The week of Memorial Day, Stephen Smith noticed problems in his Lonoke, Ark., rice fields. A few weeks earlier, Smith's co-op, Riceland, had sent out a newsletter saying that weed scientist Ford Baldwin — newly retired from the Arkansas Extension Service — is now on call to Riceland members. Smith figured he'd take advantage of the offer.

“Baldwin came out to the farm on Memorial Day to check it out. Ford is one of the guys who want to help farmers — he genuinely does. And when he shows up on your land, he makes you feel like your crops are the only ones in the country.

“If he doesn't know what's happening in a particular field, he brings in some top-notch friend who does. That's what happened in this case — he called in a couple of other experts, including Rick Cartwright (Arkansas Extension plant pathologist) and Chuck Wilson (Arkansas Extension rice agronomist). They put their heads together and figured out what I needed to do.

“Ford is the best at what he does and I'm going to keep calling him,” says Smith.

Phone guru

Hang around for an afternoon and it's apparent Ford Baldwin works a phone like Shakespeare worked a pen. The phone rings and a typical conversation goes like this: a pleasant howdy, a quick listen, a couple of questions, a list of options, an opinion of which option is best, sayonara. Boom, boom, boom. Done in two minutes.

Since retiring from the Arkansas Extension Service (where he worked for decades as a weed specialist) Baldwin is doing much the same work he did before, but through different outlets. His current base of operations is a new, clay-colored office built north of Lonoke near the end of a country road.

Surrounded by hunting trophies, he leans back in his chair and says he's happy he still “has the opportunity to work with farmers and help the best I know how.”

In an adjacent room, Ford's wife, Tomilea, is updating the Web site the pair maintain — also in conjunction with Riceland. Tomilea is finishing her doctorate, focusing on Clearfield rice. “She's probably got as much experience with weed control in Clearfield rice as anyone in the country,” says Baldwin.

Riceland connection

Actually, not much has changed, he says. “We take farmer calls, visit fields and give advice just like when I was with the Extension Service. We're doing the Web site that Riceland co-op members can access for up-to-date information on what's being seen in the state's fields.”

While farmers may currently not rate Internet sites as the place they get most of their information, Baldwin believes that will change. The first week the Web site (accessible to members through the Riceland Foods Web site) was up, with a very limited number of people knowing about it, it had close to 3,700 hits. “Our goal is to have simple, easily accessibly information that farmers can get quickly.”

Apart from Riceland, the Baldwins also conduct field plot research. With company grant money to do the plots, they've also taken advantage of a generous offer from Tidwell's Flying Service: 50 acres for plot work.

“We want to remain hands-on. Even if I can't get grant support, I want to check the new herbicides and stay current,” says Baldwin.

And Baldwin still works as an expert witness for attorneys — primarily outside Arkansas. “It's been a hoot. There's an element of the unknown in beginning a business. You never know what the next week, the next month will bring. I'm still working with farmers, consultants and keeping in touch with Extension agents. I'm still doing applied research, still writing for Delta Farm Press and still doing the things I enjoy.”

How did Baldwin hook up with Riceland?

“I talked with (Riceland president) Dick Bell about available opportunities and how I could stay productive. I was keen on remaining an unbiased source for information. Farmers have always looked to me for unbiased info and I wanted that to continue. We worked it out and started doing this in April. Riceland has been super in staying out of what I'm doing. I have to call them, they don't micromanage what we're doing to help farmers.”

Baldwin's expertise is weed science. Riceland wanted to work with him to help farmers grow crops properly and, in turn, have a commodity worth more to the company.

The stinkbug situation that's developed in the last couple of years “spurred them to be proactive. Riceland suffered a lot of quality loss last year due to the pest.”

More on Command

The Baldwins this year have continued research on Command. FMC is backing the work after Arkansas received an aerial label for this season with restrictions on tank mixes. The Arkansas Plant Board wanted to be sure that if there were a problem this first year, it could be linked directly to a specific product or applicator and not a tank mix partner.

“The Plant Board gave us permission to keep looking at individual fields with tank mixes. Extension engineer Dennis Gardisser is looking at the droplet sizes, nozzles and whatnot. I'm making notes on sprayed fields, vegetation surrounding the fields and things like that. I feel very good that we may be able to have some tank mixes with Command next year.”

About the year that's unfolding, Baldwin says early on this growing season started out much like last year's: no rain. That caused trouble in activating the pre-emerge herbicides.

“People were asking about whether to flush and how long the herbicide would be okay. When it did start raining, things turned around 180 degrees. I thought the year before last was the cleanest rice crop I'd seen. This year, it appears that rice will be at least that clean.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.