Once you start descending the hill that leads into Batesville, Ark., the road curves sharply to the left before straightening out. It is to the left of this stretch of straight road — a road perched high atop a levee — that you'll find Gordon and Keith Harmon's prize corn field.
It's a week before the official start of spring and there isn't much to look at: lots of newly turned dirt, a planter, in the distance a few head of bored cattle hemmed in with fencing, and a couple of good, old boys gathered around a pickup in the turn-row. In a couple of months, though, the field will be covered with young, healthy corn plants and everyone who drives on this road — thousands daily — will have the chance to eyeball them from a high vantage point. This is the type of field that seed companies salivate over — they want their varieties on display, their signs planted.
“Sometimes your luck comes from things you'd never expect,” says Keith. “We had no idea that this field would be as popular as it is — look at all the cars going by. But we're certainly not complaining.”
The Harmons have been in the Batesville area “forever,” says Gordon. “We're third generation farmers. We have 1,600 acres and have been farming together for about 25 years. We have a cattle operation as well — we run about 280 head of brood cows. Our typical acreage breakdown is to have about 800 acres of corn, 650 acres of wheat and around 900 acres of soybeans.”
While this isn't terribly different from the setup on many farms, there is one big difference: the Harmons have been growing corn for a long time. They're no newcomers to the grain.
“We were one of the first ones — if not the first — to go with corn again around here,” says Keith. “Farmers here quit growing corn in the late 1960s because of virus problems. But we got tired of a soybean/wheat operation. We'd been looking for alternative crops for a while and in 1983, we decided to try some corn.”
The Harmons knew “almost nothing” about soil insecticides and properly corn growing and the crop reflected that. They then tried milo and rice, but neither worked well enough to stick with.
In 1989, the brothers worked up enough courage to try corn again. This time, the crop was a success and the two have grown corn ever since. Others have noticed. The Harmons often field farmers' questions about getting into corn.
“We just tell them to plant early and make sure to use a good soil insecticide. We have trouble with wireworms in high-residue fields. We use Aztec — which is good with the environment — and sometimes use seed-applied insecticides like Cruiser. Mostly we use a dry granular substance at planting,” says Keith.
The high prices for fertilizer aren't overly burdensome to the Harmons this spring. They prepaid for fertilizer back in early winter.
“That was a good decision because we're getting fertilizer at a cost that means we can stay okay financially,” says Gordon. “Unlike some other farmers we've been hearing about, our input costs should be pretty normal.”
Another piece of luck: the brothers are able to pump out of the White River (which flows by on the backside of the field) to irrigate much of their crop.
“We have a good water supply,” says Keith. “We use four pivots and do some flood irrigating. In 1998, when the aflatoxin scare hit, we were fortunate. We had very little aflatoxin because of our irrigation operation.”
After the 1998 aflatoxin fiasco, Keith says, many farmers “got burned and refused to plant corn the following year. We didn't look at it the same way. I saw aflatoxin like I would if a hurricane wiped us out — you just have to get up, go out and carry on. We planted corn again, no questions.”
When they first started growing corn in 1989, the Harmon's yields ran around 100 bushels per acre. More recently, in some scenarios, they've doubled that. Their average for the last four years is around 160 bushels on 800 acres.
In 2003, the brothers came in second in the dryland division of the state yield competition at 176 bushels per acre. They had 400 acres of dryland corn total.
“In 1994, we started no-tilling soybeans behind wheat,” says Keith. “We burned our last wheat field in 1994. We've since increased the organic matter and are conserving moisture in our wheat-beans. We also feel that young seedlings get shade from the wheat stubble and that helps them.”
Keith says he'd been reading about no-tilling and wanted to try it.
“It certainly speeds things up — one tractor, a combine, and a planter. When Roundup technology showed up, it made things that much easier. Our ground has improved tremendously due to the no-till system we've adopted.”
Further luck is evidenced by smoke coming from a feed factory a couple of miles down the road.
“Being so close to a feed plant is great,” says Gordon. “We can almost pick up corn cobs and chuck them down there from here. We knew that once we started growing corn the poultry industry would be a viable market for us. The two processing plants around here have been excellent to work with. Freight — especially now — is a big expense. Being able to deliver our corn within two miles of the field is certainly beneficial.”
The brothers have also worked with several fringe crops. For a while, they were growing sunflowers for retail markets.
“At one time we were in 22 grocery stores,” says Keith. “We actually cleaned and bagged the seeds through our own family label and sold them through grocery chains. We got away from that but are looking into starting it up again. We're also growing feed oats and looking at some ways to increase corn yields even more. We're looking at going to 20-inch rows and pricing equipment to get that done.”