For Mississippi farmer Curtis Berry, conservation farming not only applies to wildlife, soil and water, but to farm profitability as well. To be successful, all have to be passed down to the next generation intact.
Berry farms about 5,500 acres just north of Tunica, Miss., including 4,300 acres of rice, with the rest either fallow or in soybeans. Berry has taken special care to achieve a balance between agriculture and nature. He conserves water and soil and provides wildlife habitat without letting it interfere with farming practices.
Berry’s philosophy comes from his father, Charles, one of the founders of Delta Wildlife Foundation. The Berry farm is a model farm for DWF selected to demonstrate what farmers in the Mississippi Delta are doing to provide wildlife habitat while being good stewards of the water and soil.
Berry practices good water management on every acre. Water impounded on rice fields after harvest attracts duck and other waterfowl and also brings in revenue from hunting leases. Most of his rice fields are zero graded, “which seem to be the most efficient use of water that I have on this ground. This ground really lends itself to that.”
Berry began zero grading his rice fields about five years ago. “Zero grading makes it easy to maintain the flood during the winter, and it makes better use of the time and labor in the springtime — I don’t have to spend a lot of time pulling levees. With zero grade, I use about a third of the water than I would on a straight levee or conventional levee field.”
To reduce his dependence on groundwater for rice irrigation, Berry put in a water control structure at Lake Cormorant Bayou, which runs through the farm. “We created a reservoir so we can use as much surface water as we can.” The weir was constructed with funding from EQIP.
Berry has taken many odd-shaped corners or edges of fields out of rice production and plants them in food plots for deer, doves and quail. Leaving out the shapes also makes it easier to farm. “We used to try and farm a lot of corners, but the planes can’t fly them. These areas are minute in the overall acreage of the farm compared to the land in production, but they are very beneficial to wildlife.”
In season, Berry focuses on two key issues on his farm, keeping disease cycles broken up and practicing good stewardship. Much of the farm is in continuous rice.
After harvest, Berry will run a Kelly Diamond harrow across his rice fields. “We run it in the straw, which uproots the straw. We’ll burn the stubble and depending on what the ground looks like, I may make one tillage trip. After that, I should have a good seedbed established.”
Berry is experimenting with no-till, although he’s not 100 percent comfortable with the practice. “I believe in having a good seedbed and getting a good stand. In rice, getting a good stand is everything.”
Berry’s fall burndown program includes 2,4-D, Valor and Roundup, depending on the weed spectrum. “Then we’ll burn down again when things start to green back up in the spring.”
Berry’s hybrid rice is predominately XL 723 and XL CL 729, while varietal lines include Cocodrie, CL 151, CL 131 and “a little bit of CL 181. I was disappointed in the CL 131 and CL 181 in 2010. The CL 151 seemed to do a little better. I had either some heat damage or disease in one 80-acre block that was adversely affected.”
Berry usually applies a fungicide to his varietal lines, but not to hybrids. “There is a disease cycle perpetuated in flooded conditions with continuous rice, mainly sheath blight. Burning the rice straw does alleviate some of that, but still there is a tremendous amount of disease.”
Berry also recognizes the need for stewardship of the Clearfield technology, for now and the future. “I’m 37 years old, and would like to farm for 30 more years. With no technology down the road as good as Clearfield technology, we have to preserve that.”
Berry more than understands the issues that many farmers face in stewardship. For example, rotation to soybeans may not be an option where soil type may restrict yield potential. “When landlords are making decisions on what your crop mix is, or if you’re going to cash rent at $150 an acre, it might be hard to make that work with soybeans. But we have to find a way.”
Berry uses a Nammco levee swiper to knock down levees prior to harvest “which helps my fields drain and dry up a lot faster. I can also harvest without having the challenge of farming in between paddies. The dirt usually ends up in the original borrow ditch.”
Berry harvests with four Claas Lexion combines “which have a mobile track system which provides the best undercarriage I’ve seen for harvesting in adverse conditions.”
Berry can store about 830,000 bushels of rice, which is most of his rice crop. He markets his rice through the pool at Producers Rice Mill Co-op.
Berry says low rice prices, the 2012 farm bill and the potential for opening trade with Cuba are big issues for U.S. rice producers. But his biggest personal concern is how the industry cultivates the next generation of farmers.
“Are there going to be opportunities for young farmers to start farming? A first generation rice farmer is going to have a lot more challenges than I did — access to machinery, capital and land. There are programs in place for that, but rice is such a capital intensive crop. I don’t know that I would have been able to start farming if I weren’t a second generation rice farmer.”
Berry was never pressured to get into farming by his father, and likewise, Berry, who has four children, doesn’t plan to pressure his son to take up the profession. For Berry, the desire to farm must come from within. “I’ve always enjoyed working on the farm. I grew up doing it every summer. I enjoy raising my children in the country and my wife, Lori, loves living out here.”