In a few more weeks, when we're in the thick of fall and the evening light is right, the hills surrounding McKellan's Bottoms will look like fire. The Schlutermans are looking forward to it.
“It gets so pretty around here,” says Mike, “that sometimes Dad will radio just to say, ‘Will you look at those trees? You ever seen such a beautiful thing?’ And we'll just stop the tractor or truck and sit in awe for a couple of minutes.”
The Schluterman brothers, Mike and Kenny, are happy. They have the easy give-and-take and good humor that draw in those used to standing at the periphery. They live in the moment, laugh and kid endlessly.
“You better watch out,” says Mike to those standing around the grain cart. “Kenny's coming to dump some beans. I guarantee you, he'll try something. It's his nature.”
Sure enough, as the load peters out, Kenny hits reverse and showers observers with the combine dregs. Laughing and waving, he pulls back into the field for another harvesting sweep.
According to their daddy, there used to be 100 mailboxes on the dirt road that bisects the Schlutermans' land outside Paris, Ark. Sharecropper shacks and 20-acre plots — planted in cotton for the bills and corn for the mules — lined both sides of the road.
Born into a German immigrant farming family, Benard Schluterman came out of WWII and was the first of the family to get a tractor.
“My grandfather offered him a team of mules to start with, but Dad said, ‘Naaaw, I don't want any mules. If I'm going to farm, I don't want to be following any mules around.’ So a tractor it was,” says Kenny.
With his new machine, Benard began work on a 160-acre field grown up in willows.
“Oh, we keep hearing that story!” says Mike laughing. “It's the equivalent of walking 10 miles to school in the snow. Anyway, all of our lives, up until the 1970s when we started working with him, Dad pretty much raised the family on about 300 acres. By the way,” he says, “Dad is still The Man and we still obey him.”
Scan the horizon
Gradually, the trio picked up and leased more land, eventually acquiring their current 2,000 acres of row crop ground. “It's hard to get any land around here. There's only about 12,000 acres in this little river-made bottom,” says Mike.
And it's true, turning slowly in a circle and scanning the horizon, the place is hemmed in. “You can see Mount Magazine right there — the tallest ‘mound’ between the Appalachians and the Rockies. It isn't tall enough to be properly termed a mountain,” says Mike.
“I didn't know that until my sons told me after school.”
Next to Magazine is a knob of earth known as Short Mountain and beside that it is Horseshoe Mountain — from the top it looks like a circle with one side washed out, thus “horseshoe.” Often, rain clouds boil and spill through the gap between Magazine and Short.
“Yeah, you can watch that space and see it coming. Weather systems shoot through there for some reason,” says Mike.
Across from the mountains, the Arkansas River flows by on the other side of some oaks. Fearing salt, the brothers don't irrigate from the river. They pull water out of the ground and have a few places to pump out of a nearby creek.
“Back when folks were growing rice around here, we never ran out of water,” says Kenny. “Farmers would pump water out of the ground and it would run back into the creek where we'd get it. But when rice growing stopped, the creeks weren't as dependable.”
In the bottoms, rice has been lost to corn.
“We just got back from a farm show where we were talking to some guys from Illinois,” says Mike. “They said their corn was selling for 15 cents under. We're being paid 40 cents over. That's a huge difference, and everyone here is taking advantage of it.”
The reason is because there's so much poultry in western Arkansas. Within a 40-mile radius of the bottoms, there are five or six mills.
“Producers like fresh corn — they swear by fresh corn feed. Our poultry-growing friends tell us local corn grows the chickens out a lot better. I don't know if that's true, but it's a market and we're able to sell into it.”
The Schlutermans' land is a mix of soils brought down the river from Oklahoma. Before levees were built, this area used to flood two or three times a year. Now, the lower ground gets the crops while the higher, sandier ground is planted in bermudagrass — a market that was a happy accident.
“We've picked up a heck of a horse hay market. People are buying hay like crazy. With all these horses, I think people are reliving childhood games,” says Mike with a laugh. “They want to play cowboy, put on a hat and jeans and ride. Heck, that's fine. I'm happy they like their horses.”
Around here, the brothers were forerunners in selling hay to horse owners.
“We had people coming from Texas, Florida and California buying hay from us,” says Kenny. “They'd carry horses to market and carry a load of hay home. We joked our motto should be, ‘We sell hay from California to Florida.’”
