POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. — “Buddy,” said the Bootheel native to the transplanted Arkansan, “you’re a young man. I don’t know how much you spent on that land, but why waste your time? You’re going to go broke right here. Might as well point yourself south and go home.”
From the vantage-point of the pick-up, the advice, while intrusive, wasn’t without legitimate concern: a lonely, muck-slimed Wilburn Duncan was standing at the edge of a freshly dug canal with hundreds of acres of fetid, snake-infested swamp behind him.
“Sir, I’m going to drain this swamp and grow some rice,” said Duncan.
“You mean that digging ain’t for a fish pond?” asked the driver incredulously before pulling back onto the dirt road. “I hate to break it to you, but rice ain’t going to work around here.”
Having just moved to the Show-Me state, Duncan figured such pronouncements were normal. Rice would work in Butler County — he was sure of it. He’d just have to show the doubters.
“I could see the farmland in my head, clear as day,” Duncan recalls of the 1953 encounter. “It was just a matter of getting things ready. I was convinced.”
And if the snakes didn’t chase him off, unsolicited advice wasn’t going to either. All that mattered was providing for his wife and two young sons, Rick and Larry. So when the pick-up driver gunned his motor and drove on, Duncan bent his back and tossed another spadefull of white clay up the bank.
The pod-heavy soybeans growing on the old swampland don’t want to give up the ghost. Yellow on top, still green at the bottom, the beans are at 9 percent moisture.
Even driving slowly, the greenery is causing trouble for the Duncans’ new combine. Every so often, Larry climbs from his high perch and pulls cuttings from the machine’s rotor, dumping the debris on the ground in large clumps.
Green problems aside, the Group 4 harvest is going well. Bins are busting. The whole area just south of Poplar Bluff, Mo., has had a good growing season.
“We’ve got about 965 acres of soybeans this year. These beans are DPL 4748,” says Rick. “We used to see some of this green trouble in some Group 5s we planted. We’ve never seen this in Group 4s. Usually when the stalks are this green, the beans are, too. Not here. We last irrigated this field on Sept. 5 or 6.”
Many farmers in the area have the same problem.
“They’re cutting them like this, too. It must have something to do with the dry weather. Folks are burning belts up trying to get combines through. It’s just really odd.”
Red rice chased Wilburn Duncan out of Arkansas. It chased his daddy, too.
“I was born and raised on a rice farm in Arkansas — between Wynne and Forrest City. Every few years, my father would move a little further north. There weren’t good chemicals, so he was trying to stay in front of the red rice and grass by moving. I don’t think that was terribly unusual. Anyway, eventually, we ended up around Knobel, Ark.”
After serving in WWII, Duncan went back to Knobel to farm south of town. Very quickly, he decided to move north where there was fresher ground sans red rice. This time, though, he wasn’t going to move to the edge of red rice’s reach.
“Forget a few miles — I decided to move much further north. I wanted to stay somewhere for a while, put down some roots. The (Poplar Bluff area) appealed to me. The land was pretty level, although it was in huge timber.”
Here and now
Wilburn Duncan’s stubbornness paid off. Rice can indeed be grown in Butler County, where a third of Missouri’s rice acreage is now produced. And red rice has yet to become a problem for the father-and-sons team.
“We’ve got 1,500 total acres now,” says Wilburn. “That isn’t a lot, but it’s enough for my two boys — or so they say.”
To prevent red rice from getting a foothold, the operation runs on a three-year rotation: two years of soybeans and a year in rice. The three grow conventional rice varieties.
“We don’t need Clearfield in that rotation. Why pay for that expensive seed as long as red rice isn’t a problem?”
As with soybeans, this year’s rice yields please the Duncans. “We could end up with a farm record,” says Rick. “We’re really happy with Francis. On the rice we’ve harvested so far, yields have been 190 bushels-plus per acre. That’s 15 to 20 bushels better than last year.”
Clearing the swamp
With the canal dug and swamp draining, Duncan turned to a mechanized, self-propelled, frequently bucking saw-blade. With the dangerous machine, Duncan began chewing through massive oaks. It was a hard slog.
“I tried to manhandle that blade, but the truth is, I was the one getting handled,” says Wilburn. “Working that thing was like riding a jackhammer. I’d come in and fall into bed. Those were tough days.”
Besides the back-breaking labor, swamp critters abounded. Bobcats leapt from behind trees. Copperheads and cottonmouths were constant threats; rattlesnakes, not so much. But the rattlesnakes he did dispatch were substantial. A photo hangs above his shop desk: in Duncan’s younger hand, a massive, diamond-patterned rattler — 5 feet long, at least.
“The first year we were here, 1953-54, I got through 640 acres. Part was done with that stump-saw rig. Later, thank God, they came out with an A-blade for a dozer and the work got easier. That A-blade was the ticket.”
Wilburn still has the old saw-blade. It’s parked behind his shop, covered up in weeds and rust. Every once in a while he walks out back for a visit.
“It just reminds me of how our land started out and the sacrifices,” he says, smiling broadly. “After all the hard work, we’ve made a good, happy life for ourselves. That was the goal and we reached it.”