Decades ago, his grandfather literally drove his open-air cab tractor in the dead of winter from Missouri to the Mississippi Delta to farm.
What would possess a man to do such a thing?
The dream of growing crops in the Mississippi Delta dirt that at the time was half the price of his Missouri land. A dream his grandson, Zac Tollison continues to make a reality today.
The late Gene Miller and his brothers, JC and Jerry gathered all their equipment from their 400-acre farm and made the 190 mile-plus trek from Arbyrd, Missouri and broke ground in the Delta. Gene and JC partnered and bought a 900-acre block of land near Ruleville while Jerry settled around Hollandale.
“They moved here in 1964,” grandson Zac Tollison said. “They started farming what is known as the Miller Place. They pulled most of their equipment behind their tractors and their trucks. My grandad said he couldn’t afford the trucking costs.”
His grandfather, on his mother’s side, farmed from 1964 to 1991 and retired. Each one, including his father, planted the dream and desire to farm into him that would soon be fulfilled. The time he spent with his grandfather, great uncles and his dad all helped shape the farmer he would become.
“They were cotton farmers with only 10 or 15 acres of soybeans down in the bottoms,” Zac said. “My dad (the late Bubba Tollison) bought land here around town in 1986 and started farming cotton on his own. He was also a cotton entomologist. I worked with him and learned a lot of things.”
Constantly being on other farmers’ acres, the Tollisons got an up-close and personal view of how different farmers tended their land. They learned a lot of what to do and plenty of what not to do’s while checking for bugs.
“Dad and I farmed for a good time, my grandaddy’s place for about 15 years,” he said. “My mother and my aunt ended up with the place after my grandfather passed away, so we paid rent on it.”
In 2007, that land was sold to a new landlord and Zac and his father worked together until his passing in 2014. The younger Tollison continued renting his grandfather’s original place until 2016. On his own since 2014, Zac works his dad’s original acreage of about 325 acres and rents more for a total of 1,050.
The Ruleville native worked on the farm since he could walk but did find time to attend North Sunflower Academy and then spent two years at Mississippi Delta Community College in their Precision Agriculture program.
“I knew that I wanted to farm. That’s all I ever wanted to do,” Zac said. “When I finished my two years, I came back home and told dad that’s what I wanted to do. He said that was fine and was glad I had that Precision Ag degree because about that time we started getting that technology with Autosteer. Dad had no idea how to turn one on so I had learned all of that of how they work and operate and I could do all of that myself. He made me a partner and it became Tollison Farm Partnership.”
Tollison has grown cotton, corn and rice but settles mostly on soybeans for his acreage.
He sold his cotton equipment a few years back when the price bottomed out to focus on soybeans as his main crop.
Being the head-man-in-charge, Tollison has to fully handle the burden of being “responsible for every bit of income that the farm made and every bit of money that was spent. My dad always told me, ‘son, you’ve got to keep a sharp pencil for everything that you do on the farm.’ I never really understood that until now.”
One crucial lesson his father instilled in him was timing on the farm.
“Timing is everything. You have to be consistent and get things done in a timely manner. Applications of herbicide and pesticide are critical. If you have worms in your soybeans and cotton, it’s imperative to get that chemical out within the matter of a day. Don’t wait around on anything. He always said, ‘any opportunity you can get a planter running. Wait is not an option.’ Dad taught everything I know about farming all the way down to different ways to run equipment and certain ways to work a field. Work the gumbo bottom before the sandy ridge. If it rains, you won’t be able to work that gumbo bottom,” he said.
Another timing story was when an impending rain kept Bubba on the tractor all through the night. A young Zac didn’t want to leave his dad on the tractor so he “spent the night” and even fell asleep while his dad worked through the night. He woke up on the floor of the cab with his dad still going. A couple decades later, Zac found himself on the same tractor, working through the same situation. But this time he drove through the night to get the job done.
His father, in addition to farming, had several other jobs that kept him busy and with his passing in 2014, still left a few lessons untaught for his son.
“He always told me he would teach me when the time came but never got the opportunity. I had to learn the marketing side of things on my own,” Zac said. “But I cherish the things he did teach me.”
His dad was a firm believer in John Deere green but Zac’s farm equipment and implements run the gamut of brand colors as he lives by the mantra, whatever color gets the job done.
“If you take care of them all and service them, I don’t think any one of them is better than the other one. My dad always taught me, ‘son, if you take care of that tractor, it will take care of you.’”
But one special piece of equipment is one of the original pieces the Millers brought to the Delta from Missouri – a Rhino Blade.
