Boyd family members have been farming for decades in the Sandhill community in central Mississippi, up Hwy. 25 about 20 miles northeast of the state capitol, Jackson.
“Jackson used to be farther away,” laughs David Boyd. “It seems every year it gets closer — new subdivisions, businesses, schools, churches. And just to the west of us is the Ross Barnett Reservoir, a major recreational and residential area. Development is farming’s biggest competitor. With land going for $5,000 an acre or more, expansion’s pretty much out of question for us.”
On this last day of March, while waiting for ground to dry enough so he and son Matthew can finish planting corn, he stands in a grove of newly-leafing oak trees near the house where he grew up and gazes out across a 150-acre field that abuts the Hwy. 25/Sandhill Road interchange — a steady stream of cars and trucks moving on the highway.
“This used to be ‘way out in the country,” he says. “My father farmed here, and I grew up farming. Matthew was riding on the cotton picker with me when he was just two or three, and working on it when he was 13 or 14, and anything that needed doing, he learned to do it.”
Matthew smiles: “As long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was farm — and that’s all I’ve ever done. I came home from community college and went right to farming. I haven’t regretted it.”
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During the 1980s and early 1990s, David had worked in the crop insurance business, but after Matthew came back to the farm they formed a partnership in 1990.
As was the case in much of agriculture in that period, farming had been a struggle in the 1980s, David says. “But we had a couple of good crop years in the early ‘90s that got us above water, followed by not-so-good crops in 1995 and 1997. But we’ve managed to hang on, and the last few years have been good in terms of yield and prices.
“We grew cotton for 37 years, but it got to the point that we were just losing too much money on it. From 1995 to 1997, we fought bollworms, drought, and 50-cent prices. Yields were down, costs were up, and in 1998 we just got out.
“I grew up in a cotton culture — my father grew it — and there’s just something satisfying about growing a good cotton crop. I think about cotton every now and then, but [he laughs] I quickly get over it!”
Improvements in genetics
In recent years, David notes, “Advances in genetics have made a tremendous difference in cotton, corn, and soybean production practices and yields. It used to be that if we got a 30-bushel soybean yield, we thought we were doing great. Now, you couldn’t break even with 30-bushel soybeans, even at $12.
“When bean prices shot up, a lot of pasture land in the area was plowed up. With prices going down, it will be interesting to see how much of it stays in beans.”
But soybeans and corn will continue to be the crop mix for the Boyds.
“We haven’t had any wheat since 2009,” Matthew says. “With our clay soils that stay wet in the winter and Italian ryegrass, we just don’t grow the crop any more.”
At the end of March, they had half their corn acreage planted before rains ground things to a halt. “We could be going again by the end of the week,” Matthew says, “but more rain and storms are in the forecast for the weekend.” [Storms dumped 4 inches over the area, further delaying their planting.]
Despite a colder, wetter than normal spring last year, their corn crop was “our best ever,” Matthew says. “We averaged 180 bushels, all dryland. That’s unheard of! I was watching the numbers on the yield monitor and thinking, ‘That’s a lie — that can’t be right.’ On one 50-acre field of Dekalb, the average was 198 bushels.”
Their 2013 varieties were Pioneer 2088 and Dekalb 6694, with small acreages of AgriGold and Armor.
“The lack of high temperatures during the growing season was the key,” David says. “We had a couple of 98-degree days and that was it. There were no nighttime temperatures over 75 degrees, and we had some timely rains. Conditions were just ideal for corn.”
Corn is split about 50/50 between no-till and conventional tillage, Matthew says, “but on the farm overall, we’re probably one-third no-till and two-thirds conventional. We’ll plant our corn on 30-inch raised beds, then follow with soybeans. On ground that stays in beans, we’ll plant flat on 15-inch rows.”
David notes: “We quit planting corn flat 20 years ago, because if these heavy soils get waterlogged, the corn suffers.”
Variable rate fertilizer applications
They use yield monitor data to make variable rate fertilizer applications on corn ground, Matthew says. “We try and put back exactly as much in the way of nutrients as the crop has taken out.
“We’ve used poultry litter in the past, but it has become so expensive that for the last couple of years we’ve gone back to commercial fertilizer. It was costing $50 per acre for the poultry litter itself, plus the cost of hauling and spreading, and then we were still having to add some nitrogen.
