Seated high in the cab of a tractor and pulling two massive buckets, Robert Precht rumbles toward the center of a field of unforgiving Delta buckshot soil. He’s been in the box for 12 hours straight, peeling back layers of Mississippi farmland — coordinating and commanding on a sea of dirt. He shuts down the tractor, climbs down from his perch, and breathes in the smell of broken ground. This is his world — Robert Precht has dirt in his blood.

At 50 years old, he carries the pride and passion of a family heritage steeped in the common facets of agriculture — farming, crop dusting and ag equipment — but there is nothing ordinary about Precht. Despite spending hours alone every day on a tractor, his manner is not solitary in any fashion. Ride with him and expect a bundle of energy; ask him a question and prepare for a flood of words. Precht cannot contain an ounce of his love for farming and life — it spills out of him. “What I do now is not a job to me; it’s my life. I am blessed to work in the fields and I get paid to do something I love.”

As chief of Omega Plantation’s dirt operations in Clarksdale, Miss., he hits the fields of Coahoma County each day with a three-man crew, shaping and land leveling some of the richest soil in the United States. Even while working with lasers, GPS and a web of precision agriculture instruments, Precht keeps a simple outlook: “The bottom-line question about moving dirt: How will it match out? When you form a field, the dirt never matches out perfectly. It’s either long or short and it’s my job to get as close as possible.”

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

Delta land looks level to the eye, but Precht knows otherwise. “Think about it — a rolling field contains a ton of hidden lows. When it rains, the field turns into a series of big and little puddles,” he says.

Land forming is costly. Diesel, labor and equipment costs cause many farmers to shy away from the expense. The benefits for farmers don’t show up overnight and the financial returns from any long-haul investment lack flash appeal.

Land-forming gospel

But with a reputation as one of the best dirt movers in the business, Precht preaches a convincing land forming gospel, and backs up every point. “Land forming is the most efficient way to farm. Once land is leveled, you can utilize the water flow. Some fields are flat-leveled, but we use a slope which allows water to get on quick, get off quick, and the crops won’t burn. Once you land form, the acreage is good for years and years.

“It’s better for a farmer when he goes to the bank and he wants to get a loan. The bank wants to know if the land can be irrigated. If it’s been land-formed — the answer is a simple yes. The land value, dollars and cents, will go up immediately after farmland is precision leveled, and the yield returns are better.”

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

Precht and his crew, Chris Davis and Dewey Smith, dig the highs and fill the lows, while maintaining a tight watch on efficiency by keeping all the cuts close. Conserving diesel and utilizing time are crucial to productivity, emphasizes Precht. “We get a game plan based on what surveyor Bill Strowd shows us and what Bowen Flowers feels is right. You never, never want to haul dirt from one end of the field to the other. Instead, we bring it to grade and carry it across as we go, keeping everything as close as possible.”

The Omega crew pushes the dirt in a single direction and heads towards the low spot — the hole. And no matter the stage of the process, Precht makes sure the natural drain remains wide open. “Block your drainage even for a day and you just might catch a 2-inch rain. Then you’ll be stuck with a lake instead of farmland,” he says.

Pilot or farmer?

When Precht speaks, his past betrays him. His Southern drawl is laced with Cajun flavoring — and he gets it honest.  Born and raised in Cajun country, 100 miles west of Baton Rouge in Roanoke, La., his grandfather was a cattle and rice farmer; his father, Bill Precht, was a crop duster. Farming and machinery lessons formed the bulk of his upbringing, but his formative influences weren’t one-dimensional. Precht’s mother, Beverla, made certain of that: “My mom painted and taught painting my whole life. With her art skills and a heart as big as this planet — that’s where I got my creative nature. She passed those painting skills to me.”

Precht’s father was highly skilled as well — far beyond aviation ability. Bill worked stained glass during winters, despite being colorblind and needing Beverla’s help to color scheme. There was nothing ordinary about Precht’s parents: a colorblind crop duster working stained glass; assisted by a remarkably talented painter. And all the while, Precht was soaking up the dexterity of his father and the creative direction of his mother.

Hands of the father, heart of the mother.

Destined for dirt

His childhood days were spent in Louisiana rice fields, walking in the footsteps of brother Billy Precht. “I was blessed with fine parents and a fine brother; there was nothing but love. Billy was my older brother and a hero figure to me. Everybody liked Billy; you just couldn’t help it. We pulled red rice and cut off water together. We worked side-by-side with grown men — and kept up.”

Often from dawn to dusk, the Precht brothers walked rice levees, dragging shovels and burlap bags. They would fill the bags with mud to pad the levees — basically capping holes that muskrats or nutria had dug out. “We were boys. We simply dug in and worked hard — and I loved working beside my family. Maybe that’s how I got dirt in my blood,” he says with a grin.

By age 11, Precht was running a rice cart full-time. Tractors, equipment, machinery — it all came naturally. During summers the Precht brothers worked full-time in the rice fields of Krielow Farms, Roanoke, La., but even during the school year, the pace wasn’t much different. “As boys during the school year, we’d wake up early and flag for my dad when he was crop dusting. If there was a soybean run, we’d flag from daylight to 8 a.m.; seventeen steps and move, seventeen more steps and move, the width of the plane’s spray — all the way across the field.  Then we’d get to school late, but I never thought a thing about it being hard work — that’s just the way it was.

