One day Casey Hook hopes to become a farming partner in his father Mike’s operation. In the meantime, he’s working to build his own farm. Slowly, but surely, he’s getting there.
“I want to be able to bring something to the table,” Casey said about his farming goals. “I don’t want to say, ‘I’m ready to get in. I want to use your equipment and your acres.’ I understand that’s not how it works. I want to bring something to the table, to say, ‘I’ve added this over the years, and I’m ready to get in.’”
Eventually, Casey, 21, would like to farm about 2,500 acres — not too big and not too little. “I don’t want to work my life away, but I’d like to make a good living and still be able to justify some of the equipment I’m buying.”
Casey began farming in 2009, after graduating from Riverside High School in Lake City, Ark., in 2008. He started out with 40 acres of dryland cotton on land owned by a family friend. He had a less-than-auspicious start thanks to nematodes and lack of rainfall. “I didn’t come out ahead, but I didn’t get blistered too bad,” he recalls. “But I found out I liked it. I found out I liked to farm.”
When Casey told his father he wanted to keep farming after that first crop, Mike had a few words of advice for his son. “I told him he needed to finish college so he’ll have something to fall back on. That’s why he hasn’t been real aggressive expanding his farming acreage.”
After high school graduation, Casey went to Arkansas Northeastern for two years, then went to work on an ag business degree at Arkansas State University. He hopes to complete the degree within a year. The college experience is helpful, according to Casey, but nothing prepares him for farming better than farming. “To me, farming is more hands on. You can look at a book all day, but it’s not relevant until you get out there and see it in the field.”
Casey increased the size of his operation to 130 acres in 2010, including 100 acres of rice. He also farmed the same dryland cotton field as before, but cut back to 30 acres of cotton. “I got blistered again on the cotton. I picked only a bale. But I yielded 175 bushels on my rice.”
In his third year, 2011, Casey got the message. He’s farming 200 acres — all irrigated. Even so, this season once again proved to Casey that every year in farming is a challenge no matter how many risks you can manage. “I have a field of soybeans that has been through a flood, a tornado, a hailstorm and wind damage. It’s been up and down. I think whatever I made last year may go into paying for this crop. But that’s what you get into when you get into farming.”
Casey tries to pattern his management style around his father’s. “My dad is known for producing under high yield environments, and that is something I try to pick up on. I understand that is the only way to ever pick up ground or make money.”
Keys to staying in business
“If you can’t yield, you can’t stay in this business,” Mike Hook said. “The keys for me are fertility, good water management, tillage and weed control.”
Casey points out that marketing is also a big part of his farming operation. “I watch the markets all the time. If you don’t market well, you can have a bumper crop and not make any more money than someone making half that.”
Helping Casey plow through the learning curve includes his consultants, Eddie and Danny Dunigan, Branon Thiesse, Extension agent for Craighead County, local growers Danny Qualls and Greg Womack, and Casey’s parents, Mike and Karen.
“My dad and mom have supported me all through the years, even those times when I thought I might not want to farm. When I’m busy, and I need help keeping my books, my mom will help out.”
Thiesse says Casey isn’t afraid to ask questions or challenge farming practices. “He wants to know why we do things a certain way. He asks me some hard questions sometimes.”
When asked what he liked most about a farming career, Casey said, “It gives you some satisfaction. I like to look out across it and say it was mine.”
On the downside of farming, Casey said, “Just being straddled over a barb wire fence, when you have all your money tied up in the crop and you don’t know whether you’re going to make it or not. There are huge risks in farming and sometimes those risks are not seen. But there can be big rewards. So it’s a double edge sword.”
The most important thing for Casey is that he truly believes he’s found his calling. “Farming is fun,” Casey said. “It doesn’t bother me to wake up every morning. I don’t dread going to my job every day. I like what I do, and it seems like farming is on my mind 24 hours a day and in my dreams.
“I’ve got the fire and I want to make it. I know there have been farmers who have faded out, and I don’t want that. I want to be up there with the elite.”
Casey’s father has mixed emotions about his son’s farming career. “I’m proud of him, but I’m real guarded. I know it’s a hard market for him to try and get into and try to accumulate things.
“I’m pushing 60, so I’m not going to be in this game for the long run. I know he has the drive and will succeed if he has the opportunity. It’s really surprised me. He learns in a hurry.”