“I think I was born wanting to farm,” says Ben Harlow.

“As an only child, living out in the country, there were no neighboring children to play with. Instead of playing cowboys and Indians or playing with toy cars, I had toy tractors.

“We didn’t have carpet in our living room and I ‘farmed’ on the floor. In my play world, I planted crops, cared for them, and harvested them. I got unhappy if someone accidentally stepped on my ‘farm.’”

Flash ahead four decades and Ben is now, he says, “living my dream.” He’s been a full-time farmer in the prairie section of northeast Mississippi for more than a decade, starting with just 200 acres and no equipment, and gradually building to today’s 1,650 acres and a full complement of equipment.

The zinger, however, in his saga of childhood dream to adult reality is that Ben didn’t come from a farming family.

“I’m something of a rarity — a first generation farmer,” he laughs. “My parents didn’t farm, and I don’t know where my innate fascination with farming came from. But as far back as I can remember, there was this compelling desire to be a farmer.

“There were some folks who farmed land around us, in those days with old open-top tractors, and they would let me ride around with them as they did farm work. When I got old enough, I drove tractors for them, and even when I went off to college at Mississippi State University, I still worked part-time on their farms.”

After earning a degree in animal and dairy science, he went to work with MSU Extension doing entomology work, and later applied for and got the position of Extension agent in Calhoun County, Miss.

“I continued doing farm work in my spare time,” he says, “and in 1999 one of the farmers I’d worked with was letting some land go. He helped work out arrangements for me to rent 200 acres. I had no equipment, so he let me rent his, and I made my first crop in 2000.”

He’d also, at the same time, agreed to go to west Tennessee to work with the boll weevil eradication program that was under way there, and as soon as that first crop was planted, he left to go there.

“I commuted home every weekend to look after the crop,” he says. “Unfortunately, that was not a good year to start farming — there was almost no rain, and my crops didn’t do very well. The corn yield was only 78 bushels and soybeans a dismal 9.5 bushels.

“It was a disappointment, but I had a job to help keep me going financially, and with the optimism that seems to be characteristic of every farmer, I looked forward to the next year being better.”

The following year, Ben was able to rent another 66 acres, and purchased his first piece of equipment, a used disk. Things turned out better — soybeans averaged close to 40 bushels, “which is good in these heavy clay prairie soils,” and corn was about 125 bushels.

“I also learned that year that I couldn’t work a full-time job and farm, too,” he says, “so I took the big leap and decided to become a full-time farmer.

“As land came available, I kept adding acres here and there, and with another farm I was able to rent this year, am now up to 1,650 acres, all rented, most on a cash basis, some on a crop-share basis. A lot of the land had been in CRP or in hay; some I got from farmers who were retiring.”

Has 19 separate farms

He works 19 separate farms, with fields scattered within a 15-20 mile radius, ranging in size from 1.5 acre on the smallest end to 113 acres on the largest. The largest farm has 250 acres total, the smallest 18 acres.

“In the early days, when I didn’t have any help,” Ben says, “the logistics of moving things around and figuring where to leave my pickup so I could get back home at the end of the day, was quite a challenge.

“I learned very quickly that I needed a full set of tools on every piece of equipment in case I had a breakdown and no way to get back to my pickup. Things are easier now that I have help and can plan equipment use and movement more efficiently.” He has two full-time employees and two part-time.

“As I came across equipment with good prices, I added to my machinery lineup. I now have three tractors, a combine, a cotton picker — all John Deere — and two 18-wheel grain trucks. Everything was bought used, and we do as much of our equipment repairs and maintenance as we possibly can. With the high costs of shop work, we need to save money where we can.”

Ben says he’d always had an interest in cotton, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he tried a small acreage. “It didn’t turn out well, and I didn’t grow any more until 2011, when the attractive price outlook encouraged me to try it again.”

He planted Deltapine 0912 B2RF and 1034 B2RF the last of April/early May and averaged 2.1 bales per acre. “Last year was a great one for cotton in this area,” he says. “Some of the highest yields in the state were over here in the prairie region.”

This year, he’ll plant Deltapine 1137 B2RF and 1048 B2RF and Phytogen 499 WRF.

“Cotton is also a good rotation crop for me,” Ben says. “And it’s more tolerant of our heavy soils than soybeans — it’s hard to make a consistently good soybean yield here with no irrigation. A few of farmers in this area run pivots with water from lakes or catchment ponds, and I’d love to be able to irrigate, but the way most of my fields are situated, it just isn’t feasible.

“We, thankfully, don’t have the insect problems that Delta cotton farmers have, and thus far we’ve seen no weed resistance. The boll weevil eradication program took care of that pest. We sprayed once last year for plant bugs, once for thrips, and once for stink bugs.” His cotton is ginned at Hamilton Gin, Hamilton, Miss.

