Nearby to Stewart Weaver’s Edmondson, Ark., farm office, a concrete slab marks the spot where a two-story commissary-type building once stood. His grandparents lived on the top floor; on the bottom floor was a small grocery store, with a post office in the back.
“My grandmother was postmaster here — forever, it seemed — from the early 1900s until she passed away in 1995.”
The family used to also have a gin across the railroad tracks.
“My father was born and raised here,” Stewart says. “I was, too. I’m a third-generation farmer. My nephew, who came on board this year, represents the fourth generation.” Edmondson is certainly home for us.”
Edmondson is a few miles south of I-40 and a short drive west of Memphis. The bulk of the Weaver’s land is right around town, although they farm 1,200 acres just south of West Memphis.
“We’re very fortunate to have our land close -- not a lot of travel. This year, we had about 430 acres of grain sorghum, 425 acres of cotton, and 3,800 acres of soybeans and 490 acres of wheat.”
Weaver vows that cotton will always be a part of the operation.
“We gin at Crittenden Gin, just north of Marion. The cotton acres are definitely down and what they run through the gin is not what it once was. We ginned 85,000 bales in 2006 and just over 26,000 in 2013.
“For the most part, though, the group that gins there is committed to cotton. We’re going to stay with it. We’ve invested in the needed equipment and infrastructure.”
The operation is at the bare minimum of cotton acres unless the price “goes way below 50 cents.”
But if Weaver went away from cotton, he jokes, “I’m scared my grandfather would kick all the dirt off his grave and come get me! We are committed to cotton.
“My father has always said, ‘We’re able to make a living because of cotton. We’re where we are today because of cotton. Don’t give up on it.’
“We come to cotton honestly and that will continue.”
Weaver’s father was once chairman of Cotton, Incorporated, a board his son is currently a member of. Weaver is also involved with Cotton Council International, is a National Cotton Council advisor, and a director of STAPLCOTN.
As if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, Weaver is also the current chairman of the United Sorghum Check-off Program.
“We’ve come to realize there’s a very good rotation between cotton and grain sorghum. It’s a good practice for, among other things, root knot nematode. When you start treating grain sorghum like a money-making crop, you can make good yields.”
In this area, grain sorghum acres have been down. However, the crop is slowly building momentum due to the spread of resistant pigweeds. Many farmers want to go back to some of the old chemistries, he says, “old practices to break up the pigweed cycle – atrazine and other things. Cotton/grain sorghum is just agronomically beneficial for us. We get in the field a little earlier and get out a bit faster, as well.
“We don’t have to worry about some of the lines at the elevators and the aflatoxin with corn. Don’t get me wrong, corn is a good crop. We’ve grown it in the past and enjoyed success. But what we’re doing now just works better for us. We’re able to break the root knot nematode cycle and work on resistant weeds in our cotton.”
Weaver is also prone to plant grain sorghum behind soybeans that may have a root knot problem. “I believe that’s showing up in fields that are being planted in beans after beans after beans. You know, $13 soybeans will drive folks to plant them repeatedly.”
Mid-South agriculture is very diverse, he points out. “We can plant just about anything and have success. A lot of decisions are made on the turn-row in the spring. You come in with a good idea of what you want to plant. But growers here can shift fairly easily due to the impacts of weather and markets.”
When did Weaver begin the cotton/sorghum rotation in earnest?
We’d been growing a bit of grain sorghum since the 80’s. But we were having problems with charcoal rot where the crop would lodge and go down.
“So, we shifted and moved to corn in 1992. We started doing some testing and quickly figured out you don’t have a root knot nematode problem if you don’t look for it. Well, we looked and some of the numbers were off the chart.”
The operation had unknowingly compounded the problem by putting corn right behind cotton. “We thought that was a good rotation -- and it is without nematodes.”
So, they shifted back to grain sorghum in 2000. That led to a significant reduction in nematode numbers and increased yields followed.
“We’ve stuck with the cotton/grain sorghum mix since then. We may grow more corn in the future but grain sorghum is a good fit for us now.
“In the past, grain sorghum has been the red-headed step-child. Producer’s would throw it out there and let whatever happen happen.’ Now, though, a lot of producers are starting to see that some of their dryland corn acres are better suited for grain sorghum or even cotton. Both those crops are little more tolerant of drought.