“I cut my agriculture teeth at Krielow Farms. Everything I really learned about farming was from the Krielows. They were the finest of people — Chris, Carl and Bill. They were true family and knew everything about farming — and I mean everything.”

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

Precht believes he was destined to either be an agriculture pilot or a dirt mover, and in his early twenties he chose dirt — a decision he’s never regretted. With a boost from the Krielows, Precht began moving dirt in the construction industry and it was a seamless transition: shovel to a tractor to a dozer to a bucket. But after several years in construction, Precht couldn’t shake the pull of farmland and agriculture. Through some Mennonite friends, he inquired about dirt moving openings in Mississippi, and moved to the Delta in 1994. Precht had never been involved with precision land leveling and remains indebted to the Mennonite community for a great deal of help

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a bunch of Mennonite guys over the years, and I was able to learn a lot of tricks of the trade from them. Mennonites were some of the first in Delta agriculture to begin precision land forming, and I owe a ton of what I know of land leveling to them. When you work beside someone — you watch, listen, and learn — and Mennonites were the people I took notes from.”

Just two years later, in 1996, producer Bowen Flowers, Omega Plantation, started a dirt operation and hired Precht to run the crew. “It was a no-brainer for me. We now run three rigs and Bowen lays out ground each year that keeps us very busy. I was beyond fortunate to come from southwest Louisiana and be able to work for the Flowers.”

No forgiveness in crop dusting

Despite success and good fortune in dirt moving, Precht has never let go of flying airplanes. When the fields are too wet to work, he takes to the skies, flying at least several times each week. But he only flies out of passion and love; he wouldn’t trade his “stress-free” job for crop dusting. He knows he made the right career decision years ago: “I know I would have made an excellent ag pilot, but I’m truly blessed by God to run a dirt crew.”

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

Precht also knows the risks inherent in flying over farmland. There is no forgiveness in crop dusting — it only takes one mistake. Precht makes it clear that danger always hovers close, and any ag pilot — rookie or veteran — works only a few feet from death. “It takes a special individual to get in the cockpit, put it on the deck, work it day-in and day-out, and breathe in life-and-death situations all day long.”

And he speaks with sobering authority — because in February of 2013, it all came home for the Precht family.

Billy Precht — ag pilot extraordinaire

When Robert Precht left the Krielow rice fields for construction, Billy Precht left the fields for agricultural aviation. Bolstered by the 42-year crop dusting legacy of his father, Billy was a natural. He was no daredevil and didn’t play with chance; just a straight-laced pilot with a reputation for fine work. He was a man’s man with no flash and no boasting. But on Feb. 15, 2013, despite Billy’s caution and years of experience, the risks caught up.

Finishing a spray as the sun was edging down, Billy made a final pass into a Jennings rice field at 150 miles per hour. On the approach, his left wing clipped a communication tower guy wire just 3.5 feet in from the wingtip. The force of the strike jolted the aircraft, slowed it to 120 miles per hour — and knocked Billy unconscious. From the moment of collision with the guy wire, his plane flew on its own for two-and-a-half minutes. The plane went into an immediate climb, rising to 400 feet, and began a gradual descending arc around the field. It had almost circled back to the communications tower before coming down in a hard landing, nearly in line with the original pass Billy had started on. The aircraft wasn’t balled up and the wreckage wasn’t severe — but Billy Precht, at age 52, had already passed on — unable to survive the initial jarring impact with the guy wire.

Robert was shattered. “My brother meant the world to me. I’m still just as crazy about him and he’ll always be alive in my heart. I was proud of him and I’ll honor my brother until the day I see him again.”

 

 

Robert went to the crash site to take it all in: tower, trajectory, impact spot — none of it made sense until days later, when he looked at the aircraft’s GPS card and saw the odd flight pattern and trajectory. “I believe God came and put his hand in and set the plane down. In all rights, that plane should have been balled up or been buried in the ground. I just think it was Billy’s time. I always figured I’d go before him, being the wild card of the brothers.”

Robert stayed out of the air for a month after Billy’s death, and then steeled himself to climb back in the cockpit — partly for Billy, partly for himself: “Now every time I fly — I feel like he’s with me. We used to tell each other, ‘Brother, if I punch out before you, I’ll give you some kind of sign.’ Let me tell you something. One night, days after my brother had passed, I woke at 3 a.m., to the sound of Billy’s voice telling me he was OK. This was no dream — I heard the voice. I got up, sat in the kitchen and knew I’d heard Billy. On the days when I get to feeling down — I go back to that voice.”

Life in the box

Despite the loss of his brother, Precht is grateful for his lot in life. Each day, he and his men shift the ground that feeds the world, and there is no role he would rather play. As a child, it was spoons and toy tractors in the dirt; as a man, it’s life in the box — and he loves it all — working with his crew, making the circle each day and moving dirt.

“Some days I shake my head and recognize how blessed I am to be working for the people I do, especially with all the dirt movers in Coahoma County. Everybody wants to feel like they do a fine job at whatever they work on. I can’t say I’m the best — but I’ll tell you, I can work right along with the best.

“I’m at home in the box and that’s where I’m comfortable because it’s second-nature to me. Not everybody wants to get on a tractor and not everybody can hack it. I’ve always been so fortunate with the people I’ve worked with. It takes a unique and special breed to get in the box and roll all day.”

Indeed. Takes one to know one.

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

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