This was the year Greg Norton planned to plant corn — he liked the price outlook and the rotation benefit for his main crops, cotton and peanuts.

But Mother Nature dashed his plan, with almost daily rains as planting time rolled around, and more rains and unseasonal frosts as the calendar moved into May.

“Some of my land is a little too wet for peanuts, and I had planned to put corn there,” he says. “I had seed booked for 150 acres of corn, but by May 6 we were still getting rain and temps in the 40s. It can take 10 days to two weeks for some of these soils to dry out, and I just couldn’t take a chance on planting corn that late. So, I cancelled my seed order.”

Norton, whose farming operation at Greenwood Springs in northeast Mississippi crosses the state line into Lamar County, Ala., says he will have 800 acres of cotton this year and 240 acres of peanuts. The farms are split about 50/50 between Mississippi and Alabama.

“Aside from my mother’s home place and some other family land that includes 70 acres in pine trees, most of what I farm is rented. We work with 16 different landlords. My largest field is 76 acres, and several are in the 50 to 75 acre range; the smallest is 3 acres. All are within about 10 miles.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the size of the operation now. There just isn’t that much land suitable for farming in this area, and I don’t want to have to travel long distances just to get bigger. The land I’m farming now is pretty much the best in this area.”

Norton grew up in a farming environment and says he had always known deep down that he wanted to be a farmer. But getting there took a somewhat circuitous route.

“My father, T.J. Norton, had an off-farm job, but he farmed on the side, with row crops, cows, etc. As a boy, crops and animals and farm chores were a way of life, and I enjoyed it. Dad always planted a small acreage of cotton, mainly to keep my brother Keith and me busy. We laughed that our broadleaf weed control program was Keith and me out there in the field with hoes. By the time I got old enough to pick cotton by hand, Dad hired a 1-row cotton picker to harvest the crop — but we still hand-picked the field borders.”

After attending Itawamba Community College, Greg began an industrial job at nearby Amory, Miss., but continued to help his father on the farm.

“I expected I’d be in the industry job until I retired,” he says. “By that time my brother had his own farming operation, and when Dad died in 1992, my wife Sheila and I took on his farming operation, and I kept working my industry job.

We moved a mobile home here on this hilltop, just a couple of miles up the road from where I grew up. We planned to live in it for five years, then build.”

He points to their lovely home on 13 acres shaded with stately white oak trees, overlooking some of his farmland in the creek bottom across the road, with neat metal shop and equipment buildings nearby.

“The five years turned out to be 15 years before we finally got to build our house,” Norton says. “We had some tough times — we had no equipment of our own, and Sheila and I were trying to do all the work ourselves in order to hold the line on costs. It was literally night and day, seven days a week, and it was killing us.

Began farming full-time

“In 1997, a landowner in the area offered me some really good ground that would give us enough acres that I thought we could make a living at farming, and I turned in my notice at the plant. For better or worse, I was a full-time farmer.”

There would be challenges still, but Norton says he’s never regretted for a minute the decision he made.

“In 1993, I planted my first cotton crop, and I’ve grown it ever since. My friend, Dan West, who farms near me and is a top-notch farmer, generously shared his knowledge and experience. I wrote notes on everything he said, and kept them in my pocket so I could refer to them.

“In 1995, the tobacco budworm hit hard. By the time harvest came, I had $100,000 tied up in 250 acres of cotton. I was able to save some of the bottom crop and averaged just 400 pounds. I lost a lot of money on that crop.

“In 1996, NuCOTN 33B transgenic cotton came out. I planted 235 acres and averaged 940 lbs. It was a really good crop, and it put us back in the cotton business. But in 1999-2000, we had back-to-back drought years, and averaged only 400 lbs. Over the long term though, cotton has been good to us. It’s drought tolerant and will hang in there and give you another chance when rain finally comes along.

“We bought our first 4-row picker in 1997, which made things somewhat easier. We later added another 4-row machine, but three years ago replaced them with a 6-row John Deere 9996, a really nice machine that makes harvest move quickly. Keith helps me out some at busy times and I hire some part-time help with the harvesting.”

Peanuts were added to the crop mix in 2008, Norton says. “Brian Atkins, manager of Birdsong Peanuts’ Prairie, Miss., buying point, contacted me about putting some of my land in peanuts. I didn’t know the first thing about the crop, but I’d been cotton, cotton, cotton for so long, I decided to give it a try for the rotational benefit — plus, it looked like a potentially profitable crop. The Birdsong folks were very helpful with advice and assistance.

“Our clayey soils are almost borderline for peanuts, and harvesting in the fall can be risky if the weather turns wet or cold. Harvesting peanuts is slow compared to cotton. Some have said we’re too far north for peanuts, but Dan West, who pioneered peanuts in this part of the state, has been growing them successfully for several years now. I had a bit of frost damage on one field in 2011, but there was no significant impact on yield.

