The story, insists the son, must begin with his father because everything he does is filtered through his daddy’s voice.
The son just wishes his father would have held out and traveled a touch further. After all, a few miles down the track, around Oak Ridge, sweet cotton soils abound. But at the outset of the 1900s, there was no way for 14-year-old George Franklin to know that. He was hungry, ill and weary of his boxcar accommodations. And from the boxcar door, the small Delta towns were indistinguishable.
When he finally gathered the nerve and hopped from the train, Holly Ridge, La., was where he landed. It was a small town centered around the train depot and cotton industry and it must have looked frightening to the kid. But anything, he figured, was better than the orphanage he’d just left.
The train still runs the same route but no longer stops in Holly Ridge. The buildings around the depot have long been abandoned; spindly trees poke through their roofs, vines tangle around doorposts. But the town once thrived and it was here and in the nearby town of Rayville that Franklin doggedly worked his way up from hotel cook to manager to proprietor, landowner and largest farmer in Richland Parish. It was here that he married, raised a family, built a grand home and taught his son and namesake the value of hard work and love of country.
"America is a great nation. There’s no other place that would let a 14-year-old kid have the opportunity to build the life my father did. He knew it and I know it and neither us have ever taken it for granted," says George Jr.
George Franklin Jr., a man with an easy sense of humor, carries a business card. On one side is typical contact information. The flip side reads, among other things: Farmer, Cotton Ginner, Veteran, Builder, Philosopher, Hunter, Conservationist (I also tell tall tales).
The card doesn’t lie. Franklin can spin yarns by the basketful. And if one sits for a while and listens, he will touch on every job description listed above. But he’s also a modest man and many of his accomplishments only come to light through words of his neighbors, co-workers and friends.
In speaking with these people, one thing becomes clear. Franklin should have the words "Keen Observer" added to the descriptive list. After all, this is a man who simply from walking countless miles through wooly forest, found that a nutall oak tree — "a great acorn producer" — grows well in bottomland, that willow oaks grow well mid-hill, and that bitter pecans are prime for a sweet pecan graft (he does such grafts on at least 200 trees annually).
The farmer and builder
Franklin’s land isn’t the best for row crops. Through crop rotation, precision leveling and organic matter put back into the soil, however, his land is healthier than ever before.
"We’d have made a bumper cotton crop this year except for the rain. We still had a decent crop — we’ll probably average around 800 pounds. We thought we’d get two-bale cotton before the rains, though."
Rice is also a major crop for Franklin. He says the greatest asset of his home parish — Richland — is the water supply that sits about 100 feet deep.
"Unlike a lot of rice farming areas, we have plenty of water. Our aquifer is very healthy, even with all the pumps that’ve been sunk these last few dry years. The biggest drop I’ve seen in any of my wells is 2 or 3 feet. We’re blessed because whatever drop we see during growing season is gone by spring."
In a normal year, Franklin, who farms with his three sons, has around 5,000 acres of cotton, 2,500 in rice and more acreage in corn and soybeans. He also owns and manages large tracts of timberland.
According to friends and associates, Franklin is a man often ahead of the curve. He was keen on precision leveling and irrigation before either was popular.
"Irrigation in Louisiana, where there is usually 50 to 60 inches of rain per year?" was the typical reaction when Franklin first began watering his crops, says Basil Doles, retired Extension agent. At that time, "Most farmers would tell you that cotton (was) a dry weather plant. You could count on one hand the farmers who were trying to irrigate cotton. George was one of those and he never stopped."
The first irrigating he did was during the 1950s when crops were burning up due to drought, says Franklin. He put a pump at the river, cranked it up and began furrow irrigating.
"I learned a lot. The first thing I learned was that not only was yield better after irrigating, but that staple length is determined by water. On land I wasn’t irrigating we had staple of less than an inch. Where I was irrigating, the cotton length was much better."
Franklin bought five irrigation walking rigs and started sinking wells around his property. Many of his farming buddies, knowing of the floods that arrived regularly, laughed at the purchases and work.