“Weeds have not been a major issue for me, but I use residuals and rotate chemistries to try and head off any resistance issues.

“These black belt prairie soils are much like the gumbo soils in the Delta; the heavy clay is usually too wet to work in the spring, and if we get a lot of rain during the growing season, the crops — particularly corn — can suffer. 

“My worst corn yields have been in years when there was too much rain. In 2009, when it rained so much, we were late getting soybeans planted, which turned out to be a blessing in the fall because the soybeans weren’t mature during the fall rains and we didn’t have the damage or rot that occurred in other areas.”

No-till isn’t an option on the heavy soils, Ben says, and spring tillage when the ground is wet is a no-no: “There’d be so many clods it would be a mess the rest of the year. So, I use a stale seedbed system, tilling and bedding up in the fall and letting rains and freezes mellow the soil over the winter. Then in spring, I burn down and plant. I’ve used mostly Roundup for burndown, but this year have used a combination of Roundup and LeadOff, a new DuPont product.”

This year he has about 250 acres of winter wheat, and if there’s enough moisture after it’s harvested, he will double-crop that land to soybeans.

He’s planning for 320 acres of cotton, 550 acres of corn, and the rest in soybeans.

For soybeans, he plants Asgrow, Progeny, and Armor varieties. If he gets corn planted in a timely fashion, soybeans are planted mid-April to early May.

“For corn, I go with a lot of varieties to spread risk and maturity. This year I’ll have Terral, DEKALB, Dyna-Gro, Golden Acres, and Pioneer varieties.

Variety trials and test plots

“I choose varieties based on Extension data for soils similar to mine. I also do my own test plots, some with seed companies, and some with Extension. I have a wheat plot now with Progeny, have had corn plots with Terral, and will have cotton and soybean plots in cooperation with Mississippi State University. I had a fertility plot last year and have had fungicide trials.

“I get some good information from these trials that helps me with variety selection and other practices in subsequent years. Seed varieties come and go so quickly these days, I try and do all I can to stay on top of what’s available and what may work best for my farm.”

Ben grid samples some land each year for fertility and tries to have everything sampled over a three-year period. Fertilizer and lime are applied variable rate according to the grid sampling.

“I’ve used poultry litter in the past, primarily because of price,” he says, “but for the past three or four years I’ve used commercial fertilizer. I use starter fertilizer on corn, but not on cotton; I make applications after planting to provide the needed rate.

“I don’t always fertilize soybeans — I base that on needs indicated by soil tests. The biggest problem I have with soybeans is iron chlorosis, which turns the plants yellow and can cut into yield. I try to screen for varieties that have some tolerance.”

He usually starts harvesting corn mid-August to Labor Day and gets into cotton and beans about the first of October.

Even though he watches pennies and buys used equipment, “I still want to try and stay on the leading edge of technology,” Ben says, “whether it be seed, chemicals, or electronics. I have yield monitors on my combines, and I’m hoping my next investment can be for GPS/guidance systems for my tractors.”

He does his own marketing, but says this year he will sell some of his cotton through Staplcotn.

“When I see prices I can live with, I’ll go ahead and book some production. I’m still a little gun shy when it comes to the amount to book, but thus far I’ve done OK. I have access to 40,000 bushels of storage on one of the farms I rent, and that enables me to store corn and sell whenever prices are attractive. I moved out the last of the 2011 corn about mid-March.”

Determining the amount of crop insurance coverage to purchase each year “is one of the toughest decisions I make,” Ben says. “Crop insurance is a very difficult product in terms of determining how much I need versus how much I can afford.”

Ben says he’d “love to have more land — I think I could handle another 1,000 acres or so. But there just isn’t that much land that becomes available. I mostly look for land that’s coming out of CRP, but even there the government can pay more for rent than I can — in essence, the government is my biggest competitor for land, and I’ve lost some land because the owner could get more by putting it in CRP than I could pay in rent.”

As he begins his 12th crop year — and living his childhood dream — “I wouldn’t take anything for the decision I made to farm full-time,” Ben says. “Along the way, I’ve benefited from the generosity of my farmer neighbors and their advice and counsel. We all pitch in and help each other. If I need help with something, or need to borrow equipment, they’re there for me, and I do the same for them. They’re just good folks, and I’m blessed to have them as friends.”

He also serves as a deputy commissioner of the Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District and on the board of the Monroe County Farm Bureau, and is a member of the Northeast Mississippi Producer Advisory Council.

“We also have some very good dealers and suppliers in this area who are a pleasure to work with,” Ben says. “I’m less than an hour from Mississippi State University, with access to all their specialists and information base, and the Extension staff are always great to call on for advice or help with problems.

“I’ve learned a lot the hard way — but I don’t make the same mistake twice. Farming today is serious business, and I want to do everything I can to insure that I can continue doing it for a long time to come.”