Meet Nursery Farmer Dan Hancock
The Dirt on the Farm
Farm Location: Smithville in DeKalb County
Land Area: Approximately 100 acres
Crops: Retired but still have some nursery stock that they’re in the process of selling off. Plan to sow grass and possibly hay.
Farm Legacy: The Hancocks put it all together bit by bit, started with nothing and now have 60 acres by the house and 40 acres elsewhere. They also feed more than 150 hummingbirds at their farm.
Farm Bureau Membership: Approximately 50 years
Q: Why did you pick the nursery industry?
Both Norma and I come from a farm background – my family raised hogs, chickens, corn, etc. For 11 years, I was a tool and die maker by trade, but I guess I still had dirt in my blood. I wanted to play in the dirt and, while helping an uncle landscape, became interested in the nursery field. I learned everything I know from a friend who mentored me through it all.
Norma and I relocated from Milton to Smithville to start the nursery and purchased it all piecemeal. I just loved the dirt – it is the best therapy that anybody has ever tried. When everything is going wrong, you can go off in a field and even if you just sit there and whittle – you can look out over nature all around you and thank God for what you have and everything settles back down.
We raised four children who worked on the farm until they graduated, and although none of them chose to stay and continue the nursery, I don’t think they regret having to work growing up – it taught them where their food comes from and how to work. They have an interest in agriculture even though they didn’t choose to enter it as a field. It’s not easy trying to pass down everything to the next generation. All we leave behind is a legacy of who we were; you can’t change that once you’re gone.
Q: How do you define the nursery segment of agriculture?
I explain it is just like being a row crop farmer. We depend on the weather – anything you put in the ground you have to depend on rainfall and warm or cold weather. We have to buy fertilizer and chemicals, and we have labor and regulation issues. There are some differences, but at the heart it is all agricultural. The main difference is I put plants out and don’t harvest them the same year – it is four, five, six or even seven years before I harvest them. It’s a lot of input before you get anything out.
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in beginning in agriculture today?
It is a high-risk, high-cost way to make a living. It requires a lot of commitment – you don’t come into this industry and jump out six weeks later. It is a long-term commitment. I would tell them to start small and grow yourself in, because you will drown if you try to jump in big-time right off the bat. If you don’t have the basics, you will never survive.
Q: How do you help tell the farmer’s story?
We have to continue to educate children. It’s hard to make a 40-year-old understand the process that happens from field to fork, so you have to start with the young ones. Ag in the Classroom is one of the best at educating our children – our county’s Farm Day gets all the kids in our area out on an actual working farm – they see hogs, sheep, goats, cows, corn, wheat, soybeans, you name it.
My granddaughter started asking questions about farming and food, so I brought her out to the garden and had her pick an ear of corn, shuck it and bring it back to the house to cook – trying to show her the process of field to fork. Telling our story is keeping it out there in front of people who don’t understand that Walmart, Publix, etc. isn’t where their food comes from.
Q: Are you Farm Bureau proud?
This is a no-brainer to those of us in the organization. I am very much Farm Bureau proud. Over the many years I have served in this organization, I served with some of the finest people on the face of the earth. Having a Christian-based organization, with everyone trying to be honest and up front with what you do, that means a lot in my book. Then you have the influence we try to have across the whole country, the changes we try to make or things we keep the same – when you’re not involved, things may not seem as important to you, but Farm Bureau helps us stay on things constantly. It helps tell our story to the urban public who don’t know where their food comes from or why we do what we do.
Q: What are you most proud of on the farm and what is your biggest challenge?
We were noted for having high-quality plants – we didn’t sell junk. Other nursery people were very complimentary of what we grew, and that is one thing we hope to pass on to young people who are just getting started in the business. We are encouraging them to grow quality plants and not just the cheaper plants for a quicker turnover. Back in the early years, we did landscaping for a couple of years, but I didn’t take it seriously … and I started in the nursery business because I couldn’t get the quality of plants I wanted. The biggest challenge then was to keep up with what you wanted five years down the road – plants are five to seven years old before they are sellable. The challenge I have now is to try to pass some of this on. I have a friend down the road and talk to him daily, advising him and his son on what to do and not to do, trying to pass on the knowledge that I’ve gained and be a mentor to them.
Q: You have a unique aspect of your farm that most wouldn’t associate with farms. How did you get started feeding hummingbirds?
Norma: We had a friend about 20-30 years ago who was feeding some, and then our youngest daughter came in one day and said she counted seven hummingbirds on the bean string outside our house. (Note: A bean string refers to a string you run beans up so they don’t run along the ground.) I went out and saw them, so bought a little feeder but they didn’t come to it. I went back to the friend’s house and came back to order one from the mail. It just grew from there.
Now we have four feeders that hold three cups each that I refill daily, and two of the four I refill at least three times a day. It seems like all I do is make feed and put it out – we have more than 150 hummingbirds we feed. We have to go to Sam’s and buy sugar 25 pounds at a time. We’ve gone through 400 pounds of sugar this summer. It is a never-ending job – we just keep it made up, and when one bottle gets empty you take another one out there and replace it. We have a neighbor that if we have to be gone, we make up to 2-3 gallons of feed and take it over to him and he changes it for us. It is worse than a dairy – you can’t be gone anywhere. But we love it and feed anything that comes along on the farm – songbirds, raccoons … it’s kind of like a miniature nature preserve!