“Of course, some of the recent droughts have been extreme and no crop can live through that. But, in general, sorghum can be a better fit outside the pivot.”
Markets are also a consideration. As a farmer, “you kind of hang yourself out to the market. Now, sorghum is going to have close to the same price as corn. But there are options. I have 25,000 bushels of white food-grade sorghum in the bins that we grew this year. I’m currently in talks with a couple of pet food companies about moving that out. That’s an example of a niche market that is available.”
Arkansas, with a tremendous number of poultry facilities, is another opportunity for sorghum. “We just need to build that market up – if we can get a bit of a premium, why not?”
Many seed companies are pushing corn hard. “Sorghum seed is sitting in the back of the warehouse with eight inches of dust on top of it. The seed companies don’t see a great enough return.
“But the farmer, if he’ll give it a shot, will see that it does have a good return. If he’s making 25 to 40 bushels of dryland corn and could be making 80 to 100 bushels of dryland milo, that’s a significant difference. That’s one way education through the check-off can help increase awareness.”
The grain sorghum corridor is predominantly from south Texas up into Kansas. “We’re growing sorghum varieties here that have been developed for that corridor. Still, we’ve done very well.
“Through the United Sorghum Check-off Program, we’re doing a lot of work on new genetic introductions, food development, livestock nutrition, biofuel enhancements and other things that will benefit us. Beyond that, a lot of it is just bringing up the level of awareness, the fact that sorghum is a viable crop for the Mid-South.”
Since grain sorghum is a rotation crop for Weaver, “it won’t be the same acreage every year. It jumps around.
“For folks to get serious about a niche market there needs to be some understanding about what amount is needed. If you can get a better price, there needs to be some awareness of markets. We need to build that competition.”
With the check-off, “we’re working on new varieties. Growers need to approach some of the niche, or smaller, markets and find out what they’re looking for. More starch? More protein? Are you growing for poultry? For fuel and industrial uses? For human consumption?”
Another issue that producers must confront, says Weaver, is future access to water for irrigation. “Water is a huge issue coming to Southern agriculture. Look at what’s happening with water rights in Texas. Here in the Mid-South, we’re more fortunate and not in the dire straits that Texas is. But it’s very important that we go ahead and take this on and be proactive with what’s coming.
“The mindset of, ‘Oh, what’s happening in the West isn’t a worry over here’ is not going to fly. No, water needs are going to hit us all before it’s all said and done. So, we might as well get in front of this and have a loud voice about regulations and what needs to be done.
“We’re fortunate right here, close to the Mississippi River. We have a good supply of water. But at the same time, more and more wells are going in, more center pivots going up. You have to be able to irrigate now. A lot of lenders, if you don’t have some way to irrigate, may not be willing to partner with you or loan money.”
Unlike others, Weaver hasn’t invested heavily in storage capacity. “We can hold about 50,000 bushels. We’re fortunate to be this close to the Mississippi River. The farthest run for us to get to an elevator is about 10 miles.
“Now, we do have some grain bins for the years when prices dictate we need to hold our grain. Lately, we’ve been lucky enough to have a good marketing plan and just carry crops straight from the field to the elevators.
“We can keep grain sorghum in our bins. Right now, elevators aren’t going to tie up their storage with grain sorghum. Corn, rice and soybeans take up space first.
“Our storage did help when the river got so low several years ago and barges couldn’t travel.”
The 2013 growing season, says Weaver, began with late plantings due to rain. “Everyone got a little worried. But when you really considered the calendar, it wasn’t that late. In the earlier days, May was when you planted. I think part of that was we got such an early start in 2012.”
The cotton crop turned out “very well, very impressive. Our lowest cotton came in at 1,306 (pounds) and our highest was 1,410 -- both dryland. We’ve had some very good dryland yields in the past but this was out of the ordinary.”
Cooler evenings and timely showers “made a world of difference. Also, current genetics and the boll weevil eradication have really brought our yields around. Before eradication, we had all those buggy-whips in the top. Now, we have bolls all the way to the top.
“We haven’t made the shift to round bales. With the current market conditions, we’re going to stick with what we’ve already paid for.”