Rob Karcher loves his work office on the seat of his combine with the hydrostatic lever in his right hand. A husband to wife Dana, and father to three boys, Jackson (16), Bradley (15), and Grant (9), Karcher farms with his uncle, Ed Karcher, under Highway View Farms — an operation started by his father in 1974, and with his cousin Brandon Karcher, under K&K Farms, which was formed in 2000.
The two operations encompass about 4,000 acres of sandy loam soils he jokingly calls “Memphis dirt” in Shelby and Fayette counties in Tennessee, and Benton and Marshall counties in Mississippi.
“I attended Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville, Miss., for one year before coming back to farm,” says Karcher. “On the first day of class in 1998, professor Mark Hurley explained to us that soil contains life, dirt is what your mother sweeps up off the kitchen floor. I’ve never forgotten those words.”
On a recent chamber-of-commerce fall afternoon with jet contrails sliding lazily across the sky, Karcher was keeping his eye on the yield monitor that was bumping the 50-bushel range on his dryland soybeans he says are in the 4.8 maturity group.
He has heard the rumblings about how some damaged soybeans are receiving discounts by elevators. “We didn’t see any kind of damage from the group threes we cut before that stretch of warm, wet weather hit us around the end of September,” remembers Karcher. “It kept us out of the fields for an extended period, and when we got back in, we saw some damage. We lost a little on two loads we trucked in, but, thankfully, it hasn’t been that bad for us.”
Yields, Pests and Irrigation
The crop year started cool and wet, which delayed corn planting and caused him to give up on 100 acres he wanted in corn. Three hundred acres of cotton were included in their crop mix this season, but most of their land was covered in soybeans.
The 95 percent no-till farm has some acreage that has not seen a plow in almost 30 years. “Unless we take on a new farm that has hardpan, we just don’t see an advantage in tilling,” says Karcher. “We are also adamant about crop rotation.”
In 2014, he rotated 500 acres to grain sorghum, and bumped it to 1,000 acres in 2015. “Between those two years, we averaged 111 bushels over all the acres we planted,” says Karcher. “In addition to the agronomic benefits it provides, we made money on it!”
The soybeans he was harvesting this particular afternoon were planted into a cover crop of radishes, cereal rye, and vetch sown aerially prior to the NRC cutoff date of Oct. 15, 2017. Karcher understands the moisture retention benefit of a cover crop, but it also provides another benefit. “The number one advantage we see is it helps us in our efforts to control pigweed,” boasts Karcher. “We also knew the soybeans we planted on this field on May 6 would be mature enough so we wouldn’t be late getting them cut and taking a chance on the cover crop giving us fits at harvest.”
Only 15 percent of their acreage is irrigated. Most of their fields are small and spread out — which causes them to really think through logistics. “We have proven that irrigation isn’t exclusively for the wide-open Delta, and it’s like an insurance policy. When we started talking to our landlord about installing a pivot, he basically told us to do it yesterday,” laughs Karcher.
Karcher knows that he can yield 150-bushel corn and 80-bushel soybeans under the pivot. The year they planted cotton under the pivot, he had to harvest in first gear to keep the picker from clogging up. He keeps his planting book log with him to identify the varieties in every field. “If I see something I think is important for future crops, I’ll make a note and reference it when we’re making plans for the next year.”
It was a low-pressure year for crop pests. There were more problems with deer than anything else. Karcher relies on Wesley Taylor, a regional salesman with Sanders Inc., for advice on the latest products that helps keep crop pests at bay. “Wesley’s not just a sales guy, I consider him a farmer too. He’s always around and will to do anything to help our operation.”
They also rely on their consultant, Tim Sharp. “You just can’t do everything yourself. We have to have people we can trust,” says Karcher.
After graduating high school from Fayette Academy, Karcher attended the University of Memphis for three years, before once again coming back to farm. He drove from the farm to the university every day as he worked toward his major in Business Management. He admits he learned a great deal, but he could hear the call of the farm when he was sitting in class. “My parents were disheartened when I stopped going but I knew I could learn a lot more from my dad and uncle that I could use on the farm than I was learning in college,” says Karcher. “My cousin Brandon and I knew we wanted to farm. We were basically attached to our fathers’ hips each day when they were working their fields.”
Life has a way of teaching lessons that seem to mold children as they grow up. Brandon and Rob chopped cotton from daylight until 10 a.m. when they were 13 years old. “We would come back home, take off our dew-soaked clothes, grab some lunch, and head back to the fields to drive grain carts or spray rigs, depending on the time of the year,” says Karcher. “The older farmers always talk about the new technologies. Heck, Brandon and I saw many of those technologies being implemented as we were growing up using them!”
Karcher utilizes and understands the benefits precision farming technologies offer. They apply lime, fertilizer (preplant and top dress) and seed through variable rate technology. As the sun started setting, moisture increased in the field and eventually, the combine’s feeder house starting clogging. “With these new combines, I can just reverse the flow direction and it unclogs itself,” says Karcher.
For a guy who, like his cousin Brandon, knew he wanted to farm at an early age, life may have gotten in the way at times, but the life he is living now with his family and farming, is as straight as the rows of soybeans he was harvesting on that cool fall afternoon in Fayette County, Tenn.