For months at a time, Dal Luther hung around Ronnie Kennett's office at Adams Land Co., in Leachville, Ark., hoping the land manager at the farming and ginning company would rent him a piece of ground to farm.
But it's tough for a young man with no experience or collateral to break into farming these days. Luther didn't have a family farm to ease into or any land of his own. His only hope was to hang around the business until something shook loose. Meanwhile, he guided duck hunts and bought a sprayer for custom work to pay the bills.
When he reached 25 in 2000, there was no available land in sight, and Luther was about to give up his lifelong dream to farm, and return to school. Then out of the blue, a local farmer retired, freeing up 160 acres of ground. Luther pounced on it.
“The next year, I picked up another 80 acres. Ronnie came through with some ground for me. Soon, I was at 830 acres. I kept adding and adding.”
By 2003, Luther was firmly entrenched in the farming business, thanks to a little luck, a little help from others and his own skill at farming.
“Finally, he got a break or two,” Kennett recalled. “Land was kind of hard to come by back then and we had to wait until someone retired or left the business for some reason.
“But he was persistent, letting me know that he was there ready to go to work anytime we had some land for him.”
Today, Luther and two full-time hands farm around 1,300 acres of cotton, 750 acres of corn and 60 acres of soybeans in three counties in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.
Though a cotton farmer at heart, Luther conceded a third of his acres to corn this year due to good current and projected corn prices. “I love growing cotton. I eat, sleep and breathe it. But I have to make money, and if I have to farm some grain to do that, I'll do whatever it takes. It's hard to make it on loan cotton.”
His plan is to rotate his 750 acres of corn with cotton, which he hopes will be beneficial to his bottom line in both crops. “I felt I could get my landlords just as good a revenue with corn as with cotton and raise cotton yields from the rotation. If I can stay a third grain and do a rotation, it should make my cotton yields better and take some of the pressure off my cotton picker come fall.”
After harvest in the fall, Luther runs a TerraTill subsoiler equipped with an air seeder and a guidance system.
“We try to rip as much as we can every year and put wheat in every middle. On furrow-irrigated ground, we've been having trouble plowing middles to run water, so we went to a rye cover in every other middle, and we run the water down the clean middles.”
When time starts running short, Luther switches to a cultivator equipped with an air seeder. “We'll bed up what we don't get ripped.”
He'll spray a dicamba product in late March for resistant horseweed and will start knocking down beds around April 1. Planting starts close to April 25, and with favorable weather, concludes in about a week.
He applies 5 pounds of Temik and his nitrogen behind the presswheel.
“We'll come back with a mixture of dry fertilizer, potash and phosphorus and a good dose of sulfur, on everything. We'll sidedress liquid fertilizer later in the season.”
Luther plants Bollgard II varieties, and has gone to 100 percent Roundup Ready Flex technology, about half planted to Deltapine and half to Stoneville brands. “I had about 90 acres of the Flex last year, and I found out that I can farm it cheaper. I don't put nearly the hours on my tractor now. So this year, we made the move to 100 percent Flex acres.”
Luther can keep weeds under control with three well-timed Roundup applications during the season, and will piggyback Pix and insecticide, when needed. At pinhead square, he'll band out an 8-ounce shot of Vydate with a 12-row rig.
Luther's acreage is about 96 percent irrigated, using a combination of center pivots and furrow irrigation. To get land in shape for furrow irrigation, he's invested in dirt moving equipment.
“Every year, I try to make improvements. Even on the pivot fields, I do a lot of the land grading and fix mud holes and drainage. I'm doing mostly maintenance work now.”
This year, with little rainfall to speak of in the region, irrigation started early and is running long.
“Normally, we'd be in good shape if we had our flexible pipe rolled out by July 4. This year, we had it rolled out June 4. By July 4, I had already used more diesel for irrigation than I used for the whole crop last year.
“As a matter of fact, we've watered so much, we're starting to leach some nitrogen. We may have to apply some more foliar nitrogen.”
At layby, “I'll go with Valor under the hood where needed. That also helps with resistant pigweeds.”
As of late July, Luther's consultant, Greg Smith, was reporting plant bugs were starting to rise in number and frequency, especially around corn fields. “We spray off the scouting reports, and this week we're spraying a lot of the same fields we sprayed last week. We used Centric early and we're now using Diamond and Bidrin.”
At defoliation, Luther will apply Folex and Dropp “with a little ethephon, and then apply a boll opening shot on everything.” He shoots for a once-over harvest with a John Deere six-row picker.
Luther realizes that to stay in the cotton-producing business, he had to take advantage of any opportunity to earn extra cents per pound, and he saw marketing as a good place to start. At first, Adams Land Co., ginner and landowner Boe Adams, was taking care of Luther's marketing, “and all I really had to worry about was producing a crop. Lately, I've had to start making the marketing decisions on some of it.
“I went to Pat McClatchy (broker with Rosenthal Collins Group), a couple of years ago. I told him I didn't know anything about marketing, but I knew that if I wanted to keep doing what I'm doing, as bad as cotton prices had been, I had to learn.
“Early on, I asked Pat not to get me into anything too risky. Right now, we're starting to do more complex things. He's teaching me to do some spreads. If you can gain a couple of cents here or there marketing, you're ahead.”
Even though Luther started his farming operation pretty much from scratch, he credits a number of people who went out of the way to lend a hand, including family and friends, Ronnie Kennett with Adams Land Co. and his banker, Chuck Cain with Progressive Farm Credit, in Caruthersville, Mo., “who took a big chance on me. He's been with me from the beginning. An early crop consultant, Edward Kowalski, was my first consultant and taught me a ton a stuff.”
Changes in his personal life have changed his outlook on farming too. Today, there's a wife and three-year-old son, Lane. “Before I got married, my thoughts on debt were, ‘Hey it's just me, what have I got to lose?’ Then when I got married, there was somebody else depending on me; now it's even more with Lane. I want to give him a chance to farm if he wants to. Hopefully, I can give him a much easier road than I had.”
Likely, Lane's desire to farm is a given. At three, Lane is already driving around the farm shop in a battery-powered, child-size John Deere wagon, and decked out in John Deere green from head to toe.
“I haven't quite made it over the hump yet,” Luther said. “I knew when I got married that I had to make it, I had to work that much harder. I'm finally getting to where I'm like a normal farmer. I'm paying on a couple of pieces of equipment, not everything I've got.”
Kennett says the farming profession is getting tougher and tougher to enter these days. “I got into farming for $3,000. Today, it takes much more. Even the best of farmers have so much money invested in the crop that a bad year can hurt them terribly.”
Luther has been around long enough to know that the bottom line for every farmer is the same, to stay in business. Noting where farm auctions are located in this publication Luther said with a smile, “I don't farm to get on the front page of Delta Farm Press. I farm to stay off the back.”