At the grand old age of 11, Rick Parsons of Vance, Miss., had his introduction to agriculture. It wasn't a very glamorous or auspicious beginning. But it was one that he remembers (and very vividly) until today.

“My grandfather introduced me to farming back in 1957 when I was only 11 years old,” remembers Parsons. “I chopped cotton. And if you've ever chopped cotton, you know what a tough job that is.

“1957 was a very wet year in the Mississippi Delta,” he recalls. “I've never done anything that I hated so badly. I used to say that if I ever had a son, the first job he would learn on the farm is to chop cotton… and when it's wet.”

Parsons, however, must have graduated from that cotton chopping class with honors.

Today, he is considered by many of his Mississippi farming peers as “the ultimate farm manager” and has earned the recognition as the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Mississippi for 2003. The Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service nominated him for the honor.

From a cotton chopper introduction, Parsons started farming on his own while a college student. He started growing soybeans on 90 acres of farmland owned by his father, renting the land and equipment from him.

“And what valuable experience that was,” said Parsons. “Having no other labor cost, I was the employer and the employee.”

In 1972, Parsons began managing the soybean operation for S.M. Fewell & Company, Inc. And in only two years (1974), he became manager of the entire operation. Under his leadership, expansion and growth continued and in 1986 a partnership with other stockholders was set up, forming Fewell Planting Company.

Today's massive operation covers 9,421 acres. There's 3,892 acres of irrigated corn that produces 176.5 bushels per acre; 1,030 acres of irrigated cotton, yielding 918 pounds per acre; 1,558 acres of wheat, producing 46 bushels per acre; and 746 irrigated acres of soybeans that yield 41 bushels per acre (double-cropped).

Also included are rice, another soybean operation, timber and pecans that are rented to a third party.

“When I first took over as manager of the operation, we had a lot of problems,” said Parsons. “Problems in just about every area — labor, marketing, bookkeeping, technology, equipment. We went to work on solving the problems and making the operation as efficient and productive as possible.”

Parsons has his list of objectives that has made the difference in a highly successful turnaround: (1) technology; (2) bookkeeping; (3) precision agriculture; (4) aerial photos; (5) good labor; (6) efficient operation; and (7) marketing strategy.

“I thoroughly enjoy making everything fit together,” he says. “We are on the cutting edge of a lot of new technology and precision agriculture is a must. In our current bookkeeping process, everything we spend is charged to one of the crops. We now have a tremendous labor force and use the aerial photos to help us plan our fields for the future.

“Our equipment is modern and up-to-date with the latest technology,” he added, “and we use a marketing plan to minimize risk. To keep up with the market daily, we use a DTN computer screen, which updates market prices every 10 minutes.”

Another prime example of Parsons' management skills is evident in a 900-acre cotton field. “That 900 acres at one time was chopped up into 131 fields,” he says. “Hard to manage. Today, it's down to two fields with rows over a mile long and much more efficient.”

Being selected as the 2003 Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Mississippi is the second major award this year for Parsons. In July, he was presented North Area Cropland Conservationist Award by the Mississippi Association of Conservation District, Inc.

Parsons also finds time to take an active role as a community leader. He currently serves on the board for the Tallahatchie County Farm Bureau; is on the board of directors for Tutwiler Ginning Company; is an elder at Sumner Presbyterian Church; is a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity; and is on the board of directors for the Delta Council.

“Carlisle (wife) and I both enjoy taking active roles in our community,” said Parsons. “This area of Mississippi has been good to us for a lot of years and we just want to give something back in return.”

Parsons and Carlisle have one son, Richard S. Parsons, who is the chief of staff to Commissioner Jim Newsome, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington, D.C.

Parsons and seven other state finalists from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia will be honored during the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie, Ga., during the dates of Oct. 13-16. The 2003 Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year will be announced at a luncheon Oct. 14.

As the Mississippi state winner, Parsons will receive $2,500 from Swisher International, who, along with the Sunbelt Expo, has sponsored the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for 14 years. He will also receive a jacket and a $200 gift certificate from the Williamson-Dickie Company; a $500 gift certificate from Southern States; and a fireproof home safe ($300 value) from Misty Morn Safe Company.

Previous state winners from Mississippi include: Hugh Arant Sr. of Ruleville, 1990; Bill Hawks of Hernando, 1991; Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, 1992; James (Tol) Thomas of Cruger, 1993; Rick Parsons of Vance, 1994; Ed Hester of Benoit, 1995; Bill Harris of Benton, 1996; Robert Miller of Greenwood, 1997; Ted Kendall III of Bolton, 1998; Wayne Bush of Schlater, 1999; William Tackett of Schlater, 2000; Willard Jack of Belzoni, 2001; and Hugh Arant Jr. of Ruleville, 2002.

The 2003 Southeastern Farmer of the Year will receive a $14,000 cash award from Swisher; a custom-designed jacket, another $300 gift certificate and $500 cash from Dickies; the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor of their choice for a year from AGCO; a $3,600 custom-made gun safe from Misty Morn; and another $500 gift certificate from Southern States.

Three Mississippi state finalists have been selected as the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year — Hood, Hester, and Jack.