“I still use it just about once a week to smooth my roads. We get it out if there are any kind of ruts,” Zac said. “As old as it is, it does a wonderful job. It makes a turnrow smooth enough to shoot pool on.”
His grandfather passed away when Zac was just nine years old but he spent plenty of hours with him.
“I knew him well. He was my best friend and he and I just about every day would go fishing somewhere. Whatever I wanted to do, he made sure I got to do it,” Tollison said. “If I wanted to see a cotton picker, he would ride around until he found one. I certainly wish he was here now and could advise me on things when it comes to farming.”
One of those “wants” was watching cropdusters and other airplanes. That led to Tollison getting in the air himself, as a pilot.
“My dad never flew or got his pilot’s license but he loved aviation. He had a problem with one of his eyes, so he never attempted to get his license. In a way he was an aviation buff and he loved World War II fighter planes – the P51 Mustang or F4U Corsair and HellCats. I remember going to so many airshows as a kid. But one of my dad’s best friends was also a pilot and took me for my first airplane ride and from then on, I was hooked.”
Tollison was around 10 years old when he first flew and he pursued his passion with the help and blessing of his parents.
“By the time I was 16, I had soloed my own airplane. Dad helped me buy my first airplane, a 59 Piper Tri-Pacer,” Zac said. “I remember him saying, ‘son, I’ll make the down payment but you have to take it from there.’ From there, I’ve owned three different types of aircraft. I still love it as much now as I did then.”
It’s a passion he loves to share with others these days as well.
“On my off days, I like to fly. I’m a private pilot and I love to take my friends and especially my little girl, Piper. That’s where she got her name. She absolutely loves it,” he said.
Married and with two kids, Piper and Miller, Tollison finds time to hunt and fish and is a Captain at the Ruleville Fire Department.
“I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for 15 years and this is my first year to be a captain. I enjoy doing that and enjoy being able to give back to my community,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t go duck hunting or deer hunting in the winter. I’d go stir crazy for sure.”
The avid bass fisherman finds time to wet a hook around the Delta as his Facebook page will attest. But duck hunting has been a huge part of his life, especially with his father as they were part of Fighting Bayou Duck Hunting Club where even folks such as Archie Manning and his family find time to hunt. Bubba played with Archie at both Drew High School and at Ole Miss.
“I have been with all of the Mannings numerous times,” he said. “Growing up, dad and Mr. Archie talked a good bit on the phone. My most fond memory was meeting Peyton and Eli. Peyton and I hit it off and he asked me if I played football and started giving me pointers.”
The group of hunters eventually got a football and started throwing it around.
“The next thing you know we have a football game going and Eli is quarterback of one team and Peyton is quarterback of the other one,” Zac said. “Peyton was my quarterback and I remember going out for this pass and I was way out there by myself and he keeps pointing, ‘keep going, keep going.’ I keep running and before you know it, I’m a good 100 yards and he rares back and throws that ball and it went up and almost out of sight. I’m thinking there’s no way I’m going to catch this. I’m trying to get up under and the only way I know how to catch it is to make a basket and I’m sitting there praying, Lord, help me catch this thing. I don’t want to drop it in front of my friends. And I caught it. Not too many folks can say they caught a pass like that from Peyton, but I did.”
Living the dream, as some folks say, Zac Tollison wakes up to live his on the thousand plus acres he cultivates throughout the year.
He knows that even with the lessons from his dad and grandad and the years spent at college, he leans on his faith to make it all work.
“Try not to worry about things that could happen or might happen. If you worry about that all of the time, you’ll never succeed. You just have to leave it in the good Lord’s hands. There are a lot of things we absolutely have no control over. I know the good Lord above has me covered and I know He’ll take care of me, so I try not to worry about it,” Zac said. “I remember when I started out, I was frustrated with a lot of things and nothing was going how I thought it should go. I remember the day I went out and I had enough. I went out to the shop and throwing my hands up and praying to God. I said, ‘this is all yours and not for me to be all uptight and worried about. It’s all in your hands and in your control and I’m giving it to you. ‘Ever since then I’ve had a totally different outlook on things. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity or better farm operation or for better crops than the Lord has blessed me with. I’m going to leave it all up to Him.”
Zac has had few doubts about his career as a farmer. It’s his life-long dream come true, thanks to his grandad’s long tractor drive from Missouri way back when.
“Ever since I was five or six years old, I loved being on the farm and I loved being on the tractors. I couldn’t imagine anything else in my life that I would want to do than what I’m doing.”