The flood of 2011 tested many a farmer in Mississippi, and William “Bill” Brown was no exception. But by the end of the season, he had made his soybean crop despite a very late planting. The season also confirmed a number of friendships for the affable Brown.
Brown produces 368 acres of dryland soybeans near Yazoo City, Miss., and works full-time as Humphreys County supervisor, Beat 3, where he oversees a numerous public works projects. He was recently re-elected to another four-year term.
Brown is also an African-American farmer, and he insists that race has never been an issue in his dealings with neighbors and fellow farmers. To Brown, opportunity and friendship flourish around Yazoo City. “It’s not about color down here. It’s about individuals.”
Brown began producing cotton with his brother Raymond in the 1950s, “and I even spent a little time behind a mule. We made money in cotton, but I never liked it. We tried corn one year, but decided that soybeans were the way to go, even though they were only $4 to $5 a bushel. I still made good money because I made good crops,” Brown said in an easy baritone.
“There’s no secret to farming, if you plant the right crops, buy the right seed and do what you’re supposed to do. I like growing soybeans. If you cut 35-40 bushels of soybeans to the acre, you’ll be alright. You’ll make you some money.”
Brown purchases all his farm chemicals and seed from Jimmy Sanders Seed. “Jimmy Sanders also has a good entomologist, Julian Crawford, who works with me on what varieties to plant and what to spray for.” Brown typically hires a custom operator to plant his soybeans. He plants a Pioneer, Roundup Ready variety.
Brown says the key to making a good soybean crop without irrigation “is to plant them in early April. Along about the middle of August, I like to have a combine sitting on the end and a truck hauling them. You have to watch for chinch bugs when your beans get to a certain age. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, the chinch bug will get you. That’s the reason I like to plant early. You are probably going to get a rain in May or June. If you get a rain on July 4 and another one in the first week of August, you’ve made a crop.”
Lack of water wasn’t a problem in 2011. Excessive spring rain and flooding disrupted lives throughout Mississippi, and eventually destroyed Brown’s early-planted soybean crop.
But it was to only get worse. As the waters rose, Brown put up a four-foot berm around his shop and home, and he had to move his tractors and sprayer to higher ground.
On May 13, the high waters forced Brown and his wife, Martha, a retired school teacher who also keeps the books for the farm, to move to a Hampton Inn on Hwy. 49 in Yazoo City. During that time, nearly a month, a friend would patrol around their home in a motorboat to make sure their property was safe, a good deed that confirmed Brown’s faith in the community.
The waters finally receded, and the Browns moved back into their home on June 7. Brown was suddenly a very busy man, tending to constituents in his job as county supervisor and his crop. He didn’t waste time getting to work.
“After the water got off the soybeans, I had another custom planter to come in a replant my soybeans. I still made a good crop. We cut close to 13,000 bushels. Some fields cut up to 45-50 bushels,” said Brown, who also custom hires harvesting and trucking of his soybean crop.
Brown markets his soybeans through Bunge, and emphasized the importance of trusting a good marketer. “Growing a crop is one thing. Knowing how to sell is the second thing, when and to move it and not to move it.”
Brown takes pride in having been able to farm for so long, and in paying bills in a timely manner, quite an accomplishment when a farming career can be ruined by one or two bad crops. It hasn’t been the same for everyone.
“We’re the only African-American farmers left here who still own land and farm it,” said Brown, whose brothers also farm in the area. “There are not as many of us as there used to be.”
Brown says one key to success in farming is to never be afraid to ask questions of a fellow farmer, which Brown has no problem doing. “If you are doing something that is making money, I want to know what you’re doing. No matter what you’re doing, you need to study what you’re doing.”
On a recent day, Brown drove along the highways and back roads around Yazoo City, pointing out high water marks from the 2011 flood on homes, grain bins and shops and on roads where rushing currents had eroded away road surfaces.
This year will be a busy one for Brown. There are numerous roads to repair, constituents to cajole and fields to till, plant, spray or harvest. Brown will rely on a unique talent to juggle all these tasks.
“I can work with people, no matter what. I was born like that. I’m a lot like my father. I make friends easy. You could carry me back to Tennessee with you and drop me off, and I could make some friends. The Lord has blessed me with that ability.”
It’s a talent that the community around Yazoo City appreciates as well.