With every pass of the dirt mover, a 300-acre farm in Sunflower County, Miss., moved a little closer to becoming a permanent, profitable enterprise for commodity rice production. And Ann Stokey's emotional tie to the land became stronger, too, although she lives and works far away in Gainesville, Ga.

Stokey is one of three sisters who own the small farm, inherited from their father, Dr. Gayle Batson, an orthopedic surgeon who practiced in Pensacola, Fla. When he passed away three years ago, Stokey, who works with students and computers at a Georgia high school, and her sisters, Cindy Anthony, a housewife in Jackson, Miss., and Susie Kimmel, a lawyer in Pensacola, Fla., shared only distant memories of visits to the farm as children.

Stokey recalls that that Sunflower farm was originally around 900 acres and was owned by her grandfather, who farmed cotton on much of it. “We visited the farm when I was growing up. It was important to my father. He loved the land. He used to go out there with his daddy.”

After Stokey's grandfather died in 1953, Stokey's grandmother rented the land to a neighboring farmer. When their grandmother passed away, the farm was divided between Stokey's father and his sister, Gloria Galtney. Galtney took around 600 contiguous acres and Batson took 300 acres in Sunflower and 300 acres at another location at Leland, Miss.

Batson deeded the farm to Stokey and her two sisters about 10 years ago, Stokey said, although he continued to take care of all the negotiations with tenants.

When Batson passed away, the sisters suddenly found themselves involved in the operation. They had little or no knowledge of agricultural production. “But we did not want to sell it,” Stokey said. “We wanted to keep it in the family.”

When the sisters saw the farm for the first time after their father's death, they might have reconsidered their commitment. The land had fallen into disrepair — stumps, brush, debris and abandoned pipe littered the fields and most of the wells were no longer functional.

They were also surprised to see that a farm across the road was in excellent shape. That parcel at one time had been a part of the original farm in the 1950s and was owned by Galtney.

The sisters found out that Galtney had hired a farm manager to oversee improvements on her land. Though they had never met him, they decided to hire the same manager, Steve Brunson with Baird and Brunson Land Management Group. “It was blind faith,” recalled Stokey.

Brunson had his work cut out for him. First, he had to convince the sisters that the farm had to be a competitive operation again.

“We want landlords to think of the farm as a financial asset that they should expect a return on,” Brunson said. “Most owner-operators today are improving their land today as aggressively as possible. The same returns work for absentee owners.”

Brunson's partner, George Baird, pointed out that absentee landlords like Stokey and her sisters can become frustrated with returns and problems and sell out. “But if it's improved and there are better returns and they have a good farm manager taking care of the land, it's a lot easier. And the farm can stay in the family.”

The sisters weren't hard to convince. But when they found out how much it would cost to improve the parcel — land-leveling costs alone were about $500 an acre — that was different story.

“I was flabbergasted,” Stokey said. “But when I compared our land to the other parcel of land that we had in Leland and to Gloria's land, I could understand that improvements needed to be made or the land should go to somebody else. And we didn't want to do that.”

The farm was idled in 2003, and Brunson spent the summer doing a land-leveling survey, planning and “educating the landowners on their options and what we needed to do there.”

The project was a big one, noted Brunson, who began by zero-grading for rice and soybean production. In choosing the zero-grade approach, Brunson and Baird looked at several farms in the area and consulted with local farmer Jim Tackett. “We found that you have to make sure you have enough drainage in the field to get the water off and do everything on time.

“And on this particular farm, once we did the initial survey, the farm was so flat that to go back and put slope on it would have added a lot to the cost of the improvement, perhaps 30 percent to 40 percent. With zero-grade, we don't think we need as much day-to-day labor.”

Brunson and Baird worked with Planters Bank in Indianola, Miss., to acquire funds for the project. The landlords stressed that the farm “needs to carry itself and pay for the project,” Brunson said. “We think we can do that in four to five years, and the landlords will have a much bigger cash flow for their investment.”

Getting the plan going included a few rough spots and miscommunication due to the distances involved. But everything came together in an April 2004 meeting, and now, Stokey says, “Everything's great. My son is a senior at Ole Miss and he goes over periodically to check on the farm. We have been very pleased at the progress on the farm.”

Nat McKnight, a salesman with Jimmy Sanders in Cleveland, Miss., will double as crop consultant for the farm.

The farm also qualified for around $30,000 in EQIP money to help pay for some of the irrigation/water conservation projects.

The cash rent on the farm prior to improvement and management was about $22,000, according to Brunson. Brunson has projected a return of $51,975 annually on the improved farm. Rain delayed completion of the project, but today five out of six fields have been planted to rice.

“It's been a real learning experience,” Stokey said. “We've learned to be more attentive and a little more organized. And we've learned to ask the right questions. Steve has done a good job of answering them. And I'm not the easiest person in the world to get along with.”

Stokey's emotional attachment to the land is even stronger than it was before. “They don't make more land. We felt that since Gloria's land had become profitable, it was a good investment. And we had promised ourselves that we would not sell the land. We feel that long term, it will pay off.”

The sisters hope their seven children will keep the farm in the family. I think we're on the right track. I know it's costing money, but I'm holding my breath that we'll make a crop and begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com