If you want testimony about the ups and downs of farming, talk with Keith Morton. He’s got firsthand experience with both — starting with the downs.

“In 1995, in my early adult farming years with my father, Billy Morton, the tobacco budworm nearly put us under,” he says. “Our cotton yield was 160 pounds. Then followed back-to-back dry years in 1998-99, with more poor yields. Dad was coping with health problems and wasn’t actually participating in the farming operation. We were in survival mode, and I had to do a lot of soul-searching as to whether I would even try to continue farming.

“If I stayed in it, I knew I had to make some changes, had to increase efficiency, find ways to become more productive and increase revenue.”

That he’s still farming today and doing well, Keith says, is a credit to his wife, Beth, “whose strong faith led me to a newfound faith of my own and a realization that this is what God meant for me to do and that with His help I could succeed.”

And he says, knowledge he gained from Mississippi State University Extension management programs and specialists, from production conferences, and from farmers willing to share their experience and advice, led to the adoption of practices that boosted yields, reduced costs, and increased revenues.

“No-till seemed to be one way to start changing things,” he says. “I attended the No-Till Cotton, Soybean, and Rice Conference at Tunica and met a number of experienced farmers who were generous with tips and advice. After that, it was baby steps — changing a practice here, adding something there, always looking for ways to do things better and cut costs.

“Beth happened on an article about the Mississippi Extension SMART program (Soybean Management by Application of Research and Technology), which links farmers with researchers, Extension specialists, and county agents to better manage soybean fields for increased profits.‘We’ve got to sign up for this,’ she said. We were able to start it in 2000, and it has helped us achieve a huge increase in soybean yields. I credit this program with putting me on the road to profitability.”

Keith and Beth (his father died in 2003) now farm 1,000 acres of row crops near Falkner, Miss., and he says the move to no-till, along with improved varieties, helped with his goal to boost crop yields.

“I’ve followed Extension recommendations on fertility, and have moved to variable rate soil sampling and lime/fertilizer applications. Early planting has been another big plus. I’ve planted soybeans as early as March 25 — and actually got snow on the field before they emerged. But that 23-acre test field yielded 74 bushels. That got my attention!

“In this area, on our soils, April 10-15 is when we’d like to be planting, but this year, frequent rains kept us out of the field [as of May 6, he was still waiting to start planting due to wet, cold soils]. I don’t like to plant when a hard rain is predicted, and if I’m planting I’ll stop two or three days before a predicted big event. We had a low of 35 degrees and frost April 25, but fortunately wheat hadn’t headed out yet and wasn’t damaged. In 2008, I wasn't able to plant until May and June, but still had an excellent crop."