Driving the winding, twisty Highway 5 that runs through steep, wooded hills from Hickory Flat to Ashland, inone of the state’s most sparsely populated counties — in the 2010 census, Benton County ranked 76 of 82; Ashland, the county seat, had a population of 569— one wonders that there is farming at all.

But the northern portion of the county, less than 20 miles from the Tennessee line, has quite a bit of open land, with several large-scale farming operations.

“A lot of folks don’t know there’s farming in this area of the state,” Kevin says, “or that there are quite a number of center pivot operations on farms here. We just quietly do our own thing. We installed the first center pivot system in this area on one of our farms in 2008.

“We have about 20 different farms in Benton and Marshall Counties, all within a 10-mile radius of our headquarters. The largest is 600 acres, the smallest less than 10 acres.

“We now have about 500 acres that we irrigate with four Valley center pivots, all fed from wells. We have to drill to about 350 feet to get an adequate volume of water — which really is not bad, considering that in some hill areas you’d have to go 1,000 feet or more. And with a drilling cost of about $100 per foot, that wouldn’t be economically feasible in a lot of cases.

“Four of our systems are diesel-powered; the other is electric. But I wish all were electric because of the cheaper operational costs. Unfortunately, we can’t get a three-phase power line to those areas. We’re negotiating with one of our landlords to install another pivot or two, which would add another 150 acres of irrigation capability.”

The past two cropping seasons have been “really great — the best in my farming career,” Kevin says. But last year didn’t start out so great.

“When the hot, dry weather hit last June, I figured we’d do well to get only half a soybean crop. But showers came along in early July, the crop perked up, and we ended with 40 bushel to 50 bushel yields. Soybean prices were great — we got $17 for some of our beans and sold a lot more in the $15 range.”

He planted mostly Asgrow Group Vs, “But we also had some Hornbeck Group IVs that did really well. We’ll continue with those varieties this year.

“Corn was excellent too; on our irrigated land, yields ranged from 175 bushels to 200 bushels, and dryland was 120 bushels to 130 bushels. We planted Pioneer, Dekalb, and Croplan varieties. We sold some at $8, and got a good price for the rest.

“We’ve got some of this year’s wheat booked at $8. These prices won’t last forever, of course. When I started farming on my own in 1987, times were tough, equipment was expensive, and money was hard to come by. I’ve seen both sides of the farming picture, and I know agriculture is nothing if not cyclical. It has been nice to have a couple of good years, even with higher costs for all our inputs.”