When farmers were migrating westward out of the Carolinas 150 years ago because the scourge of johnsongrass had made cotton production unprofitable, they found in the gently rolling prairie lands of east central Mississippi a virtually blank slate.
So one story goes, a preacher arriving in what is now Noxubee County, bordering the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway that separates Mississippi and Alabama, stood atop one of the low hills, beheld the panorama before him, and described it in his diary as “countless miles of grass blowing in the wind.”
There were buffalo and elk, turkeys, bears, quail, deer, and all manner of other game, flourishing in a prairie environment of continually replenished native grasses and plants that provided both food and habitat.
The occasional wildfires, either lightning- or man-caused, would burn off the grasses, suppress tree growth, and scarify dormant seeds from the native plants, creating a new cycle of growth for the vegetation that had adapted and blanketed the area for centuries.
“It made excellent farming and grazing land for the new settlers because there were no trees,” says Bobby Watkins. “All they had to do was burn off the vegetation, plow, and plant in soils that were rich from centuries of decomposing organic matter.”
But there was a downside, says Watkins, who retired from a career as research agronomist with American Cyanamid and BASF, where he worked on the development of Prowl, Scepter, Pursuit, Arsenal, and other agricultural chemicals, and is now a wildlife habitat/property management consultant in the Starkville, Miss., area.
“When the land was cleared of native grasses and plants to make way for crops, chiefly cotton, trees started coming in, along with a host of undesirable, rampantly-growing species that were of no value for supporting wildlife — privet, sweetgum, lespedeza, coastal bermudagrass, etc.
“Later, with the advent of large-scale pine plantings, the situation was only compounded, because the trees often were not adequately managed, and the understory of the pine plantations became thickets of species that not only sapped water and nutrients from the trees, but provided no food or habitat for wildlife. And they spread like crazy, infesting thousands of acres.”
One of Watkins’ clients is Circle M Plantation near Macon, Miss., which has a history dating to the 1840s, when South Carolinian Thomas Paulette settled the land and started an operation that encompassed nearly 15,000 acres, and had its own post office (Paulette), cotton gin, seed house, commissary, and other facilities.
Owners in the early 1900s added another 20,000 acres, creating a property that stretched for miles in every direction, and even into the 1930s it had more than 100 homes with more than 700 people earning a living from the plantation.
There was a magnificent two-story plantation home, with ornate chandeliers, hand-painted floors, and exquisite furnishings, plus a wine cellar and a below-ground walk-in safe with a heavy metal door for gold and other valuables.
The property has had a checkered history with various owners, including a one-time governor of Oklahoma who controlled the majority of the crude oil in the United States before going bust and having to put the plantation on the auction block.
Other owners, in the 1930s, included a group of “Minneapolis capitalists” representing fortunes from General Mills, Weyerhaeuser, Archer Daniels Midland, Pillsbury, and financial/brokerage companies, who created a 15,000-acre hunting preserve and operated a large-scale quail-raising nursery.
Owners in the mid-1990s spent more than $1 million restoring the plantation home and upgrading it.
Today, there is no cotton on Circle M. The property, now about 6,000 acres of owned and leased land, is operated by a group of Birmingham, Ala., investors, offering an array of hunting, fishing, and other sporting activities, which can be combined with business meetings/dining for up to 100 people in the restored commissary building and other facilities on the property, as well as weddings and other events, or just weekend getaways.
For entertainment and leisure, there is a huge game room, a sporting clay range, and tours of the property on mule-drawn wagons, including opportunities to view the nesting pair of bald eagles that have taken up residence in trees surrounding the lakes (they raised a pair of eaglets in 2008).
“Basically, these are owners with foresight and capital, who want to do all the right things to provide native habitat for wildlife and hunting, and at the same time have properly managed pine acreages for long term income, so they can have an ecologically and financially sustainable operation for their children and grandchildren,” Watkins says.
“In places where things have gotten out of kilter with invasive, non-native plants, I’m working with the owners on an aggressive program to control those species and restore native plants.”
With the advent of the government Conservation Reserve Program, a lot of land in the area went into pines, Watkins says, and where trees haven’t been properly managed, the infestation of non-native and shade-tolerant species can suppress as many as 100 native species from flourishing.
“On the other hand, with careful management to control the undesirables and encourage native plants, the carrying capacity for deer, quail, turkeys, and other wildlife can be increased as much as 20-fold.
“When pines are thinned, we burn off all the unwanted vegetation and accumulated pine straw and litter, then begin a systematic program of reestablishing native grasses and plants. These include ragweed, an excellent plant for wildlife, partridge pea, Maximillian sunflower, big and little bluestem, and other species. We’re also planting areas of selected oak varieties.”
Harder to control species under the pine trees — sweetgum and privet — and unwanted plants in open areas — coastal bermudagrass, cogongrass (an extremely invasive imported grass that forms such a thick mat nothing will grow through it), fescue, etc. — are killed with Arsenal applications to allow a resurgence of native grasses and plants, supplemented by seeding of other desirable species.
“The long-term goal,” Watkins says, “is to have a sustainable ecosystem that has abundant native grasses and plants to support the wildlife/hunting enterprise and ongoing timber planting/harvesting to provide additional income.”
The plantation also cooperates with Mississippi State University by providing research and test plots, and hosts field days and other events for wildlife and forestry management specialists across the South.