Rice Farming

Delta Legacy

Grain and seed rice business flourishes in Mississippi

By Carroll Smith

In 1920, T.E. Pemble moved to the Delta from south Mississippi and established Pemble Farms near the small town of Merigold. At that time, he grew all cotton, with the exception of a little corn silage that he raised to feed the mules.

T.E. and his wife, Lexie, had one daughter, MariAna, who attended school at Stevens in Missouri where she met her husband, J.T. Davis, who attended the University of Missouri. They married and came back to the Mississippi Delta to join the family farming operation. Today, two of their three sons, Pemble and Lex, are carrying on the family tradition under the watchful eyes of their father who still drives out every day to make sure the grain and seed rice operations are running smoothly.

In the early 1970s when the rice allotment opened up, Pemble Farms began to diversify, planting rice on the marginal land, and, eventually, adding soybeans, corn and wheat to the mix and dropping the cotton acreage altogether. Today they farm 1,700 acres of rice, 3,500 acres of soybeans, 500 acres of wheat and 1,400 acres of corn.

In dividing responsibilities, Pemble takes care of the soybeans; they both look after the corn; and Lex is in charge of the rice.

Variety selection is critical
Since 1978, Pemble Farms has been raising and processing superior quality seed rice.

“All of the rice we raise on this farm is for seed increase,” Lex says. “We grow it ourselves. No outside rice is contracted.”

Variety selection is one of the top priorities in the seed rice production business. This year, Pemble Farms planted Bowman – a new Mississippi release – Cocodrie, Cheniere, CL131 and CL151.

“These last four varieties came from the LSU AgCenter’s rice breeding program,” Lex says. “I’ve studied Dr. Steve Linscombe’s data and heard him speak at meetings. He tells it like it is. There are not a lot of ‘ifs’ in his discussion of rice varieties. I like that in a person.”

The Delta farmer notes that most Mississippi rice growers prefer medium-stature varieties with good straw strength because they don’t blow down as easily at harvest time. High yielders and good disease packages are also a must. Lex notes that improvements in rice variety technology have been a major factor in keeping the rice industry moving in a positive and profitable direction.

Consultant joins the team
Seven years ago, the Davises started raising corn, gradually increasing the acres each year. The only problem, Lex says, is that checking corn and rice happens essentially at the same time.

“The timing got to be more than we could handle,” he says, “so we hired a rice consultant, Bill Killen, for the first time since I’ve been here. He tells you like it is. He’s a good consultant, and he’s got the track record to prove it.”

Killen, who is based in Cleveland, Miss., has been checking rice since 1977 and started his own business about 20 years ago.

“All I check is rice,” he says. “I shoot for high yields and high quality on all of the rice that I look at, including Pemble Farms, which I check on a once-a-week basis unless an emergency comes up.”
Killen says one of his main priorities in checking the rice at Pemble Farms, since it is a seed rice production operation, is to make sure the fields are kept as clean as possible.

“I also make sure that the mid-season fertilizer goes out on time,” he says. “That’s my call. I give advice on land preparation and equipment purchases, as well as manage the chemical applications and decide when to flood or when to flush. I am their eyes in the rice fields.”

Beth Davis, Lex’s wife, also participates in the seed rice operation. Her responsibilities include rice certification, processing, inventory control and sales.

“It sounds a lot easier than it really is,” she says with a laugh. “The most challenging part of my job is working with family. Most of the time it is great, but sometimes, things get a little testy. However, the most rewarding part to me is watching the process of planting, growing, harvesting and processing the rice crop for seed.”

From the field to the bag
According to the Davises, their “rice is harvested at a moisture level of 16 to 18 percent for maximum grain development. Also, when seed varieties are changed during harvest or later in the processing plant, all combines, trucks, grain buggies and processing equipment are dismantled, thoroughly clean-ed and state inspected to insure purity.”

Next, “the seed rice is stored in Pemble Farms’ own bins and dried for maximum seed germination. Six drying facilities keep seed varieties separate and feature computer-controlled humidity. Very little heat is used in the drying process because it can cause poor germination in the seed.”

This attention to detail is only part of the legacy that T.E. Pemble passed on to his family. Even more importantly, they inherited the seeds of integrity, straightforwardness and a love of the fertile Mississippi Delta.

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or csmith@onegrower.com.