For someone with such a keen eye on the past, Tommy Young is perfectly happy to adopt new technologies, to change with the times.
“I treat every crop as though it is a ‘garden’ crop,” says the Newport, Arkansas, producer. “I try my best to soil sample all over. Then, we apply whatever the soil test shows we need. We also use a tremendous amount of nitrogen on all the crops and fungicides.”
When harvesting corn, unlike most folks who harvest with a conventional header, “we have a header that shreds stalks into six-inch-long pieces. That allows the wheat an easier path to work through. It also makes it easier for the residue to break down – we incorporate that into the soil. We don’t burn residue, ever.”
The operation is extremely details-oriented, something that the new technologies allow “We watch it all: from fertility to precise irrigation scheduling and everything else. We have rain gauges at every field that are checked after every shower – we don’t guess if the pivots need to be turned on.”
Every tractor working the family’s land is GPS-guided, every sprayer is controlled by GPS and rates are precision-applied. Everything is documented in computer programs and downloaded into computers at the office.
“We can look at every field and tell what chemical, what fertilizer, what seed was planted, what lot the seed came from and all the rest.”
It’s December and the Newport area is glazed with ice. Although he isn’t a hunter, ducks are flying and Young says his nephews are “getting excited to hit the blinds. We’ve got some water now, so the hunters will be out.”
Sitting behind his desk at headquarters, Young says the farming he does now began with the sweat of his parents -- Eva and James Norman Young, Sr. -- who began farming the foothills around Charlotte, Ark., after getting married in 1939.
“Dad served three years in the war and then they moved to Jackson County and began farming a piece of property around here.
“My two older brothers -- James, Jr., and Ronald -- then farmed for years with my father, who retired in 1982, around here. They bought land and expanded the operation. I came on board after college. After that, we began selling center-pivot irrigation and hopper bottom grain trailers, put in a farm and home supply store. We also continued to expand acreage.”
In the early 1980s, the brothers began growing corn – one of the first operations in the area to do so. Corn has been a staple for the Youngs ever since.
“Today, you could consider us to be corn farmers. Fifteen years ago, we were rice farmers.”
Following his brothers’ retirement in 2009, Young’s nephews -- Ronald Blake and James, III -- came in to the operation, Generation Three Partnership, as equal partners.
“We own 4,000 acres and farm 7,000. We plant about 2,500 acres of corn annually, about 2,500 acres of wheat, about 4,000 acres of soybeans with the balance in rice.”
Asked about the shift to corn, Young says there has been a profound move to corn from Newport east. “Rice was the predominant crop around here for a long time. There was very little cotton grown.
“Instead of just planting wheat and beans on our sandier soils, we began putting in center-pivot irrigation. That was a must in order to grow good corn. That meant we shifted to much more corn at the expense of dryland milo.”
The reason the Youngs moved away from rice was the price of the crop didn’t keep pace with rising input costs. The operation has since moved to what Young refers to as the “miracle rotation”: corn, winter wheat, soybeans.
“Corn year one, winter wheat that fall and then soybeans double-cropped into the wheat straw using no-till drills. That’s our conservation-minded planting.”
By having corn in the mix, “it creates much better yields in the wheat and beans. Over the past three years, for example, we’ve seen yields of over 200-plus bushel corn, and above 50-bushel soybeans. It isn’t uncommon for us to make 80-bushel wheat and see 115 bushels on the yield monitor.”
Out of all the crops, the most dramatic yield change has been in the wheat. “We used to look for 60 to 70 bushels. Now, we’re looking at 80 to 100 bushels. If corn was pulled from the rotation on that particular soil type, it’s unlikely we’d be seeing such high yields in the beans and wheat.”
In recent years, one constant threat to the operation, both to yield and conservation efforts, are herbicide-resistant weeds.
“We’re to the point where if you don’t kill a pigweed on Friday, by Monday it’ll be too late,” says Young. “We’re back to tillage -- having to throw our conservation tillage practices back in the closet…
“We have farms in the South that are in danger of literally being overrun by the weeds. The EPA and USDA are to blame for some of that. They need to look at the sound science and products in the development pipeline and approve them and move forward.
"We have the best sprayers in the world -- $350,000 for some of them -- with the best computer-monitoring systems: precision application, wind speeds and all the rest. Yet, we have very little to pour in them that does a good job.”
Young and his nephews produce a “tremendous amount” of their crops for seed. Rice is the exception. “We haul our rice to Riceland and they handle our marketing through seasonal pools.”
As for corn, “we have enough storage to handle it all through our farm system. We sell corn anywhere within a 200-miles radius of the facility. Our trucks can deliver to anyone who may need, say, 50 loads in a week. We can handle all that ourselves.
“We do some forward contracting. In the past two years, it hasn’t been as much a challenge to market and get a decent price. Now, though, the prices have fallen so that has changed. Storing of our grain is the main marketing tool we have to make gains later in the year after harvest season is over.”
The Southern farmer
Resistant weeds are only one threat to the Southern farmer, says Young. Congress’ lack of knowledge regarding Southern agriculture is another.
“If I was to ask for one thing (in a new farm bill) it would be a safety net for price more than one for production. That’s because in the Mid-South – at least in Arkansas – I suspect that 75 percent of the farmers are equipped in such a way where they can just about make a good crop even in drought.”
One thing backing Young up is the state average corn yield in 2012 was around 170 bushels. That was accomplished in the worst drought the region experienced in decades. In 2013, “we’ve made another state average record yield at 180 bushels.
“The reason we’re able to do that is because farmers have invested so heavily in irrigation. In 1980, my father had three wells on his farm. Now, we’ve got 60-plus wells and we’re running 30-something center-pivots. We’ve made ourselves as drought-proof as possible.”
That means crop insurance for the region, from the standpoint of production, means very little. “Crop insurance for us, from the standpoint of protecting and having a floor on price, is extremely important.
“A lot of people used the direct payments as price support. Those won’t be back after this farm bill. But the Arkansas farmer must have something in place to protect his position where he won’t be dangerously vulnerable to major price fluctuations.”
Too few acknowledge, says Young, that there is nothing that says input costs must come down when crop prices dip.
“Our Midwestern counterparts look at the situation much differently, of course. They look to crop insurance as something that helps after years of drought. If they have a drought and normally turn their normal 200-bushels corn yield to a 70-bushel yield, they want protection.”
The South is different. “We can always make a crop but it won’t necessarily be profitable because the price may have declined to the point where it won’t allow it.”
The inability of Congress to pass a new farm bill has hurt the nation is many ways than are obvious, says Young.
“It is important that we get a farm bill because it affects so many common, everyday things that most folks don’t think about. For example, with every second there isn’t a farm bill, foreign market development is like a can with a tight lid on it.
“I’m a member of the U.S. Grains Council. They have offices set up all over the world to promote sales. The needed funding to run those offices is often matched the U.S. government through several programs. Farmers contribute to those efforts through check-off dollars.
“Well, with no farm bill, all that has stopped. No one can do anything and we’re just forced to watch while other countries take sales out from under our noses. It takes years to develop these sales pipelines and deals and now they’re just sitting in limbo.
“Everyone knows when something like this lies dormant for a long time – it begins to disintegrate. The longer we delay the farm bill, the more these relationships and deals we’ve worked so hard to set up erode.”