A freak hailstorm 20 years ago resulted in a decision Kevin Kemp regretted for six long years.

“The hail beat a lot of my cotton crop to pulp, and it was too late to replant,” he recalls. “It nearly broke me. I told my wife, Connie, ‘That’s it — no more,’ and I got out of row crops.”

Kevin, who’d grown up a farm boy here in the rolling hills of Leake County in east central Mississippi — “My father, Kendall Kemp, farmed here all his life, and it was in my blood, too” — parked all his equipment “out in the bushes” and started a business that he ran for six years.

But during all that time, the urge to farm never went away.

“Four years ago, the realization just hit me: I missed row crop farming. Once it’s in your blood, nothing else you do is quite the same. While I was out of farming, I was the most miserable man you ever saw. I came home one day and told Connie, ‘I’m going to start farming again. It’s the only work I really like to do. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say I tried. I hope you’ll stay with me, but ...’”

He laughs. “Thankfully, she did. She has supported me all the way. Thankfully, too, we’d had three pretty good years before I got out of farming the first time, and were able to get Connie through nursing school and into a good job.”

With the advent of the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, most of what had been the county’s row crop land was now blanketed with pine trees. Poultry, which was more adaptable to small acreages, was getting to be really big. Chicken houses were springing up everywhere.

“Since 1995, the poultry business in this area has exploded,” he says. “Tyson Foods has a huge plant just down the road that processes probably a million or more chickens a day. I bought four chicken houses, and since then I’ve added more. I now have 12, growing 2 million broilers a year for Tyson. It was a large investment — one house nowadays can cost $250,000 to construct and equip. I’m grateful to my father and mother, who helped me to get started, and First Financial Bank at Carthage for working with me over the years.

“There are many people who have 4-house or 6-house operations, but not many with 12. My two brothers have 22 houses between them, and in this four-county area there are many millions of birds produced each year. Tyson also has egg-laying and hatchery operations; they bring the baby chicks to us, ready to start feeding.

12 flocks a year

“I’ll run 12 flocks a year through my houses, which takes 1.3 million to 1.5 million pounds of feed per flock. We grow a flock for 42 days to 45 days, after which they go to the Tyson plant for processing.

“There’s a lot of work the first week or so until the chicks get to growing. With all the new equipment and automated procedures now, poultry production isn’t as much work as it was 20 years ago, but it’s still a 7-days-a-week job. There’s still always the stress of knowing you’ve got all those birds depending on you for care, and that you’ve got to do a lot of things just right to comply with your contract.

“I’m fortunate to have two really good managers for the poultry houses, and knowing I could count on them for day-to-day operations allowed me the opportunity to begin easing back into row crops.

“My part-time helper on the row crops is an excellent mechanic, so we pulled some of my old equipment out of the bushes, cleaned it up, reworked it and I started growing some soybeans. My only new equipment purchase was a no-till grain drill.”

But, all the time he was growing soybeans, cotton stayed in the back of his mind.

Now, on a gray late summer morning with rain clouds threatening, Kevin and Connie sit on their patio, looking out across a field of cotton that’s thriving just 50 yards down the hill, and he reflects with a wry smile that it was — to put it somewhat delicately — chicken poop, tons and tons of chicken poop, that helped bring him full circle back to growing the cotton that was his first love.

“Fertilizer prices were sky high, and I had all that poultry litter. I figured with a plentiful supply of free fertilizer from the chicken houses, cotton prices that were looking better and better, improved varieties, and no-till production, it just might work.

 “My father, who died two years ago, grew cotton all his life — at one time he and my brother, Craig, had as much as 1,000 acres scattered all over this county. He was a pioneer of no-till cotton in this area and really believed in it. I guess his love for the crop rubbed off on me; I’d rather grow it than anything else. I thought long and hard about getting back into it, but I just had to give it a try.”

Return to cotton

So this year, two decades after that fateful hailstorm put him out of cotton, he got back in, returning to a crop now much different than when he previously grew it.

“A lot of the insect and weed problems that I once had to contend with had been reduced or eliminated by Bt and Roundup Ready. All the technology built into the seed has really made a difference in cotton production. Plus, cotton offered a rotation option.”

Here in the hills, there aren’t vast areas of open land. “I farm in small patches,” Kevin laughs. “The largest field I have is 33 acres. All told, I have 15 fields in cotton and 15 in soybeans. Fortunately, most of the fields are within fairly close proximity, except for 50 acres across the river about 8 miles away.

