HOLCOMB, Mo. — Here, on the northern edge of the Bootheel near Holcomb, Mo., the boll-load is heavy and Jeff Todd is happy.

“What I’ve picked so far has been between 818 pounds to 1,109 pounds,” says the 35- year-old. “I’ve got a few fields left to pick that will probably come in under 818 pounds, but I’ve got a few more that will go 1,100 or better. I just want to keep my average stable — I’m happy with it.

“We had a helluva crop last year, too. This is the first time we’ve had great back-to-back seasons in a long, long time.”

Getting the contract

It’s been a good year in another way, too: Todd was recently the first Missouri farmer awarded a Conservation Security Program (CSP) contract.

“I’m an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) participant, so I was familiar with the NRCS fellows at the local office,” says Todd. “They’re good folks. A few months ago, I told them, ‘Guys, I’m reading Delta Farm Press articles on CSP and I want in.’ They told me not to get my hopes up. The program was in its infancy and nothing had been set in stone yet.”

In June, when rules for the CSP program were finalized, a public meeting was held in the area. NRCS employees told farmers they needed to have applications ready in a couple of weeks. In the heart of growing season, that was a tall order.

“We were right in the middle of spraying plant bugs and beans and all kinds of stuff,” says Todd. “But I was determined to get it done. So my wife, Treasure, and I worked on it non-stop for a week — we were up all night several times. It was 20 times worse than filling out a college application. They wanted nutrient records, pesticide records for every field, a cropping rotation report and all kinds of other stuff. They take that information and use some kind of formula to score each farm.”

Preparing the spray record was the most tedious part of the whole package.

“Look at this,” says Todd, pulling a yellow legal pad from his pick-up dashboard. The pad has been divided into fields and sprays with myriad other notations. “It’s like someone who’s worked out his own filing system. I know exactly what that chicken-scratch means, but I had to translate it for the NRCS guys — and this is just one of many such pads. It was very time-consuming.

“Anyway, we got it turned in and they told me, ‘Man, a bunch of folks are wanting a piece of this. There’s a bunch of interest.’”

The long nights paid off as Todd was the first to get his paperwork in and the first awarded a contract.

“What made it easy for us was some of the things you’ve got to do for CSP, I was already doing for the EQIP program. We already had wildlife strips planted, for example.”

While land-improvement is paramount, Todd admits his interest in CSP is also monetary. “Who doesn’t want those payments? It would be disingenuous to say it isn’t about that. I don’t even hunt. I sure love wildlife, though — the more I have, whether I hunt or not, the more it pays!” Todd laughs. “I want wild animals running all over my fields.”

CSP is structured in three tiers with requirements for moving up the ladder. Currently, Todd is at Tier II, where payments max out at $28,000. He wants to move up to Tier III, where maximum payment levels move to $35,000.

“For me to become a Tier 3, I’ll have to address diesel fuel containment and a chemical pad and containment facility. If I don’t get those projects done next year, I’ll definitely be there the next. I’ve already agreed to do work on wildlife benefits, soil erosion (water or wind). If you’ve been planting cover crops and putting drop-pipes into gulleys and things like that, you’re already in the game.”

Important to gaining a CSP contract are local NRCS employees, says Todd. “You need those guys as allies. You have to go into the office because they aren’t going to search you out. But if you darken their door, they’re happy to help.”

I’m a cotton farmer

After graduating high school in 1987, Todd began farming with his father. The two now work 2,400 acres.

“This year, we had 400 acres of corn, about 1,200 of cotton, 250 acres of wheat (producing nearly 60 bushels to the acre this season) and the balance in soybeans — both early and double-crop. Our beans are almost ready. Pods are heavy and look good: even in problem fields we’ll average 35 bushels.

“Our corn was a little above average. Some fields were exceptional. Other fields were marginal, because we’d just fresh-graded them. We didn’t expect to knock a homerun in those fields — they just had buckets across them last fall. We still averaged 152 dry bushels.”

The best parts of Todd’s crops are on his higher ground. This year, his crops were on the verge of getting too much rain.

“With a little less rain we would have made an even better crop because some of our low-lying areas were dinged a little. But we’ll take this year.”

Asked to categorize himself, Todd doesn’t hesitate. “I’m a cotton farmer! You know, there’s nothing like firing up that combine and rolling through an 80-bushel wheat field, golden waves rippling. And I love moving through 200-bushel corn and watching it pour into the grain tank. But when the cotton picker cranks up, that’s when my heart kick-starts.”

About a month ago, while piddling around the shop, Todd was getting the picker ready. Someone turned the key.

“When the fan kicked on and made that humming noise, I got a little antsy. You know, ‘It’s almost time!’ I dig cotton harvest like some folks do the start of football season,” says Todd with a chuckle. “And it’s time to get it on!”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com<