William Stutts put his first crop in the ground when he was a junior in high school. The year was 1977, and that crop comprised some 100 acres. Now, 33 years later, Stutts farms more than 1,300 acres in West Carroll Parish, La., and he does it exceptionally well. So well, he was named the 2010 Louisiana Farmer of the Year.
“Down deep in my heart I’m always a cotton farmer. We rotated cotton and rice and then finally just went 100 percent cotton again. But the price of cotton went down and grain prices went up, and we switched to corn and soybeans,” Stutts said.
Stutts was one of three finalists recognized for their accomplishments at the Louisiana Farmer of the Year ceremony and banquet at White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge, La. The event is sponsored by the Louisiana Agri-News Network Inc., the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Other finalists recognized were Kevin Berken of Thornwell in Jefferson Davis Parish, and Larry Fontenot of Ville Platte in Evangeline Parish.
West Carroll Parish is well-known for having some of the best farmers in the state. Stutts is the fourth farmer from this area to receive the award. Previous winners were Ralph Oldham, Vendal Fairchild and Fred Bolding.
Stutts gives credit to the work ethic of the local producers because the region is not blessed with the natural resources, roads, rivers and railroads in other parts of the state. “I think that we know from the start that we have to try harder to compete with other parishes,” Stutts said.
Stutts believes that farmers take a great risk each year when they plant a crop. Market prices can quickly make a crop unprofitable, and weather events can unexpectedly turn a bumper crop into a disaster.
“We have so many obstacles to overcome. Price changes daily. The weather is just something that you cannot control, and it’ll steal you blind overnight. Government policies change daily, regulations they put on us,” Stutts said.
Berken is a fourth-generation farmer. Last year, he grew nearly 1,500 acres of rice. This year he plans to include approximately 500 acres of soybeans.
Berken was not always a farmer. He was involved in a successful real estate business in San Diego, but the allure of the land brought him back to Louisiana.
“There’s nothing like smelling that soil whenever you first turn it over or when you first put a combine in the field. It’s very rewarding and a great place to raise a family,” Berken said.
Last year, Berken conceived the idea of hosting an event recognizing the yellow rail bird that lives in rice fields and called it the “Yellow Rails and Rice Festival.” The festival called attention to the role rice farming plays in wildlife habitat.
“We had 150 people from all over the country and as far away as Canada and Norway. I was able to have a captive audience, one that had never been on a combine or on a rice farm,” Berken said. “We were able to talk to them about rice farming and what it means to the habitat for different wildlife species in this area.”
Although Fontenot grows milo and soybeans and raises beef cattle, most of his attention goes to his sweet potato operation. “Sweet potatoes are the bread and butter of our operation,” Fontenot said.
Fontenot is swift to adapt to changes he believes will improve his bottom line. When new varieties became available, he was quick to plant them in his fields and saw immediate results.
“We’ve brought in some new varieties from the LSU AgCenter breeding program and that has helped us a lot. The yield potential is much higher than what it was 20 years ago- yield and quality. And we need that to stay in business,” Fontenot said.
For being selected Farmer of the Year, Stutts receives $1,000. For being named finalists, Berken and Fontenot each receive $500.