STONEVILLE, Miss. — Where there was little interest, he found potential. Where research looked narrowly, he looked broadly.

Soybean agronomist Larry Heatherly, whose decision to tackle a farming puzzle by thinking “outside the box” — several years before the phrase became popular — retired from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville on Oct. 15.

The Union City, Tenn.-native spent almost 30 years at the research center where he has been credited for advancing soybean yield growth in the Mid-South by advocating an Early Soybean Production System (ESPS).

Turnaround

During the 1970s and most of the 1980s, Heatherly recalls, Mississippi soybean yields averaged about 20 bushels per acre, while soybean acreage dipped below 3 million acres.

“Soybeans was the crop you could grow on clay soil and lose the least money,” Heatherly said. “The goal then was at best to break even.”

Last year, the state’s average yield for soybeans set a record-high 39 bushels per acre, with expectations of similar numbers for 2004.

Farmers can attribute the remarkable, lucrative yield turnaround to planting four to six weeks earlier than traditional planting dates, as well as the availability of maturity group 3 and 4 varieties adapted to Mid-South.

First, however, was Heatherly’s development of the stale seedbed system of planting, which permitted planting soybeans with little, if any, tillage in the spring. Though that method did not increase yield, it paved the way for early-season planting, which did.

Heatherly said the key to the soybean growth was a shift in both farmers and agronomists’ way of thinking.

“Conventional wisdom was to plant soybeans in May or later, harvest in the mud in November and try to start over again next May,” Heatherly said. “We were continually knocking our heads against the wall because every year we were asking this plant to produce seed in these hot conditions when it is just not physiologically possible.”

Beginning in the mid-1980s, agronomists began examining alternatives, while seed companies — previously expressing little or no interest in improving soybean varieties — slowly began investing.

Proof positive

For his part, Heatherly realized that the ag methodology was incorrect, but it wasn’t until listening to a speaker at a 1986 conference that the possible solution manifested.

Heatherly, Glenn Bowers, who first introduced the early-variety idea while working in Rio Grande, Texas, and Lanny Ashlock, a former Arkansas Extension soybean specialist, collaboratively became outspoken proponents of the idea.

“Without stale seedbed or the early varieties we could not have done this. It was a synergism. Things came together, and I was fortunate to work on the same thing and build on everything year after year,” he said.

It was not until 1992 that Heatherly became entirely convinced that early planting could be successful. Despite the fact that the Mississippi Agricultural Statistics department had not yet monitored early varieties’ progress, Heatherly established his own anecdotal proof.

“I had not published numbers or taken surveys. But I had been here 17 years and kept up with a group of farmers who had the courage to use it and were getting yields we weren’t used to seeing,” he said.

One of those first farmers was Willard Jack of Belzoni, Miss., who described the development of the ESPS as a “remarkable evolution.”

“In my opinion, of all the people (involved), it was Heatherly and his work and vision that made the soybean economically viable,” Jack said. “It has just been tremendously successful.”

Question everything

Heatherly’s farming exploration started as a teenager with hard labor at home, where his father provided his three sons with 40 acres to farm on their own.

When Heatherly reluctantly began commuting to the University of Tennessee at Martin, he became attracted to learning the science of farming via textbooks. His academic success resulted in a graduate degree at UT-Knoxville and a doctorate degree at the University of Missouri, where professors insisted he diversify his research work — an important experience, he insists.

“We are trained to observe, to think, visualize, rationalize and conceptualize. But if we don’t get outside the box, we are not scientists,” he said. “I know a lot of scientists who spend a career working inside the box. That is fine, they enhance or add to.

“But sometimes you have to have a big change.”

Heatherly said his exclusive research on improving soybean yields has been personally satisfying.

“Every experiment tells a story, but no one experiment tells the whole story, so you keep building on the last experiment

“You have to question everything and do not accept that something can’t be better. I know now that soybean yields will be better after I am gone because there is room for improvement and someone else will come along and look deeper.”

e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com