John Compton had pretty much written off a career in farming, despite having grown up on his father’s rice operation near Jennings, La. But after earning an advanced degree in environmental science and embarking on a career in compliance permitting for the Louisiana oil industry, he began to wonder – was farming still in his blood?
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One fall afternoon in 2010, after a day of harvesting on the Compton family farm, he got the chance to find out. That evening, Compton’s uncle, who farmed in partnership with Compton’s father, Tom, told his brother he planned to retire. Later, the younger Compton, who was helping the farm gather the harvest that fall, went to his father about getting back into farming full-time. They worked out an agreement for two separate operations, with separate equipment, but with father and son working them as one team.
To get started, Compton took advantage of the Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher Loan Program to finance the 2011 crop and used perks for young and beginning farmers through USDA’s EQIP program to implement several conservation practices on his farm.
The last four crop years have been fast and furious for Compton, but there have been few regrets. He’s grown his operation from 450 acres to 750 acres and added 250 acres of crawfish.
Keeping it simple
He owes his success to keeping costs low to minimize financial risk, converting to electric power, rotation with crawfish, an emphasis on conventional rice varieties and the support of his growing family, his wife, Brianne, and daughters Ava, 3, and Kathryn 1.
“I’ve made some pretty good money the last couple of years just keeping it simple,” Compton said. “I plant a lot of the varieties that Steve Linscombe (rice breeder and geneticist, LSU AgCenter, Rice Research Station) has developed. I don’t have as much expense in seed, and it makes it a lot easier to sleep at night.”
Compton will rotate his ground in Clearfield rice, crawfish and conventional rice – dry seeding Clearfield rice and water seeding conventional rice. “I try to use Clearfield as minimally as possible to get the most results,” Compton said. “It’s not because of the cost or anything like that. I just want to use the technology as it was originally intended, to clean up the field using the herbicide, then get away from it and try to handle it conventionally by using mud and water.”
A typical program may be for Compton to water seed rice into crawfish fields until aquatic weeds build to problematic levels. “Then I’ll dry it up, plow it, dry plant it in Clearfield, and control the weeds with Newpath.”
The following year, he’ll go back to conventional rice or conventional rice and crawfish. If it’s the latter, he’ll plant the medium-grain variety Jupiter, developed by the LSU AgCenter. “I have had very good luck with Jupiter,” Compton said. “It yields well and it handles adversity. It also produces a very good stubble, but because of its maturity date, you can’t really second crop it because it won’t come off and ripen until well into December. But that’s perfect for our crawfish.”
Knowing that the second rice crop will not be harvested in crawfish fields allows Compton to plant his crawfish fields last. “That way we have more time to concentrate on fields that have the potential to second crop. You want to get those crops off early.” Compton says his crawfish operation compares to, and sometimes exceeds, profits attained by his rice crop.
This season, Compton planted Cheniere, Cocodrie, Jupiter, Clearfield varieties CL111, CL151 and CL152, a new long-grain variety.
Water seeding, while messy, helps Compton reduce costs significantly for seed, and weed control. “We muddy up a field, broadcast rice, drain it, it pegs and we flood it. That process takes care of probably $100 an acre in herbicides.”
Stewardship of soil and water
With his experience and training in environmental science, Compton is a stickler for stewardship of soil and water. “If you cut that muddy water loose down a ditch, and the wrong person sees it, that’s not good. So anytime we manipulate the soil and the water, we wait 15 days before we let it go.”
Prior to the 2012 season, Compton converted all of his diesel power units to electric, which was “a no-brainer,” he said. “The first year I farmed, I spent $225 an acre on diesel for irrigation, which was an exorbitant amount of money for a small farmer.”
The next year, he put the same about of money in the budget for diesel, but used it, along with some financing from landowners, to put in electric power. “I did all the upgrade, I paid for the electricity for the entire year, and I still had money left in my original fuel budget. It was a one-year recovery.”
Another advantage of electric is that by reducing total gallonage of diesel on the farm, he’s not nearly as exposed to additional costs from EPA’s Spill Prevention and Containment Countermeasure rule, which requires farmers to prepare for spills on the farm or in some cases to build containment structures.
Compton sees himself as caretaker of the farm, which helps him maintain a business perspective, rather than one of a young man with a family writing multiple checks for $50,000 or more, or having to borrow and pay back nearly $750,000 a year in production loans.
“My farm is almost like a living breathing thing in itself. I don’t own any property, so it’s not like it’s my farm. But I have to treat it like it’s my own, because if I don’t, it will come back to bite me. When I get all of these bills in it every month, it’s not even like it’s my money, it’s the farm’s money. It’s not my risk, it’s the risk of farm. I’m just the person trying to turn that risk into a reward. And of course I’m a small farmer. There are guys who pay more for their seed than I do for my entire crop.”
Compton’s family has been supportive of his farming career. But he admits he might have exaggerated the farming life when convincing his wife Brianne that farming was their future.
“I painted this picture to Brianne of farming when I was a kid, when we had 300 acres of rice. I told her we would have winters off, and I’ll be working for myself and I’ll be home and I can help. That’s not exactly how it panned out, but she loves it. She is anxious to learn and to be involved.
“It takes a team to do something like this,” Brianne said. “You have to have support. We’ve been married four years. We have three crops in the ground. We have two babies, and he is still my main man, and I’m lucky.”
As for Compton, he’s finally doing what he was meant to do. “I always wanted to have a chance to farm and now I have it,” Compton said.
Leadership roles for Compton
Brianne and John were recognized recently at the Louisiana Farm Bureau’s 2014 Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award winners. The award is presented to farm couples 35 and younger whose farming operations balance production, profit and environmental concerns. It's the state’s top honor for young farmers across Louisiana.
Compton is a member of the USA Rice Council and is involved in the USA Rice Federation’s Asian Trade and Latin America Trade committees. He is also on the Young Farmer and Rancher committee for Louisiana Farm Bureau.
Compton was recently selected to participate in the Rice Leadership Development Program Class for 2013-15. The class tours the U.S. rice growing regions and visit several agriculture facilities, including the AgCenter Rice Station.