In between rains since last Thanksgiving, Brad has been trying to get work under way on a new packing facility just up the road from his house, “so I can keep a closer eye on things.”

It will be a 120-foot by 180-foot building, with areas for washing, packing, and storage. “With all of the new rules and regulations we have to follow, it would take too much money to upgrade our current packing facility, which is the oldest in Vardaman. But we will do some renovation and continue using that facility for storage. The new facility will allow us to consolidate our operation and to achieve more efficiency.”

Sweet potato acreage is increasing in the region, he notes, in order to meet growing demand and also, “a lot of cotton growers have added sweet potatoes to their crop mix because of the rotational value. And because of their high fertility requirement, there is some residual fertilizer for the following cotton crop.”

Last year, the Spencers had 300 acres of peanuts. This year, with high prices as a result of the 2011 drought in Texas that sent prices zooming, Brad says, “We’ll have at least 500 acres, and if I can buy or rent another combine, we’ll go as high as 750 acres.

“Peanut contracts had been in the $350 per ton range, but when the drought hit last year we contracted ours at $650, which was $100 more than we’d ever got before. And for peanuts over our contracted amount, we got $1,000 per ton.”

They plant the Georgia Green variety in 40-inch rows when the soil temperature is about 70 degrees. “We don’t plant them more than two years on the same ground, and then we’ll plant something else there for three years in order to avoid disease buildups. We use a consultant on peanuts from Day 1 to check for diseases, particularly white mold.

“We shoot for a 3-ton yield and average around 2.5 tons, depending on weather. All our peanuts go to a buying point at Aberdeen, Miss.”

Mike Howell, Mississippi Extension peanut specialist, says the state’s farmers could more than double plantings this year, to about 30,000 acres.

This is Brad’s third year for his sons’ college fund watermelons.

“The first year, they did very well,” he says. “The second year was average, and last year was pretty much a disaster due to dry weather — the melons just rotted.

“Once we destroy the beds where we start our sweet potato plants, we plant watermelons there, about the end of May or first of June. They’re ready for harvest about the first of September, when other producers are starting to wind down their summer production.

“It’s not a prime time price-wise for watermelons, but it’s still good money. In a good year, we’ll get 2 tons to 3 tons per acre. These late melons are exceptionally sweet, and we sell all we grow locally or to peddlers who come to the farm.”

He started his sideline cow operation, also for his sons’ college fund, with five head, and now has 57.

“We got in just the right time,” he says, “because beef prices have seen a really good increase. Money from the cows we’ve sold has already paid off a good chunk of the loan at the bank.”

In addition to his farming, community, and church activities, Brad is a member of the board of directors of the Sweet Potato Council and the Sweet Potato Council Fruit and Vegetable Co-op, and has served as vice chair of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Sweet Potato Commodity Advisory Committee.

He says farmers in the area are a close-knit group. “We all help each other. If I have a slack period and one of the other growers needs some help, I’ll take my crew and help out. Last year, I took my entire operation over to help a neighbor, and I know he’ll do the same for me if I need it. We all have a really special bond, which has made my choice of a farming career all the more meaningful.”