ST. FRANCIS COUNTY, Ark. -- Henri Wedell once protested in a huff to his tenant, rice and soybean producer Tony Wilkie, that Wilkie took too long to let his beans dry down before cutting them, and thus missed a 4-inch rain that could have flooded up the farm for duck hunting.
Wilkie walked away from that one shaking his head.
Another time, Wedell was only half joking when he complained that Wilkie's brand new combine left fewer beans on the ground for waterfowl than his old worn-out machine did.
Wilkie laughs at the memory. "He's a wonderful guy, a very sharp fellow, but there isn't but one thing on his mind during duck season."
That's why it's kind of surreal the way that Wedell carries on these days.
For example, he called Wilkie one morning this season wanting to know if the grass-killer Wilkie applied on rice was working. And Wedell and Wilkie recently had a spirited discussion on the high cost of chemicals, with Wedell pointing out that an aerial application of a herbicide on 550 acres of rice costs $25,000.
Has Wedell, a retired stockbroker whose waking thoughts are of pulling the trigger on a fast-moving duck, not a herbicide spray, gone soft between the ears? Not a chance.
Wedell's interest in Wilkie's farming operation is the result of a new crop-share agreement the landlord worked out with Wilkie and another tenant, Dan Anderson, in which he pays the cost of producing the crops they raise on his farm, in St. Francis County, Ark.
He came up with the unique deal after the 2002 season. Wilkie and Anderson had just completed a disastrous rice harvest in which they cut waist-deep ruts over Wedell's 1,300-acre rice and soybean farm and duck-hunting haven. They lost money and figured they had just about closed the window on timely ground preparation the following spring.
Wilkie informed Wedell that he simply would not be able to farm the land anymore. Anderson was equally apprehensive about paying rent for a risky venture. Wilkie and Anderson started making other plans.
But Wedell had invested a lot of time in Anderson and Wilkie and didn't want to lose them. "The truth of the matter is we do have a good relationship," said Wedell, who spends his time between the Arkansas farm and a cattle operation he owns in Argentina. "When Tony said he had to leave the farm because he wasn't making any money, he wasn't negotiating. It behooved me to come up with a deal that would be satisfactory to him and that I could live with.
"And besides, what this farm really needed was a change of luck, not a change of farmers," Wedell said.
Wedell, who is of Danish descent, also knew that Wilkie, Anderson and other eastern Arkansas farmers were in a difficult plight not of their making, and the situation called for drastic measures.
"This part of the country has been in what I call 'a perfect storm' for the past 36 months," Wedell said. "We've had low farm prices, semi-drought during the growing season, and last year to further devastate the local farmers, we had low crop prices, a hard-growing season — although we grew a good crop — and a terribly wet harvest season. Farmers have been worn out by this perfect storm, and to keep two good farmers on the land, we just had to get innovative."
So Wedell and his co-owner offered to pay all the costs of producing the crop if the two producers would use their equipment to plant, make applications and harvest the crop. Wedell would receive 60 percent of the government check and 60 percent of the crop. Wilkie and Anderson would receive the remaining 40 percent of each.
With Wedell absorbing much of the risk, Wilkie and Anderson quickly agreed to the offer. Anderson realized that his greatest potential was in planting all rice. Wilkie stuck to his usual rotation.
"It's unique," Wedell said of the arrangement. "It was probably too good a deal because both Tony and Dan didn't think long before they took it.
"This deal only works if you have real faith and trust in the farmer," Wedell added. "For most people who don't have that kind of relationship, you don't know where those chemicals go. You don't have a clue whether they're spending the money on this farm or some other farm."
Wilkie and Anderson have gone to great lengths to make sure that everything stays on the up and up. They go over their co-op bills meticulously and discuss every chemical application with Wedell.
"It has opened my eyes to the cost of farming," Wedell said. "I didn't realize that every time a crop duster flies over these fields, I'm $25,000 in the hole. I didn't realize how much chemicals cost. The first thing I hear today is that I have bugs and leaf blight and both need another spraying. So I can count on another $50,000 going out. I can tell you it takes a lot of the fun out of life May through September."
So far this season, both landlord and tenants appear to be benefiting from the special arrangement.
"April was dry as a bone, so we were able to do all the fieldwork and get all the ruts out," Wedell said. "Then we were able to plant in May and June. Once we got our planting done, we had wonderful rainfall in July and August."
Wilkie has an even better explanation for the good growing season. "It was the luck of the new management," he said.
Wilkie and Anderson believe they've seen a change in Wedell, although it's more a change of perspective than of heart. "He has become very much aware," Wilkie said. "He's made the comment two or three times, 'I cannot believe that you guys are spending this kind of money.' The important thing is he wanted to keep dependable, honest farmers that he trusted on the farm."
"He understands more about farming now," Anderson added. "He understands that it's a weather-related business, too. There are certain things you can control and there are certain things you can't."
At one point during the season, Wedell was sure the arrangement with his tenants would be a one-time-only deal and for 2004, the relationship with Anderson and Wilkie would return to the way it had been before, with only duck feathers flying in the fall, not his dollar bills.
But as harvest wound down in September, good yields rolled in. Wedell sold some soybeans for $6.90 a bushel. The season was so encouraging that he and his tenants were planning to renew the 60/40 deal for the 2004 crop.
On a recent day, Wedell, Wilkie and Anderson hosted a group of farmers and University of Arkansas Extension personnel on a tour of a verification field on Wedell's farm. A field sign in front of the plot bears Wedell's name as farmer-cooperator.
"I'm a windshield farmer," Wedell conceded with a smile before joining the group. "I don't think I'll be driving a tractor anytime soon."
Wilkie and Anderson are quite impressed that their recreational landlord has taken to driving down turnrows and checking crops from behind the wheel. It's hard to miss the irony, though. It's a part of Wedell they might never have seen — had it not been for a perfect storm.
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