"They kidded me about the rigs. They wanted to know if I could reverse the flow and suck water out of the fields. But soon enough the irrigating paid off and now everyone is doing it. If I see something and believe it’ll work on my land, I’ve got to try it. That’s my make-up. It may turn out to be the wrong thing to do, but I’ve got to try it and see."
Franklin also pioneered cotton/rice rotation, says Harry Cook, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist.
"I was just thinking one day that most every cotton pest and weed would be killed by rice water and aquatic weeds can’t stand dry ground. So why not try to rotate the two?" says Franklin.
He sat on the idea and then, about 20 years ago, bought some new land that presented him the opportunity to rotate the crops. Franklin found that his cotton yield jumped following rice. His rice yields also climbed because problem weeds and organic diseases lessened. He’s been rotating the two crops ever since — two years in cotton, two years in rice.
With Franklin, says Cook, "Soil improvement is always the goal with rotating crops to improve organic material and to control nematodes. Water quality is also of major concern since prior to being released into streams, water is rotated from one field to the next with the final use for waterfowl and timber growth. He’s done an outstanding job.
"Here’s the truth. I work with private landowners in Louisiana and other states. George has so many great ideas, I’ve put many of them into practice on other folks’ land. He’s still a man way ahead of his time."
The hunter and conservationist
"I started getting into conservationism in the 1940s. I’ve always been a big hunter and wanted to be able to do that while helping to fix my land," says Franklin.
He plants wheat and ryegrass for deer, floods huge amounts of land for ducks and plants filter strips with fervor. Black bear are seen around his thousands of acres regularly.
At 76, Franklin’s passion is "creating perfect wildlife habitat on every acre of idle ground on his farm," says Larry Savage, wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Creating such habitat means regular planting of trees. Franklin, say those interviewed for this story, is a master at knowing what types of trees will fit certain environments.
"(Franklin) knows the value of trees to the environment. He’s probably forgotten more than most of us know," says Doles.
About 10 years ago, Franklin bought land along the Ouachita River — 4.5 miles of river frontage. On the land are various row crops and timber.
"When he bought the land he noticed a lot of erosion troubles with the clay soils. Through CRP, WRP, Partners for Fish and Wildlife and his own initiative, George has planted hundreds — maybe thousands — of acres of filter strips and riparian zones in an attempt to create corridors for wildlife travel. He’s made his land a showplace for environmental stewardship," says Cook.
Franklin has been at it for a long time, too. Far longer than it’s been popular.
"George has trees he planted decades ago. He was working with George Putnam (informally titled "The Father of Hardwoods") out of Stoneville, Miss., on reforesting hardwood bottomland 45 years ago. George has the oldest research plantation that I know of," says Cook.
To be successful in planting trees, Franklin says, not only do you need to know a variety’s tendencies but also the soil it’s being planted in. That’s why he does a lot of soil testing, soil typing and reading of elevation maps.
"We pull soil samples all the time. That’s just as important when planting trees as when planting row crops. Then I find three or four tree varieties that’ll work and I plant them all. I don’t like planting just one kind of tree in an area. I want a mix."
Franklin’s mobile phone rings. His son, on the other end, says a black bear just crossed the road a couple of hundred yards up. Franklin stops his truck, turns around and heads the opposite direction.
"We’ll just let that bear be. As long as he’s out here in these thickets he’s minding his own business. He’s welcome here. Let him call it home."
If you make the short drive from Rayville to Holly Ridge, right before reaching the old train depot you’ll come to a road that turns north. True north.
"This stretch runs for 15 miles straight at the North Star. If you don’t believe it, come on out some night and that star will be straddling the center line," says Franklin.
He knows this because his father, in one of his myriad early jobs, surveyed the road when it was going in. The crew boss said he wanted the road pointing north and Franklin Sr., taking the man at his word and eschewing a compass, waited until dark and pointed the road at the North Star.
"Sounds like something some ancient civilization would do, doesn’t it? Whenever I drive this road I tend to look up," says the son. "I can’t help it. Doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, either. Daddy would probably like that, I think. How’s that for a story?"
E-mail: David Bennett