Yalobusha County, Miss., farmer John Ingram left farming only once and that was to fulfill his parents' wish that he attend Mississippi State University. They believed if he planned to make farming his profession — as so many in his immediate and extended family had — he should have the best tools at hand. To them a solid education was a necessary tool.
Ingram's parents, D.R. and Linda Ingram of Water Valley, Miss., also wanted Ingram to be exposed to other business endeavors and other methods of making a living. They wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and farm, but they wanted him to do it by choice and with a passion.
Ingram graduated from MSU but never looked another direction than northwest towards home. He knew he was born to be a farmer. From the time he could stretch his toes to reach the pedals to operate tractors and trucks until his graduation from high school, he worked on the family farm.
He graduated from MSU in 1993 and went home to Water Valley and became what he believes is his calling and his responsibility in life. He's a farmer who strives to take care of the land, to produce safe food and fiber and to stay politically informed and a voice for American agriculture.
He emerged as a leader among the farming profession. He and his wife, Julie, are 2004 district winners of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmers and Ranchers' program. They were honored for their achievement at the December 2004 MFBF winter meeting in Jackson. Julie is the daughter of Dean and Patty Varner from near Oxford in Lafayette County, Miss.
They received a $1,000 cash award and the trip to Jackson from sponsors Dodge, The Federal Land Bank Association of Mississippi and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.
Ingram does not have a simple job or a repetitive one. Technology, government compliance, reliable labor, land prices and the unpredictable environmental factors his crops endure keep him in a learning mode. He admits the mechanics of farming gets easier each year because with each crop he learns to spot problems earlier; and he learns to more efficiently use the technology available to him.
However, Ingram makes the point that he comes from a farming family, which made it easier for him to get into farming. He has the benefit of a college education, and he has a network of friends and family who also farm and can help each other out with the physical aspects of farming and with the emotional times when the crops are struggling in the field or the prices are so low a positive outcome seems impossible.
He has all that, and he doesn't take any of it for granted. He and Julie tell their story the same way.
“We farm on faith. We believe God is going to lead us, guide us and give us the knowledge to find solutions. If we didn't, we couldn't farm. We would not be able to farm,” Julie says as John nods in agreement.
“If you farm by putting your faith in yourself, then you are going to fail,” says Ingram. “If you honestly think you alone can make a crop no matter how hard you are willing to work, how much money you put into a crop or how expensive equipment you can buy, you will fail. You must put your faith in God first,” says John.
The Ingrams run a diversified farming operation that includes cotton, corn, soybeans, milo, oats, timber and a purebred Angus herd.
The Angus herd is a family-owned business that includes Ingram's sister and his parents. They run about 300 brood cows and 80 heifers and are able to market most of their calves through private treaty although they do also enter heifers in the Mississippi Beef Cattle Improvement sale each year. They own a bulk feed storage facility, which allows them to buy feed when prices are lower and store it on farm.
“We also use artificial insemination to incorporate better genetics into our herd,” he says.
For many people, keeping tabs on the calving and health of more than 500 animals at any given time would be a full-time job, but that's just a small part of the time Ingram commits to farming. With almost 1,000 acres of row crops, the majority of that in cotton, Julie says there are many days the only way she and their young children, Ross and Julianna, get to see daddy is for her to pack a picnic lunch for them to enjoy at the turnrow.
“I couldn't see him doing anything else other than farming though,” says Julie. “I don't think he could find another job that requires him to work this hard, and he loves hard work. He loves going to the field, driving the tractors and watching as it all comes together as the season progresses.”
Now, with a decade of full-time farming experience, Ingram has tried various changes in production practices. Some have worked well; some he's abandoned because they didn't save time or make money. He has moved from a stale seedbed operation to a no-till operation.
“This move allowed for some expansion, but the main reason was to cut the cost of production by using less labor, less equipment and less fuel,” says Ingram. “This type of tillage also suits our production better because we are dryland farmers and this enables us to better use our water.”
He incorporated ultra narrow row cotton on some of his acreage, but sees himself backing away from that more each year, basically because of timing and having two types of picking operations.
Ingram rotates his crops to help with soil residue and fertility and he also grows some winter crops such as oats, which cash flows money at times of the year when other crops aren't producing.
Ingram says technology and a willingness to try new methods along with learning more every year have increased his overall farm yields. He used to average 25 bushels an acre on soybeans and now averages about 32 and believes 40 bushels an acre on dryland beans is an achievable goal.
Cotton yields used to average about 750 pounds an acre, but several times in the past few years, Ingram has picked more than 1,000 pounds to the acre. His personal goal is a farm average of 1,250 pounds an acre.
“With the uncertainty of government programs and commodity prices, I look at how certain crops will produce on certain acreage. I try to figure out if the crop will stand by itself on this acreage without government programs and at low values,” says Ingram.
“If they cannot, I look at other options on these acres. Some acreage automatically goes into corn because we feed that to our cattle. I also look at our debt-to-equity ratio in purchasing equipment and land. Income per acre is used to determine rental agreements on the land.”
Of the 1,400 acres in their total row crop and cattle operation, they own about 400 acres and rent the rest.
Julie, a registered nurse, works two shifts a week off the farm, but devotes the rest of her time to taking care of the children, helping on the farm by running errands, doing bookwork and being a sounding board for John's ideas.
They recently purchased Farm Works Software to help map fields, track field history and keep more precise chemical records and yield data.
“I purchased a Trac-Mate, which is a palm computer I can take to the field with me. This allows me to enter data while in the field. This means I spend less time in the office in the evenings and more time with my family.”
The extra time is also spent in activities with the Ingrams' church, where they both volunteer and teach in various capacities. They are also active in the Yalobusha County Young Farm and Rancher Committee.
“Farm Bureau is a grass roots organization,” says Ingram. “Change and perception starts with us and from people like us from all over the nation. Farm Bureau is a voice for us all and helps others to see farmers want to protect the soil and water and farmers are a necessity to feeding this nation and the world,” says Ingram.
“Farm Bureau and our county group also share common goals and interests,” says Julie. “Farm Bureau stands for what we believe in and gives us an opportunity to make a difference in the perceptions that people outside of farming have about us.”
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or [email protected].