“I was adopted at birth, but it almost didn’t happen. My adoptive parents lived in a house with well water on Highway 49 outside of Drew, Mississippi, and couldn’t pass the water test. The adoption agency sent someone three times to test the water. It passed on the third try, but my parents later found out the tester stopped by his house and got the water out of the tap. My parents’ water never passed, but it didn’t kill me.
I have been working on my dad’s cotton farm since I was a kid, and I became a fourth-generation farmer. My great-grandfather was a mule trader and a farmer. He had 18 kids and moved his family from Maben, Mississippi to Drew in the 1920s. My grandfather was the youngest, and all seven brothers were sharecroppers; none of them had more than a sixth-grade education. My grandfather only went through the second-grade, but my grandmother taught him how to read.
My great-uncle Otha became a landowner. He was also good friends with Senator James Eastland, and they had a cattle company together. Dad was home on college break and talking with Otha and Sen. Eastland in their office. The phone rang, and Sen. Eastland said, ‘Bobby, talk to this young man while I make a drink.’ The Senator handed the phone to my 18-year-old dad to talk to Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General. Kennedy called to tell Sen. Eastland that the federal government was sending troops to Ole Miss because of the enrollment of James Meredith, the first Black student. There are so many stories from that generation of my family, and I will write a book about them one day.
I learned a lot about farming from my dad, so I went to business school at Mississippi State to learn the other side. I worked with Dad and his brother for four years until they retired in 1999. I started farming from scratch in 2000, renting land from them and buying some of their equipment. There were no gifts from my father, so I went to the Farm Service Agency for a first-time farmer loan. I had no credit; I didn’t even have a credit card.
It was a slow start, but soon I was 26 with my first kid on the way. I made a little money in 2002, about the time some of us started making improvements to downtown Drew. The town needed a restaurant, so I bought two buildings for cheap. My dad looked around the buildings and said, ‘Son you can’t take chicken shit and make chicken salad.’ He was brutally honest, but he was right..
I didn’t know what I was doing, but I am stubborn and started the building renovations myself. It took me three years to open Stafford’s on Main. We started with sandwiches, but expanded into blue plate specials and southern food. We have been open for 18 years.
My dad was 56 when he retired in 1999. He played golf every day and was bored as hell. The justice court judge retired and asked Dad to run for his seat. Dad was elected judge in 2003 but was diagnosed with cancer six months later. He died in 2006, and I was asked to fill in the rest of Dad’s term. I didn’t know anything about being a judge, and in Mississippi, the justice court judge isn’t required to have a law degree. I felt like an imposter, but got the hang of it. I was elected four more times.
In court, I saw good people on their worst day. I also officiated marriages and saw people on their best days. There are patterns, and success and failure leave clues.
I have my own failures. One was a severe financial crisis in 2014 and 2015. I was a judge and father, farming 3,500 acres and running two restaurants. I was borrowing $100 grand a month from the bank, $1.2 million a year. I self destructed and bankrupted myself. I did some soul-searching and regrouped. I sold one restaurant and cut back on the farmland. I ran for re-election one last time, and we lived on that income while I righted the ship. My wife hung in there with me.
We started 2020 with a lot of catering jobs for the restaurant, and business looked good. We were on spring break in Biloxi in March when the COVID shutdown started. During our short drive to New Orleans, every catering job was canceled. We survived the year with pickup service at the restaurant and a good year of farming.
That good farming year was followed by a flood in the summer of 2021. We had 24 inches of rain in 72 hours. I was almost clear of my debts. Instead, I lost the whole crop and $100,000. My birthday is at the end of June, and Mississippi State was playing in the baseball national championship game on my birthday. I was supposed to be in Omaha at that game. Instead, I was on my tractor planting beans and listening to State win while my daughter was there having the time of her life.
After my last term as judge, I stopped by the Double Quick gas station in Indianola on January 2, 2020 with my youngest daughter and bought some fried chicken and livers. For a joke, I told her to hold the camera while I sat on the back of my truck and reviewed the food. The video took off immediately with 10,000 views, so I kept eating and reviewing gas station food. I have made 149 Tailgate Gas Station Reviews, and I have to go to other regions to find new stations. It has become like a job and is taking more of my life.
I also started a podcast called Made in Mississippi because losing my dad when I was 32 was hard, and I needed mentors and guidance. When the shit hit the fan, I had to figure out the changes on my own and fix my mistakes. The podcast helped me pick someone else’s brain.
Author Tony Robbins has a good line: ‘Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.’ I pair that with a quote from Jordan Peterson: ‘Happiness is a shallow goal. Humans need a mountain to climb.’ Climbing mountains is my motivation – not being at the top enjoying the view. Once I’ve climbed a mountain, one of my first thoughts is ‘what’s next’?’
I like being a farmer who does other things, but right now I don’t know what my next mountain will be. If I sold everything and started somewhere from scratch again, would I succeed?
When I was a kid, my family had CB radios in their trucks. Everyone hwas on the same channel and there when you needed them. Now it’s just me. I am the last Shurden farming. My two daughters are overachievers in college and will soon have careers that will take them away from Mississippi. I don’t get sad about being the only one, but I do get sad about being the last one.
I turn 50 this month. I haven’t figured out life or made nearly as much money as I thought I would. There is a quote that keeps me going in hard times, ‘The worst thing you’ve been through is the worst thing you’ve been through’. It hasn’t all been easy, but it’s been a lot of fun.”