendall's farewell to the soybean was a lucky stroke. For many places in the East, turnips in the off-season are synonymous with California imports. Turnips aren't grown widely in these parts, except on the Kendall farm. Kendall's secret is his realization that turnips will keep in the ground and can be harvested long after the normal growing season has passed.
Kendall's turnips are feeding people in Nashville, 165 miles away; in Memphis, 110 miles away, and Cape Girardeau, Mo., 90 miles from here. The income from his vegetable helped him forsake the soybean that has held farmers around here in thrall for the past decade.
"A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I've got more turnips than most people in the country," Kendall said. "I've had pumpkins and watermelons, and I'm going to try parsnips next."
Last month, Kendall was selling his turnips for $9 a bushel. They had been as high as $14 earlier in the year. Simple math shows that at, say, $10 a bushel, his before-expenses income from a 600-bushel-per-acre yield on his 20-acre patch would be $120,000--far more than most farmers can expect to make from a farm this size.
It happened almost by accident.
Several years ago, after disease wiped out his small herd of brood cows, Kendall did the same thing that many other west Tennessee farmers do. He plowed up the pasture land and planted highly erosive soybeans on his steep hillsides.
Then, to improve his earnings potential, he planted winter wheat to follow the soybean harvest. Wheat helps hold exposed soil in place, but the planting means plowing again, which riles the topsoil one more time and heightens the erosion potential.
So the predictable happened on Kendall's farm. It nearly washed away.
As the rains fell, the hillsides gullied. Drainage channels clogged with dirt. Natural water-flow patterns were disrupted. Topsoil was scoured away at such a rate that the topography actually changed--Kendall found the hills no longer were as steep as they had been.
At that point, it was root, hog, or die, as they say in the country. The turnip was Don Kendall's salvation.