Lonnie and Karen Fortner MSU Extension Service/Kevin Hudson
Lonnie Fortner is the Mississippi winner of the 2018 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He and his wife, Karen, stand in front of one of their cotton fields at Bayou Pierre Farms, Port Gibson, Miss., in June 2018.

Lonnie Fortner: Row crop producer earns regional acclaim

Lonnie Fortner has been named the Mississippi winner of the 2018 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Lonnie Fortner has been named the Mississippi winner of the 2018 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

As an early adopter of precision agriculture technology in southwest Mississippi, Fortner has worked to stay on the progressive edge. He grows cotton, corn, soybeans and peanuts on 3,700 acres scattered across Claiborne County.

A lot of programs he has implemented into his operations are based on GPS technology. Variable-rate technology, swath control and real-time kinematics have become staples of a Fortner-run operation.

These methods use GPS navigation and planting machines to control fertilizer application rates, reduce overlapping seeds or chemicals during planting, and improve drilling and planting accuracy. The programs are connected to smartphone apps Fortner uses to monitor the equipment during operation.

Fortner was the first producer in his area to use much of the technology that is now commonplace. He believes his willingness to try new production methods, crop varieties and equipment is why he is still in business.

“If it’s something new, I want to be there,” said Fortner, who owns Bayou Pierre Farms near Port Gibson. “You’re going to invest in the technology whether you want it or not, because the industry will leave you behind if you don’t. You’ve got to take what you’ve bought and learn how to get it to help you make money. If not, it’s just a toy.”

He also seeks the advice of specialists with Mississippi State University Extension Service when choosing which crop varieties to plant each year. Portions of Fortner’s land have been used for cotton variety research.

On-farm research

“I like people doing research on my farm — always have,” he said. “Whether a new cotton variety works or not, I get to find that out without losing money just from seeing how it does on my land.”

Fortner established his production practices long before Bayou Pierre came into existence in 2017.

The operation started as Rock Lake Planting Company in 1996, when the farm’s financial partners asked Fortner to join on as manager. Fortner became a partner himself a decade later. After another decade, the founding partners stepped aside. Fortner and his wife, Karen, kept their share, and the transition to Bayou Pierre Farms began.

“Rock Lake was in solid financial shape,” he says, “but I went from being part owner with no debt farming on my cash to borrowing the money to buy equipment all over again.”

This is not the first time Fortner, who grew up on a small row-crop farm near Mathiston, Miss., has seen the trials of navigating financial shifts.

“My dad farmed, so when I was young I figured that’s what I would do for the rest of my life,” Fortner said. “Then, the [farm crisis of] the 1980s hit, and it was rough, especially on the small hill farmers.”

Degree in ag economics

Fortner went on to earn a degree in agricultural economics from Mississippi State University and get a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. His first two years with the agency were spent on the road, visiting producers across the state. After stints as service center director for Farm Service Agency offices in Jefferson and Madison counties, Fortner got the call to manage Rock Lake.

“I wasn’t going to farm, but I never could get it out of my system,” he said. “I went to every county in the state two and three times and talked to a lot of farmers when I was with the FSA. That gave me a different perspective on the state of the industry.”

Sherry Surrette, head of the MSU Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center, said she nominated Fortner for the Sunbelt award because of his ability to adapt successfully to industry change.

“Lonnie is one of the strongest advocates for agriculture we have in Mississippi. He has put in countless hours to achieve his success as a grower while carving out time to serve on several Mississippi Farm Bureau boards and committees for various commodity associations,” Surrette said. “His contributions to Mississippi agriculture make him a great representative for the state’s row-crop producers.”

Later this year, Fortner will be one of 10 producers across the Southeast considered for the overall regional award.

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