Although they term themselves “newcomers” to growing cotton — they’ve only been at it five years — Glenn Mast and his son, Rodney, say adding the crop was in keeping with their long-time business philosophy.

“First and foremost, we strive for diversification,” says Glenn, who with Rodney runs a 5,000-acre operation on the black prairie land of southeast Lowndes County, Miss., near Columbus.

Their enterprises this year include 2,500 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of cotton, 1,500 acres of soybeans, 120 acres of catfish ponds, a 30,000 animals-per-year contract hog finishing operation, and a farm equipment dealership. In some years they add wheat to the mix, though they didn’t plant any last fall.

“There are never two years in a row that are alike,” says Glenn. “If we have a year when soybeans don’t do well, for example, the other enterprises help to fill in. There are always unforeseen events in farming, and you have to be able to adapt to what comes and spread risks as much as possible.”

The threat of Asian soybean rust and its destructive potential was what led the Masts to look to cotton as an option, and, Glenn says, it has worked out well.

“We’ve really enjoyed growing it. It spreads our workload, we’ve had mostly good yields, it’s a great fit for our rotation program, and it gives us an added layer of diversification.

“We’ve thought about pushing cotton a bit harder, but that would get us out of our comfort zone with harvesting. If the price for cotton was better, we perhaps could justify another picker, but not the way it is now.

“Our five-year average has been just under 1,100 pounds; 2007 was our best year, with just under 1,400 pounds. Last year, we were all set to make three bales per acre — it was shaping up to be our best crop ever — and then a rainy, cold August knocked that in the head.

“But diversification paid off again, because we had really good soybean yields. And 80-cent cotton was a pleasant experience last year, even though we didn’t get the big yield we were anticipating.”

Deltapine 449 “has been our workhorse,” Glenn says, “and has done well for us in hard places. We participated in Deltapine Cotton Innovator trials last year and are doing it again this year; we’re also growing five of their new Class of 2009 varieties. We also have some Phytogen 375, Stoneville 5458, and DynaGro 2570.”

Their cotton goes to Farmer’s Gin at Hamilton, Miss., the nearest facility, about 40 miles away.

Most of this year’s cotton was planted around May 1 (at mid-May, about 25 percent remained to be planted, but almost daily rains had stopped fieldwork).

“This has been a really tough spring from a weather standpoint, with a lot of cold, wet days,” Glenn says. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had to replant any cotton. We’ve got corn that’s knee-high and hasn’t been side-dressed yet, but water’s standing in the fields. We’ve got a big Hagie 4-wheel sprayer, and we may put drop hoses on it and dribble nitrogen in the middles.”

Another benefit of cotton is that it has helped to stabilize corn yields, Glenn says, and has provided another level of diversity to their rotation program.

“Rotation has been very beneficial for us in improving yields of cotton, corn, and soybeans. We used to be solid soybeans, and in the mid-1980s began rotating beans with grain sorghum. In 1988, we moved to a soybean/corn rotation, and that improved soybean yields tremendously — they’re not nearly so erratic now. But the best rotation yield benefits come from cotton/corn. Unfortunately, some of our smaller, wetter fields just aren’t suited to cotton.”

For corn, their five-year average is 140 bushels, Glenn says, while soybean yields have averaged 38 to 40 bushels. “But two really dry years in 2006 and 2007 pulled that down; in 2006, we averaged only 12 bushels. On the other hand, last year we had 600 acres of double-crop beans that averaged over 50 bushels.”

For the grains, Glenn says, “We believe in diversification of varieties as much as we do in diversification of crops. Each year we’ll pick 10 or 12 different corn and soybean varieties from different companies. It’s become something of a necessity because varieties are discontinued so frequently now; it’s hard to stay with the same variety year after year. This year, we planted only two soybean varieties that we had last year.”

They have 230,000 bushels of capacity in on-farm storage bins, not counting some smaller bins.

“We bought most of them second-hand and moved them here and reassembled them,” Glenn says. “They have been a superb marketing tool for us, allowing us to avoid selling during the harvest glut and to take advantage of better prices later on. We also have a continuous flow grain dryer for corn.”

They have four center pivots on their farms, used to irrigate cotton and corn, all fed from reservoirs.

“There are 12 acres in reservoirs and a 9-acre lagoon for the hog barns, and two 6-inch wells to keep reservoirs filled,” Glenn says. “We’ve just installed the fourth pivot, which gives us another 160 acres of irrigation.