“With small fields, I’m pretty much limited to 4-row equipment, so I wasn’t facing a massive investment for big machinery. My helper and I pulled equipment out of the bushes, cleaned it up, reworked it, and got it in usable condition.”

May 8, after 20 years on the sidelines, he started planting cotton.

“I planted Stoneville 5458B2RF because all the performance data really looked good. The first week in June we 4 inches of rain in one day; the next week, we had 3 inches in one day, but the cotton came through okay. After that, we’ve had nice rains and the crops haven’t suffered.

“Since this was my first year with cotton, I had to hip up and put it on beds, but next year I’ll no-till it. If I can plant without breaking the soil, that’s what I do. I really believe in no-till.

“I’ve not bought the first pound of commercial fertilizer — the poultry litter has supplied all the crop’s nutrition needs. I probably couldn’t have gone back into cotton had it not been for the cost savings in not having to purchase fertilizer.”

Application rate is based on soil tests, Kevin says, but for cotton it will average 2 tons of litter per acre. “I haven’t even side-dressed with ammonia. I debated about it, but the cotton was growing so well and looking so good, I decided against it. So far, I don’t think I could’ve asked for better performance.”

About his only post-planting expenditure has been for Pix applications.

“In these creek bottoms, with high fertility, I just have to slow things down or the plants would be 10 feet tall. The first Pix application, 10 oz. per acre, got the cotton’s attention, and by season end I’ll probably have made four applications.

“Right now (late August), the cotton looks really good. Dr. Ernie Flint Jr., area Extension agent at Kosciusko, Miss., who has been very helpful with advice, says he thinks it could go 2.5 to 3 bales. But I know a lot can happen between now and when it goes to the gin.

No pest problems

“To this point, I’ve had no insect or weed problems; the technology pretty much takes care of them. My biggest pests are deer — I pull my hair out over the damage they do. Last year, I had to replant 25 acres to 30 acres of soybeans because of the deer, and still had losses. Thankfully though, they haven’t bothered the cotton.”

He expects to start picking about mid-September, with cotton going to Linwood Gin Co. at Vaughan, Miss., about 70 miles away.

“I bought a used John Deere 9960 4-row picker and module builder for less than $10,000,” Kevin says. “It probably would get laughs on bigger farms, but for my small fields, it works fine. When I started growing soybeans, I ran across a 1974 Massey Ferguson 510 4-row gasoline-powered combine up in northeast Mississippi that was in good shape. I paid $3,000 for it and probably spent another $2,000 getting it into tip-top shape, but I’ve cut a lot of soybeans with it. My tractors, which I already had in the poultry operation, are all under 100 horsepower.

“I’m just holding my breath that the harvest season won’t be as wet as 2009 — although I was fortunate in how things turned out.

“Connie and I had planned a vacation trip last June, by which time I figured I’d be done with soybean planting. But it started raining in May and I couldn’t plant, so we left for our vacation, and wouldn’t you know, all the time we were gone the weather back home was nice.

“The result was that I was late planting beans, which then made them late for harvest, and I was able to get them out without any of the rotting that so many farmers faced. I had an excellent crop and ended up averaging 50 bushels.”

This past winter, he had 100 acres of wheat, which turned out well, and is double-cropped to soybeans.

“We planted non-wheat beans starting May 18 and double-crop beans June 18-20. They’re NK52S2F2 and they’re looking very good, with good yield potential. We’ll start harvesting mid-October.”

Most of Kevin’s row crop land is leased, while most of the land he owns is in pastures for his 350-head feeder calf operation.

“I buy mixed breed calves at 350 lbs. to 450 lbs., grow them out on grass and a minimal amount of feed, and sell them at 700 lbs. to 800 lbs.”

Both poultry and calves have worked well from a cash flow standpoint, he says, adding diversity and allowing him to spread risk. “If I should have a bad year with one of the row crops, I’ve got other enterprises to fall back on. I’m thinking of adding some corn next year to broaden my rotation program.”

A few other poultry farmers in the county have begun showing an interest in row crops, Kevin says, in order to utilize some of the litter.

But for the most part, he notes, litter disposal isn’t a problem. “There are people who will come and haul it away and then sell it to farmers all over the state. More and more farmers are seeing how well it performs, and with the big run-up in fertilizer prices, there has been a growing demand for it.”

Getting back into crops was a gamble, Kevin says. “I had no idea how it would work out. People ask me how I manage to look after so many things, and I tell them I put in a lot of long days, I have good help, and I enjoy what I do. You’ve just got to get out there and try, or you’ll never know what you’re capable of doing.”

hbrandon@farmpress.com