“By the time we had all those costs and time/labor, we could pay for commercial fertilizer. And with variable rate application, we get more accuracy with our nitrogen than with poultry litter. We also apply a good bit of potash, and we’ll use 200 units of N-Sol as a sidedressing.”
Other than a bit of Italian ryegrass, Matthew says, they’ve had no problems with resistant weeds. “We rotate our fields between beans and corn and we rotate chemistries to help avoid development of resistance. We try and do our burndown applications in early February, which helps to keep the ryegrass in check. This year, we used Touchdown, Barrage, and Goal.”
Curly dock has been a problem, David says. “It’s not a resistance problem — it’s just hard to control. Roundup won’t touch it.”
With GMO varieties, insects aren’t a significant problem either, he says. As for four-legged pests, about 10 years ago, there were some wild hogs in the area, “but after a lot of the timberland was cleared, they apparently moved on somewhere else. We’ll have a small amount of deer damage to young soybeans now and then, and Canadian geese from the nearby Ross Barnett reservoir can be a problem with young corn.”
As soon as they get corn planted, Matthew says, they start planting soybeans, normally about the middle of April.
“With the weather last year, we didn’t get some of our beans planted until June, but we still averaged 50 bushels — which was really good. We usually plant several different varieties: Pioneer, Great Heart, Asgrow, and NK.
“Irrigation just isn’t feasible for us — we’d have to go too deep for water, and it would cost too much. We don’t have enough land to take acreage out of production for catchment ponds. Nearly all of our land is terraced, which helps with erosion and managing rainfall.”
They have 10 different landlords for rented land, David says, but all the fields are fairly contiguous — “three miles is about as far as we go in any direction.”
They sell their beans and some of their corn to Bunge at Yazoo City, but Matthew says, “Most of our corn is sold through a broker to poultry operations in the area, mostly Koch Foods and Peco Foods.”
Their equipment roster is all Case IH, and includes a 7120 tractor, a 7140, a 7130, and the newest, purchased in 2013, a Magnum 285. Their combine is a model 2388.
“We added a 15,000 bushel grain storage bin in 2009 and another in 2011,” David says. “This has helped us to smooth out our harvesting and marketing.”
In terms of labor on the farm, he says, “It’s just us Matthew and me. My other two sons, Philip and Andy, have jobs outside farming. A neighbor helps us some during ground prep and harvest times.”
Agritourism operation adds diversity
While opportunities for expanding their row crop operation are limited, the Boyds have partnered with neighboring farmer Roy Nichols and his wife, A.B., in an agritourism operation, the Nichols-Boyd Pumpkin Patch (http://www.nicholsenterprisesllc.com).
“This was started in 1997,” David says, “and the response continues to grow each year. It’s open the month of October, and will bring in several thousand visitors. Many are from the Jackson metroplex, but we draw from a 100-mile radius, and some come from even longer distances. We’re blessed to have a number of retirees and school moms who are available to help us during that period.
“We’ll plant about two acres of pumpkins each year — mostly a volleyball size variety that the kids can handle easily. We have a lot of fun things for the kids: hayrides, animals for viewing — in addition to the usual farm animals and deer, last year, we included a camel, a Watusi steer, and donkeys — and we tell them about farming and how food is produced, with an emphasis on the grains we grow. They can feed the catfish in our ponds, and there are hay bales and rope swings to play on, games and other fun activities.
“We try to make visits for the kids an educational experience; there are informational posters to tell them how the crops we grow are used to produce their food, clothing, and other everyday products. And there are displays of old farm equipment and other items from earlier times. We do tours for schoolkids during the week, and on weekends the general public is invited. Birthday parties can also be scheduled, and there are various activities for adults and senior citizens.
“There is also a corn maze, which we plant in July, that covers 3 to 3-1/2 acres. And we have T-shirts for sale. We start promoting the pumpkin patch to area schools in April, so they can get it on their calendars.”
David and Matthew are both active in community and church activities. Matthew is currently president of the Rankin County Farm Bureau and is on the board of directors of the Soil Conservation District and the Lake Harbor Fire Department, and “I do whatever needs to be done at church.” David is a former president of the Rankin County Farm Bureau.