This morning, like most every morning during growing season, they were standing at the edge of a rice field looking east, waiting for the sun. If every day is a race for accomplishment, then first light is the crack of a starter's pistol. Sunset is the tape to break at the day's finish line.

“We'll be out waiting for first light Monday through Friday,” says Brad Koen. “Saturday we reserve for fields we need to go back and check. We get after it, man.”

When Southern Agronomic Resources hung out its shingle last August, Koen solicited consulting work from two farmers. Both shot him down.

“In that arena, I'm batting oh-fer,” he says with a laugh. “Obviously, I'm not a salesman. Luckily, I don't have to be — producers came to us looking for help.”

Before this latest consulting gig, Koen, as affable a guy as you'll meet, had just spent a couple of years working as an agricultural specialist for a bank in DeWitt, Ark. Before that, he spent seven years working with Arkansas Extension, much of it as rice verification program coordinator. The experience, he says, proved invaluable.

“It really set me up,” he says. “You know, farmers learn a lot from being in that program, but so did I. It opened some doors: I made contacts and experienced things that I never would have otherwise.”

Regardless, when opportunity knocked a couple of years ago, Koen jumped. The aforementioned bank has a large trust department, managing about 20,000 acres worth of farms. When Dean Bell, Koen's partner in the current venture, “was promoted to president of the bank, he hired me to help manage those farms. Well, while Dean knows finances, he's not a banker by trade. Like me, he's an agronomist. A while back, he came to me and said he was thinking about getting into the managing/consulting business and wanted to know if I was interested in partnering up.”

Last August, the two opened an office in conjunction with Hornbeck Seed. Their firm both manages farms and does crop consulting.

“Dean's expertise is farm managing, so that's the side of the business he takes care of,” says Koen. “We act as absentee landlords for farm owners. Often, a farming family member passes away and the inheritors don't want to come back to the farm. They'll hire us to take care of it — everything from selling crops to paying bills, book-keeping and government program sign-ups.

“Another situation we deal with is strictly investors without an ag background who want us to mange their investment. We've got about 5,000 acres to take care of. That side of the business is slower to grow — we hope for 20,000 acres in the Mid-South area in the next five years or so.”

Right now, the two (along with new agronomist hire, Curtis Fox) consult on about 15,000 acres of rice, 8,000 acres of beans and 7,000 acres of wheat.

“My expertise is with crop consulting, and I'd really missed that when working at the bank. I've always toyed around with opening up a consulting firm here in DeWitt. There's a big demand and not many people doing it.”

Most of Southern Ag's consulting acres are in Arkansas County, although they do have some farms south of the Arkansas River in Desha County.

Bell and Koen know what it takes to improve a farm. “We know what's needed and what's not and what will pay for itself in the way of improvements — underground pipe, tail-water recovery systems, leveling, drainage, all of that.

“We're looking at a farm currently where the farmer has a set of dirt pans. If he'll fix a couple of potholes like we suggest, that one improvement will pay for our services from here on out. That's what a difference that one change can make.”

DeWitt, part of Arkansas' parched Grand Prairie, has seen a major shift in conservation over the last few years. “Five or six years ago, you could have said ‘tail-water recovery ditch’ to a group of farmers and you'd have gotten a blank stare. Back then, nearly every one of the fields around here had a well on it. The water that came out of those wells ran off the fields, hit a ditch, then a tributary of the White or Arkansas rivers and headed to the Gulf of Mexico.”

That's totally changed. Now, tail-water recovery ditches are everywhere, and farmers are trying to figure out how they can keep and re-use even more of their water.

“This approach has been very successful — many are putting re-lifts in. That has meant more water and financial savings — it's a lot cheaper to pump surface water than ground water.”

And surface water quality is better. Koen says farmers in the area have always had to fight cold water and high pH.

“As a matter of fact, when I was with Extension, I'd spend the first month every season looking at sick rice — zinc deficiency, phosphorus deficiency, whatever. Those problems were all caused by poor water quality. Now, I may get three calls like that all year.”

Farmers are the best stewards of land, he says. “Not only has the shift to surface water been better for the farming operations, it's been better for soils in general. Erosion problems have been lessened considerably. Most of the fields with tail-water ditches have drop pipes. It used to be, the water used to just run off the field into a ditch taking topsoil with it. I see a big, positive swing.”

Being in a rice-growing area, are there any perceivable shifts in how rice consultants are viewed? “Back in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, cotton was a big crop and guys growing it typically had large acreages. The crop is technical and required annual training to keep up with the new products and techniques.”

At the same time, rice was a comparatively small crop. Rice farms were usually 400 to 600 acres, and there wasn't a huge amount of technology available to grow the crop.

“You know, there was Stam for grass, urea for fertilizer. Few recognized the need for phosphorus, potassium, zinc or whatever else. Managing rice was strictly dealing with nitrogen and grass control.”

Over the last decade, though, rice technology has taken off. Every year, new herbicides and new varieties are introduced. Rice producers also face much more regulation now — the EPA is watching rice with an eagle eye.

On top of that, rice farms are no longer 500 acres, he says. “Now, these farms are 2,000 acres. At the same time, where good employees used to be easy to find, dependable, smart employees are in short supply.”

Rice, says Koen, is rapidly getting to the point where cotton used to be. “At one time, cotton was a huge money crop, but it's slipped. The last couple of years, rice returns have been better than cotton. There will never be as many rice consultants as cotton consultants. There's just far more cotton acreage.”

But as far as farmers being amenable to hiring rice consultants, the proof is in the pudding. “It wouldn't surprise me if, during the last three or four years, the number of rice consultants being hired doubled. In the coming five years, it'll probably double again. I think it'll get to the point where 80 or 90 percent of the rice farmers will hire a consultant.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com