Marty and Diane Chenault of Bolivar County, Miss., were selected as Mississippi's nominees to the national Farm Bureau competition after a rigorous nomination, application and interview process to determine their commitment, ingenuity and success as young farmers in today's tumultuous agriculture climate.
The Chenaults were named the state winners of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmer and Rancher program at the closing banquet of the organization's recent annual meeting in Jackson, Miss.
The couple competed with six district winners for the honor, and as the state winners received cash, a truck, use of various agriculture equipment and an all-expense paid trip to the national competition in Hawaii from sponsors Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance, Dodge, Kubota Tractors, John Deere and MFBF.
The annual Young Farmer and Rancher designation at the district and state level is considered one of the most prestigious professional agricultural honors in Mississippi. Couples and/or individual farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 are nominated from each of Farm Bureau's seven organizational districts. The winners selected from those districts submit extensive applications outlining every aspect of their operation, leadership and community involvement. Even their financial records are put under scrutiny.
“Each nominee overcame diversity of some type to make an operation viable,” said Jim Thomas, an MSU Extension Service agricultural engineer and one of the three judges. “They were willing to take risks and use their imagination to help solve various problems they had or were facing. They are willing to work to achieve their goals.”
Greg Shows, director of the Young Farmer and Rancher program with MFBF estimates that some 75 percent of the state's young farmers who fall into the 18- to 35-year-old age category are involved to some degree in Farm Bureau's Young Farmer and Rancher program.
“The primary goal is leadership development for young people. It is to give them a sense of security when talking to media outlets, to groups in their community and to always be aware of opportunities to promote agriculture and to have a voice in the policies and decisions made at the local, state and national levels that affect the agriculture industry,” said Shows.
David Waide, president of MFBF, which topped a 224,000 membership drive in 2003, said as leader of the organization and as a long-time farmer he is more committed than ever before to the responsibility that the agriculture industry has “to protect America by keeping a safe and abundant domestic food supply. If we don't maintain a young farmer program — to keep this cycle of agriculture strong and growing — we are absolutely doomed and are not going to be able to produce the commodities that are most precious to us and that allow us the ability to sustain life as we know it with the food, fiber and abundant supplies that make adequate shelter.”
Marty Chenault grew up with a father and grandfather who both farmed and moved to Mississippi in 1948 from Cotton Plant, Ark., and were among the first farmers to grow rice in Bolivar County.
“I had a choice about coming home after college to farm, and the choice was in my heart,” said Chenault.
“I knew from day one that I loved farming. I still love it today. I don't think I'll ever retire. Even if sometime I turn it over to my sons, I'll still be out here farming.”
Chenault, who farms in a three-way partnership with his father H.M. Chenault Jr. and his uncle Norman Chenault, produces 3,200 acres of rice, soybeans and wheat with the majority under irrigation and about a third of the land precision graded. The operation has increased in size by about two-thirds since Marty returned to farm as a partner in 1988.
He immediately looked for progressive methods to improve their farming operation, which included adding more irrigation, precision leveling, more use of conservation tillage and the gradual incorporation of global positioning systems for yield monitoring and eventual variable input applications.
Chenault learned the basics of farming and sound business from his father and uncle, but he admits he is also blessed to farm near some of the best farmers in the state.
“We used to have guest speakers at our county Farm Bureau meetings, but then we realized we learned more just by spending the time talking to each other — discovering what worked or didn't work for each other.
“You learn so much from this older crowd,” said Chenault. “I'm president of the Bolivar County Farm Bureau, but I've got farmers to learn from like Kenneth Hood, Curtis Hood, Travis Satterfield and Ed Hester among others. I've got the best role models a young farmer could have.”
This year was a high-yielding and profitable year for the Chenaults. They averaged about 54 bushels per acre on their soybeans and close to 160 bushels per acre on rice.
“We had good yields and better prices this year. The past few years the prices have really been sour, but we've still managed to make money. Daddy says in recent times we had one year we didn't turn a profit. We didn't make money that year, but we didn't lose any.”
Chenault says his involvement in Farm Bureau and other civic and agricultural organizations is important for agriculture in a time when consumers seem to be less interested in how and why they have cheap and safe food.
“The public needs be more aware. Too many people think milk comes from the grocery store. They have no idea beyond that.”
Marty's wife, Diane, works off the farm part time as a phlebotomist. The rest of her time is spent raising three sons, Bryce, Colby and Cory. She is also preparing for the birth of one more child, also a son, due in February. Her oldest son, Brett McClendon, passed away several years ago. Diane is active in Delta Rice Promotions, many school- and church-related activities and is a member of Junior Auxiliary.
“I was a city girl growing up. I've learned there is a big, big difference in city life and country life, but I've learned so much about farming now that I feel almost like an expert. I can't imagine Marty doing anything else. Anytime he talks to anyone, it's always about farming,” she said.
With four sons who could possibly move into his place in the farming operation, Marty sees both sides of that occupational choice for them.
“One side wants to see them all out there. I grew up out there, and I was close to my parents. One side wants them to have that, too. I just hope the farming economy and the whole aspect of the industry is something attractive enough to them that they can make a good living at it.
“I was fortunate. I had a family operation to give me the way into farming. If you don't have that, it's hard to get into farming. It's for sure you have to have a good head for business, a good bank account and a good banker.”
Other Mississippi district winners in the contest, who received a $500 cash award and a trip to the MFBF state meeting, are Bradley Taylor, a Jersey dairy farmer from near Booneville, Miss.; Scott and Lesley Cannada from Edwards, Miss., who raise row crops, cattle and timber; Rodney and Christine Mast, who run a diversified row crop, catfish, hog and equipment sales operation in Crawford, Miss.; cattle producers Doug and Missy Rogers of Collins, Miss.; Shane and Christy Brown of Carthage, Miss., who raise broiler chickens and timber; and Randy and Jody Dial, who always raise broiler chickens and cattle and own a florist and greenhouse business.
For more information on the Young Farmer and Rancher Program or any Farm Bureau activity visit the Farm Bureau Web site at www.msfb.com  or visit a local Farm Bureau office in your area.
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or [email protected]