Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field. — Dwight Eisenhower, 1956
With over 50 years in farming, Leon Parker possesses a deep-rooted knowledge of cotton. Familiarity breeds comfort, and Parker long has been a proponent of vertical integration. From planting seed, to a flying service, to following the bales out of the gin — he remains deeply involved at each level.
Yet, compelled by economic necessity and a grim forecast, Parker is steering his farm toward what he feels is inevitable change — grain production. “Everybody has headed to grain. Cotton is just not paying the bills now.”
Parker is co-owner of Parker Farming Co., Belzoni, Miss., along with two sons, Steve and Lee. He moves with a slow gait as he walks the edges of his farming operation, but is quick to make clear that only the force of circumstance has pushed him into making the decision away from cotton.
“We've got about 450 acres of wheat. This is our first year to plant wheat. We're learning. We had to get back in the combine and grain hauling business. We've been in cotton for years, and renting the grain land out. With the changing economic situation, we've gotten into the grain business.”
Steve Parker echoes his father's sentiments. “It's something that we hated to see happen, but you have to do what you have to do to try and make a living. This is the route it looks like we need to go.”
Throughout the Delta, Steve Parker says, he's witnessed the same pattern with other cotton producers. “Several farmers I know had started rotating their cotton ground with corn, and we know that's a good management practice — helps with fertilization of cotton land. But we just finally pulled the trigger and went full into grain.”
It's been a full-circle ag route for Steve Parker. Growing up in Belzoni, he worked the family farm with his father as a teenager, attended the University of Mississippi, and graduated with a degree in accounting. He then took a job with International Paper in Shreveport, La., for three years. But when the catfish market blossomed in the late 1970s as farmers began converting lowlands into fish ponds, the lure of home and opportunity pulled him back to the family farm.
“My dad asked me if I might be interested in that (catfish farming), and I was. The rest is history. I've been on this farm now for 28 years.”
The Parker agricultural roots extend well past Steve Parker's 28-year stretch, and even significantly beyond Leon Parker's half-century in farming. The story reads like a textbook case of Depression-era sustenance.
O.M. Parker was working a factory job in St. Louis, Mo. “He was kind of a short guy — wasn't as big as some people, and the jobs were very physical. He got beat out of a better-paying job by a bigger guy,” notes Steve Parker as he describes his grandfather.
O.M. Parker and his wife began saving their money, and in the late 1920s followed their intuition to the South — 40 acres of land at $1 per acre in Belzoni, Miss. The land was a cutover purchased from a timber company.
Leon Parker chuckles as he recalls his father's efforts to finish clearing the acreage. “He started clearing it up, which was hard work, and I got in on some of that.” O.M. Parker's original $40 purchase became the core of today's Parker Farming Co.
The Parker farm currently encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of cropland: 300 acres of corn, 450 acres of wheat, 450 acres of cotton, and 600 acres of soybeans. In addition, they operate 500 acres of catfish ponds.
The Parkers are part owners of a local co-op gin, Mid-Delta Cotton Processors, and Leon Parker is blunt about its prospects. “At our gin, we've got about four producers planting cotton this year. That may change — may not. We've got one guy that's been raising about 4,000 acres of cotton — this time he's got 600.”
Leon Parker's own cotton production has usually hovered at around 1,800 acres, but has dwindled to its current level of 450 acres. The Parkers have seen Mid-Delta gin go from approximately 50,000 bales to this year's projected output of 5,000 to 10,000 bales.
Their grain acreage will likely increase again next year, according to Leon Parker. “It depends on the price of beans and corn.”
In turn, that means that next year again probably will see a reduction in cotton acreage. “We'd like to plant a little cotton, but it depends on the economic situation. Most of them (cotton producers) have abandoned it.”
As the Parkers make their entrance into grain, Steve Parker says, they have been monitoring cotton's decline for some time. “We were pretty much prepared for it. We'd seen the margins dwindling every year. We'd seen the costs increasing every year. It was just getting harder and harder with the risks that are involved with cotton and the expenses.
“So we saw it coming, but we were a little hesitant to get fully into grain. But when the price spiked — we just pulled the trigger and bought a combine and Rol Hopper system to go ahead and get mostly into grain.”
In tandem with cotton's turn, the Parker's fish investment has been a source of concern. Fertilizer increases, soaring feed costs, low sales prices, and even higher electricity expenses are combining to crush the catfish profit line.
The catfish slump has Steve Parker considering a switch to rice. Leon Parker had grown rice in the late 1970s, before the switch to catfish. The logistics of a once bountiful cotton/catfish pairing have begun to lose their economic spur.
“That's kind of what we've been on for 28 years (cotton and catfish), and then all of a sudden — things have changed. I'm 51 years old and everything's changed, so I've got to learn again. We're thinking about it (rice) if the fish business doesn't make it along. We're thinking about drying up some of the ponds and growing rice in the bottom of those — pretty fertile ground. From what I understand, some people … are already doing that in dried up catfish ponds, and they're having real good luck with the rice.”
Steve Parker has embraced change and emphasizes diversity within a farming operation. “It's always been a philosophy of ours not to put all the eggs in one basket.”
Last year, soybeans were his most profitable crop. This year, wheat and corn will be profitable, as will beans again. He acknowledges the markets remain unpredictable. “We are trying to be reactionary because things are so fluid in the economy and commodities market — you never know.”
The concerns at Parker Farming Co. relate to the same issues voiced by Americans across the workplace spectrum: anxiety over an imbalanced economy, resentment over fuel prices, agitation over financial markets, and general bewilderment with government.
“This is as wild as I've ever seen it. I was talking about how it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the fuel shortages and high interest rates. It feels similar now, everything is kind of up in the air with the total economy of the country, fuel costs — and we're in an election year,” says Steve Parker. “It's been a pretty volatile time. I think pretty much everybody can recognize that across the country.”
The adjustment to grain is a continuing learning experience at Parker Farming Co., as it has been for many Delta farmers. However, Steve Parker adds that most of his fellow producers are not actually in the process of heading toward grain — but rather are already there.