When Tim Walker called his friend Mike Wagner to pitch a humanitarian project, the Horizon Ag general manager was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a hard sell. He was right.
A resident of Sumner, Miss., Wagner’s family “has always liked doing things in the community – Mom and Dad both pushed the importance of that. So, this was in my wheelhouse.”
There had recently been a mission emphasis at Walker’s church. “I sat down next to a guy and we began visiting. He asked what I did and I told him I’m in the rice business. He said, ‘That’s interesting. We actually give a lot of rice to folks in Honduras every year.’ It just went from there. He said, ‘that’s one of our largest expenses. We try to provide rice for needy families.’”
It turns out the man at Walker’s church was Tommy Taylor, head of Byhalia, Miss.-based Borderless Brigade. The organization’s mission statement says it is to “equip and dispatch multifunctional skilled brigades to meet basic human needs in practical ways to impoverished communities regardless of location. This is accomplished through meeting the medical, dental, optical, nutritional, clothing and shelter needs of individuals and by providing veterinary care for their livestock and pets. Borderless Brigade is your emissary equipping, embracing and enhancing lives wherever sent.”
Intrigued by Taylor’s work, Walker thought maybe he could help. “The critical cog in the wheel ended up being Mike Wagner,” says Walker. “Mike’s a rice farmer, has built a mill and was very willing to help. He milled the rice, bagged it and helped us get the logos on the bags.”
Besides his parents, Wagner points to recently deceased Tunica, Miss., farmer Penn Owen as a huge influence. “He gave of himself and his time selflessly. He took me under his wing and taught me the ropes, so to speak. We did everything from visiting and testifying before officials and lawmakers in Washington urging them to match grower check-off funds to putting our feet in Latin America.
“Penn was very popular down there and was kind of the face of the U.S. rice farmer. When he died in early spring, some of the first praise for his life came in from folks he knew in Central and South America. FECARROZ – the rice organization of Latin America -- sent flowers and condolences.”
Wagner traveled south of the border for “eight or 10 years to help however I could – and people there need the assistance. But in the back of my head I wondered ‘why aren’t we doing some of this in our own backyard? There are plenty of folks in the United States that need help, as well.’”
Wagner had been interested in vertically integrating and started looking at building a rice mill. Not long after it was built, Walker called.
“I’ve known Tim for years – a fine gentleman with a brilliant mind that he focuses on rice,” says Wagner. “He and I share information on varieties sometimes – I’m always looking for varieties that might work for the markets I try to address. Out of that, Tim told me about Borderless Brigade and asked if I’d be interested in working with them. Absolutely! So we bought bags, bagged it up and ordered labels.
“It was a pleasure doing that. It was kind of coming full circle for me. I learned so much from traveling down to Latin America and the fruit of that education, all that work, ended back up in Latin America.”
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Where did the rice come from?
“Every year, we end up with a little extra seed production,” says Walker. “That’s typically sold to a mill. We thought we’d just use some of that seed.
“The way it worked out, though, is Mike had grown the same variety on his farm. Rather than freighting rice from our seed production location, we just worked out a deal.”
What about the actual delivery in Honduras?
“The Borderless Brigade took care of the logistics of getting the rice into the country,” says Walker. “We sent down 3,000 1-kilo bags that will go to families that are in poverty. There is such great need there.
“There’s a family at my church that goes down there every year. The last time I spoke with them, the rice had cleared customs down there and was waiting for the Borderless Brigade team to get there for the distributions.”
It turns out Wagner doesn’t just give rice in Latin America. “I believe we’ve given over 15,000 pounds away in the state – to a number of worthy organizations -- over the past 18 months.”
Wagner’s son, Lawrence, is newly out of Mississippi State University “and we’re trying to get him inured to the farm and rice marketing.”
The family’s operation isn’t typical. “We bought land that no one else wanted and flat-graded a lot of it,” says Wagner. “When I began farming it was out of my own pocket and, in the mid-80s there was a move to LISA (Low Input Sustainable Agriculture). We still kind of practice that. One reason is economy but it also got us to where we are.
“We’re very proud of our water conservation efforts. There is also very little inputs. Geese and ducks do a lot of the fertilizing work for us. They also stomp the straw down.
“We use a little herbicide, but we’re about as green as you can get without being certified organic.”
The Wagners also grow Group 3 public variety soybeans. “We’ve learned to plant them very thick. Dryland, they’ll make 20 to 50 bushels. Two years ago, we cut some 78-bushel irrigated beans. The system works, although it isn’t perfect. I feel you can save one to three irrigations. If you’re growing Group 5s, you could shave four or five irrigations.”
Does Walker want to continue assisting Borderless Brigade?
“We want to, that’s for sure. The Horizon Ag owners are generous people and, certainly, from a rice standpoint, Honduras is a major export destination for U.S. rice anyway.
“We’ll be looking for opportunities to come alongside (the brigade) and help. As long as we have the ability to do so, we will.
“If folks want to help, please encourage them get in touch with Borderless Brigade. They have the boots on the ground, have the contacts in customs, and know the ins and outs.”