“Yeah,” adds Mike, “or folks would bring their horses to get bred around here and would see our hay. They'd take as much back as they could and then would come back. That started around 15 years ago.”
The Schlutermans have one well-placed hayfield near the local airport and highway.
“One time, we harvested an excellent crop and had hay all over the place,” says Mike. “I'm sure folks around here came by and thought, ‘$2 per bale? Those guys are getting filthy rich! I'm going to grow some of that.’ Since then, it seems every spare field there is has a field of hay.”
Even with competition, the brothers still have a good customer base. They sell “a whole bunch” to a horse track in Sallisaw, Okla.
“We've got a guy who comes down and picks up some once a week. That keeps money coming in regularly. They found us and have been buying off us for a few years now.”
Ever hit the track?
“Man, no,” says Mike. “We don't go to the track to gamble. We get our fill of that out here.”
The row-crop side
This year, the brothers had about 650 acres of wheat, 650 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans (650 acres double-cropped behind wheat). And any of the hay they didn't sell went to support their cow/calf operation that runs about 300 mama cows.
Unlike much of the rest of Arkansas, their beans aren't late. “We had a really fine wheat crop until it began raining and pushed test weights down. We still had a 60- to 70-bushel average on the wheat,” says Mike.
Recently, they've switched things up a bit.
“After wheat, we used to burn the stubble off, disk it down, cultivate it and then plant in 38-inch rows. That was hard work and meant long hours in June and July. We didn't want to do more than 200 acres because the work was so tiring,” says Mike.
Several years ago, William Johnson, former Arkansas Extension wheat specialist, visited the brothers and suggested some varieties and a no-till drill.
“Well, we put out Select and Reflex, but we still doubted him a little bit. We tried it on 20 acres to see how it would work. It turned out clean, and we got a good crop. We were so tickled we decided to go no-till everything.”
It seems, says Kenny, the whole bottom has since followed suit.
“We had good results, and everyone saw it. Heck, if something works for my neighbor I'll try it, too. This is fast and easy and adds years to your life! There are only around seven families that farm the area, so it doesn't take long for word to spread.”
Johnson returned and “told us if we really wanted to take the plunge to get a stripper-header. We bought one and love it. What amazes me is we were hesitant to try it because it was so unfamiliar to us. But once we tried it, I'm telling you, we now think it's the only way to go,” says Mike.
This year, the brothers got the beans in and received a good rain to get them up. But then it turned off dry. However, before that “we'd gotten enough rain to have a great corn crop — probably the best corn we've ever had,” says Mike. “One variety we planted cut 180 bushels per acre. One field yielded between 180 and 200 bushels per acre. Overall, we probably averaged 150 to 160 bushels. That's fantastic for around here.”
The corn caught rains when needed.
“The dryland corn did just as good as, or better than our irrigated fields,” says Kenny. “It was on sandier-type soils that respond better to nitrate than clays. We fertilized up shooting for 140 bushels, which is a normal, decent crop. Actually, we didn't give the crop an extra shot of fertilizer like we probably should have. No telling what our yields would have been then. But it's hard to get an airplane to come over here and fly it on. It's just too far out of the way.”
So, corn crop done, the beans faced a dearth of moisture. “We went for a long time without rains. It was like we had a dome over the valley and nothing was coming through,” says Mike.
As a result, he says, the full-season beans will probably not end up as good as the double-cropped. Why? “Because we finally got a rain that perked the double-cropped beans up a little. We had some Group 4s that burned up at the wrong time — that last rain just arrived too late.”
A couple of weeks back, a verification plot of Group 4s that Extension's Trey Reaper is working cut just shy of 65 bushels per acre. But those beans were irrigated a few times.
A happy valley
This is a happier corner of farming country than most.
“So far, we've dodged a lot. We haven't had a bunch of people who have had to sell out because of bankruptcy. We're lucky that way, I guess,” says Mike.
But that doesn't mean everything is perfect.
“The ladies that we bought our last 400 acres from were concerned that if they gave the land to their kids, none of them would farm it after they were gone,” says Mike. “We assured them that we'd farm it for as long as we were able. But I've got four boys and Kenny's got one. I doubt any of them will ever farm. That's just the way it is.
“It's a shame, but things are moving quickly. We come from a family of farmers stretching generations back. I fear that's finished. Don't get me wrong: I'm happy my children are making good lives for themselves. But I'd be lying if I said there isn't a touch of bitter with the heap of sweet.”