“We’d like to install more pivots, but the economics of water supply is a drawback. We’re basically maxed out on land available for reservoirs. Because of community water system regulations on aquifer access for irrigation, we’d have to go 1,500 feet to get water, and the $150,000 or so well cost is just prohibitive.”

While the catfish business “isn’t so good right now,” Rodney says, “there have been years when the fish ponds helped carry us through.

“The last two or three years, we’ve wondered why we have the fish, but we think they’ll shine again. Unlike those who have only catfish when feed prices are high, we can help to offset that with higher grain prices. It would be extremely hard if we had only catfish.

“We average about 7,500 pounds of fish per acre, which is exceptional, and a couple of years we’ve had 10,000-pound yields. We believe this is attributable to intensive year-round management, deeper ponds that hold more favorable temperatures, and a really efficient feeding program.

“We have a good relationship with our seiner, who markets the fish mostly through Delta Pride or Confish.”

The hogs, Rodney says, “have been very good for us. It’s strictly a contract operation, and the contractor company has done everything they said they would, and more. We’ve had hogs since 1994, but three years ago we formed a corporation with two long-term employees as partners.

“We have 12 barns and we grow 30,000 hogs a year — no farrowing; we just finish them to about 260 pounds. The company we contract with brings us the pigs, feed, etc., and we furnish facilities and management. We pump water from the treatment lagoon onto the crop fields and get some free nitrogen.

“We could probably have twice as many swine operations in Mississippi if the state had not imposed limits on permits. There was great potential in Mississippi, which could’ve meant a lot of jobs.

“Sara Lee’s big Bryan Foods plant just a few miles from here at West Point, closed, for one reason because they couldn’t get enough hogs.

“That put a lot of people out of jobs and was an significant economic loss. Now, our hogs are trucked all the way to Louisville, Ky., for processing. Hogs have been a good deal for us; I’m just sorry more people can’t have that opportunity because of the state regulations.”

Rodney manages Black Prairie Tractor and Equipment, a dealership for Massey Ferguson equipment, which he terms “one of the best kept secrets in the ag industry. We didn’t set out to be a dealer — we just wanted to find something competitive and to offer an alternative to the area farm community.

“We’ve had the dealership for five years and have been very pleased with their products. No one else has the transmission and management tools in a high horsepower tractor, or as large a combine rotor driven with a hydrostatic motor; those features really set them apart.”

With their fingers in so many pies, Glenn says, “People ask me how we keep up with everything, and my answer is: We don’t — we hire good people to help us keep up with everything.

“In marketing, Rodney looks after the corn, and I do the soybeans and cotton. In all our operations, we’ve learned it’s better to assign responsibilities to different people, and then you know where to go when there are problems. We’re fortunate to have some very good people, and that makes everything easier.

“My nephew, Lowell Mullet, takes care of all our shipping and logistics and is being phased in as a farm manager. My brother-in-law, John Mullet, looks after the hogs, and another long-term employee, Leroy Mast, keeps up with all the spray applications and equipment maintenance.”

Glenn was 13 when his parents, of Amish descent, moved to neighboring Noxubee County from Indiana.

“I grew up, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. My father, Ottis, now 81, farmed all his life, originally in dairying. He finally retired from farming two years ago, but he’s in good health and he’s still out here driving semis, hauling corn for us.

“He came here for cheap land, and we’ve been through some tough times, but we love it here, love the South — it’s a great place to live and I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.

“At 57, my wife asks me from time to time if I’m going to farm until I die, and I just kinda smile. I haven’t really thought of retirement; farming’s all I’ve ever done — it’s what I’ve felt I was called to do.”

In 1964, Glenn says, there were more than 90 dairies in Noxubee County; now there are only three.

“I’ve been in dairying three times, and got out for the last time in 1976. Dairying is hard work, and I don’t miss it, but on the other hand I don’t regret growing up on a dairy farm. It gave us a lot of family time, working together — just a lot of closeness that many families don’t have any more.”

It is, Glenn and Rodney say, that closeness of family, combined with a deep religious faith and personal sense of honor, that undergirds everything they do. “It is only by God’s blessing that we have what we have,” Glenn says.

“In the early ’80s, when agriculture was going through its ‘restructuring’ and farmers were being forced out of business at every turn, a lot of people were filing Chapter 11 bankruptcies and walking away from their debts.

“But we just couldn’t do that. They were our debts. We took Chapter 12, and it took 10 years to do it, but we paid back every creditor every cent of what we owed. It was,” he says, “the right and honorable thing to do.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com