Changing landscapes: This farmers’ friend has witnessed an evolution, now wages his toughest battle

January 16, 2010 9:55:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


By the time he was 18, Cecil Robertson had picked enough Mississippi cotton to know he never wanted to see another stalk. But that didn''t stop him from becoming the go-to guy local farmers and gardeners still call up at home a half-century later for answers to their questions. 


After more than four decades as a fixture at the Lowndes County Co-op and other farm supply stores, this plain-talking fellow with the good earth in his blood has watched the agricultural landscape undergo an evolution. His personal life, too, changed seven months ago. That''s when a scan showed a spot "about the size of a quarter" on his right lung. On Tuesday, just two days before his first round of chemotherapy, the 69-year-old Columbus man sat down to share a few thoughts about what he''s seen. 


"There''s not many small farmers left," he said, with regret. "You''ve got to be a pretty good size to make it now. And you''re going to see some of the bigger ones disappear, too, because the young people, they''re not interested any more. Unless you inherit, most people aren''t going to get into it. The older ones sort of die out, and the young ones really don''t want to do manual labor." 


Resigned, he added slowly, "It''s an old saying that people are gonna be wiser, but weaker." 




Perfect match 


When Cecil was only 6 months old, his family moved from Louisville to the Delta. They stayed about 10 years before eventually returning to their Winston County roots. 


"He''d pick cotton from sun up to sun down, miss the first six weeks of school every year," said his wife of five decades. Virginia Robertson is best-known in the community by her middle name, Dale. "I guess people have just forgotten how hard it was. But Cecil didn''t." 


The two, each from large families, met in the Louisville country school they both attended. By 1959, they knew it was for keeps. She was one-month shy of 16 ("He married a baby," Dale smiled); but Cecil was joining the Army, so they tied the knot that still holds strong today.  


Last June, they celebrated their 50th anniversary. After three children, four grandchildren and three great-grandkids -- through sickness and in health -- he still calls her "Hon" every day.  




A broom sage field 


After a stint as a medical corpsman in the military, and living for a while in Missouri and Texas, the Robertson''s moved to Columbus in the 1960s.  


"When I first moved here, I went to Realicious Dairy, down by the college. Do you remember that place?" Cecil reminisced. "I worked there about a year, but kept looking for a job to better myself." 


It wasn''t long before the young man, not so long from the farm, went to work for the Lowndes County Co-op. 


"It was down on (Highway) 45, across from where Leigh Mall is. Course," he laughed, "there wasn''t any mall there then; it was a broom sage field, and we were out in the country." 


From his vantage point, he watched Columbus transform through the years. Bulldozers and construction crews created a modern mall in the field across the road, and more businesses began to build along the highway.  


"I remember the flood in ''73," he recalled, referring to the watery disaster that covered Highway 45 and turned the mall''s parking lot into a vast lake. Thirty-six inches of water in the Co-op damaged even the stock Cecil and others had frantically stacked high. 


"But we only lost about two days'' work. That was back when the Mississippi Federated Co-ops was big, and they were setting up supplies out in the lot. We hardly missed a beat." 


Agriculture changed, too. Evolving technologies have led to no-till planting, efficient mechanization and genetic engineering, concepts a space-age away when Cecil was picking cotton as a boy in the hot Delta sun. 


In earlier times, feed, seed, fertilizer and a few pairs of work boots might have sufficed as a supply store''s stock, but these days, Cecil said, "You''ve got to have gates, wire, pet supplies, clothing, everything from A to Z."  




Treat everybody the same 


Throughout his decades of service at the Co-op and other farm supply stores, Cecil never tired of helping the farmer. 


"He always reads anything he can find to help them," Dale said. "He hates it so bad when the small farmers go out; people don''t realize what it means, people don''t care any more. They just think you go to the store and it''s going to have the food." 


"I know several thousand people in Lowndes and the surrounding counties, and I could call ''em by name; people like to be recognized," Cecil shared. "I had a philosophy that I treated everybody the same, I don''t care who they were. And I think that''s sorta stuck around for about 40-something years." 


He credits three people in particular who influenced his life and outlook -- Robert "Bob" Swartz, who first hired him to work at the Co-op; John B. Hardy Sr. and his late son, Allen Boyd Hardy. Both served on the Lowndes County Co-op Board of Directors.  


"I really admired those people. You couldn''t fine nobody more honest, people who''d never ask for special favors; they really treated you just like everybody else." 


He''s proud of his involvement in the Co-op''s instigation of Hunter''s Night Out, a tradition which outgrew the store and moved to Trotter Convention Center. His experience has propelled him onto the board of the Lowndes County Cattlemen''s Association and the Lowndes County Forestry Association. It''s also one of the reasons many still value him as a resource. And why his expertise was tapped again by Johnny Swink, who last spring opened the new Columbus Farm and Garden Supply on Highway 45 North. 


"I was helping out until I got sick," said Cecil, "and I''m gonna go back as soon as I get lined up on this chemo and see how it affects me." 




A day at a time 


Although Cecil had half of one lung removed in July, a scan just before Christmas revealed the disease has returned. Chemotherapy began Thursday. He has great confidence in his local doctors and is ready to tackle one day at a time, while, as Dale says, "The good Lord sorts it out." 


"Let me tell you what," Cecil began. "When my grandson Kristopher was about 6 years old, when a relative was sick, in kind of a real bad situation, he looked at me and pulled on my shirt and said, ''Papaw, don''t worry about it; what''s gonna be is gonna be.'' Kristopher''s 23 now, but that''s still stuck in my mind." 


Cecil looks forward to getting back to the less turbulent world of seed varieties and fertilizers at the new store. 


"If I''m able, I''m gonna be there. I''m not gonna sit down; I never have," he said. 


Something, just something, seems to suggest this longtime farmers'' friend will be fielding ag questions in the Golden Triangle for a long time to come.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.