Two years of record yields

“The last two years, we had record yields for both cotton and peanuts. In 2011, we averaged 5,000 pounds of peanuts and 950 pounds of cotton. In 2012, for the first time ever, we averaged over 1,000 pounds of cotton, had another 5,000-pound year for peanuts — and got good prices for both.

“When peanut prices shot up to $1,000, I had contracted 2 tons per acre at the start of the year, but the Lord blessed us with 2.5 tons, and I was able to get the top $1,000 price for the extra 130 tons. I was really happy about that!”

GA 06G is the variety Norton planted in the past, and he says, “It has performed really well. This year, I’ll split acreage 50-50 with 06G and GA 09B, a high oleic variety.

“I’ll usually start planting last week in April for cotton and peanuts around May 1, but with all the rain this spring I didn’t get to start planting anything until May 14. We got about 400 acres of cotton planted before it rained again. I usually plant cotton first, but last year it worked out best to plant peanuts first. I normally like to harvest peanuts first, but last year I had cotton falling out of the bolls and peanuts needed to mature a bit more, so I got the cotton out first.

“I’ve found you can’t have too much equipment for peanuts. We started with a 4-row KMC combine and added a new 6-row Amadas last year. We also added a 6-row KMC flex digger last year, which works really well on our terraced land. We moved to a 12-row John Deere 1770 pull-type planter, which flexes in three different sections, also an advantage on our terraced ground.

“We bought a new John Deere 8310R tractor, which we’ll use the first time this year. It is GPS-equipped, and we’ll get our feet wet with that technology also. Our sprayer is a John Deere 6700 self-propelled machine.

“We also have a Hardy 3-point hitch sprayer, which allows us to have separate sprayers for cotton and peanut chemistries — and we can spray cotton and peanuts at the same time without having to stop, clean out a sprayer, and change chemicals.”

He’s had few problems with diseases, Norton says. “I’ve had some white mold and leaf spot in peanuts, but I made only four fungicide applications last year, using Provost and Convoy, with an early application of generic tebuconazole.”

In both 2011 and 2012, he participated in the peanut verification program funded by the Mississippi Peanut Promotion Board, and this year will also have some cotton variety trials with Jimmy Sanders. Cotton varieties have been mostly Deltapine DP1137 B2RF and DP0912 B2RF, and this year he’ll also have some Phytogen 499 WRF.

With the advent of stacked gene cotton varieties, insects have not been a significant problem, Norton says. “We’ll occasionally have some stink bugs and plant bugs in cotton. We’ve had no thrips or other insect problems in peanuts yet.

“Some resistant Italian ryegrass has been documented in the county, but so far I’ve not had any and have been able to kill it with my herbicide program. We’ve had no problems with herbicicide-resistant pigweed. I rotate chemistries to try and avoid any resistance buildup, and since cotton and peanuts use different chemistries, that also helps. For cotton, I used Cotoran behind the planter, with Direx for layby.”

Tried conventional cotton varieties

Norton says he planted conventional cotton varieties in 2009, “thinking to save some money on tech fees. But I had to make five consecutive applications for bollworms, and that pretty much changed my outlook. If I wanted to take advantage of higher cotton prices, I needed to try and make as much yield as I could, so I went back to the stacked gene varieties. That proved a good decision when cotton topped $1 per pound.”

His cotton is ginned at Scruggs Gin, Belden, Miss., about 60 miles away, and is marketed through Staplcotn.

In years past, Norton has used poultry litter for fertilizer, “But the price has been continually going up and availability shrinking. To truck it long distances is just too expensive, so I’ve gone back to commercial fertilizer this year.

“I really like the litter, both from a fertility standpoint and adding organic matter to the soil. After just one year of using it, a zinc deficiency had been corrected and other micronutrient levels were improved. I bought a new spreader for the litter, but won’t get to use it this year. I was soil testing every year until I got fertility levels up, and now I test every three years on a rotational basis.”

Although he has grown soybeans in the past, Norton says he doesn’t foresee going back to the crop.

“Deer and drought are main reasons I’m no longer growing soybeans. The last year I had beans, 2008, I had to practically babysit them at night to keep deer from eating them up. And it was a drought year — I don’t have irrigation, and I was afraid I wouldn’t even get the yield I’d contracted. I had some bad memories of drought years and 11-bushel beans. Thankfully, some late rains turned the crop around and I had a 45-bushel average.

“Also, since soybeans are a legume crop, they don’t work well with peanuts. As long as cotton and peanuts are my main crops, I likely won’t grow any beans. I would like to add some corn into the rotation, though.”

He says he also wants to look into the possibility of drip irrigation on some of his land.

In addition to deer, Norton says wild hogs are also getting to be a problem in his area. “They’re extremely destructive, and can really mess up a peanut field.”