Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Farming for the Future

How Water will Determine the Rice Industry

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
Editor

On a Century Farm about 30 miles outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, Dow Brantley is running the farm business his grandfather started years ago. His dad is still around and had run the business before Brantley stepped into the role in 2000 after graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1998 and working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. for a couple years.

“That was my mom and dad’s requirement — if we wanted to farm, we could, but we had to get out and do something else for two years,” Brantley said. “My dad would always say it’s a big world with lots of opportunity, and all I know is the farm. After my two years, I was ready to come home.”

The Farm

On the farm, Brantley grows rice, corn, cotton, and soybeans, of which rice is just under half of the total crop acreage. In addition to the farm, the Brantley family operates a commercial grain elevator with a capacity of just over three million bushels, 95% of which will be rice and corn.

Dow Brantley (right) and crew after finishing their most recent reservoir build.

“We’ve got an army of us here that make this all run every day,” Brantley said.

He said they started small before growing aggressively in creating zero-grade fields. “In this part of the world, we struggle with drainage since the land is very flat. In 2001, we started zero-grading our first fields, and that land has become more productive,” he said.

When growing row rice, he said they have noticed they can grow two row rice crops before the third one is growing up in grass, so rotation is necessary there. “We’ve struggled with what to do with some of our least productive fields, and it changed the game when we could plant row rice.”

Brantley said one of the most challenging aspects of the farm is dealing with weather and all the stress that stems from that. “In those stressful times, you’re making decisions a year in advance on the growth side. We’ve been fortunate though and made good crops.”

He added that as the farm has grown, so has the complexity of running it. “I didn’t know who to ask for assistance on that… you kind of learn as you go.”

Overall, Brantley said making good crops and seeing how the growth has worked over the years in both the operation and the people who help it run is rewarding. He said that he only sees more growth in the short and long term. “The challenges will be having enough people and resources in place to be successful. That’s going to take a lot of money, so we’ll have to have a good banking system that’s willing to take risks on that.”

Involvement

Outside of the farm, Brantley is involved in many different arenas within the ag community and rice industry. This includes heavy participation in Arkansas Rice and USA Rice for decades now. He has served as Arkansas Rice Federation chairman and as chairman for USA Rice.

Locally, he has served as a board member for Ag Heritage Farm Credit as well as Arkansas Ag Council among other local involvements.

In 2003, Brantley participated in the USA Rice Leadership Development Program. In addition to that, he also did Riceland Food’s leadership program.

“Through USA Rice, I’ve gained a better understanding of the industry and how much politics is involved in rice around the world. Just to be around and listen to others in the rice industry and hear what their issues are today — you pick up a little bit here and a little bit there. You take those ‘little bits’ and see if you can make an idea.”

He said he gets to help as the Farm Bills are being written to hopefully implement what is best for the rice industry. “I’m very prepared now, whether it’s a Farm Bill or conservation program; just being involved helps.”

The Water Component

He said their main focus on the farm presently revolves around water.

“We’re building reservoirs and trying to bring in more surface water to this community,” Brantley said. “We’re struggling in areas to have a good supply of groundwater.”

He said they have built three reservoirs in the past five years and are building another this year. They used the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) funding for two of them.

One of their 70-acre reservoirs holds 10 feet of water when full to make for 700 acre feet. He said they use about an acre to an acre and a half foot to water a zero-grade rice crop, so they hope to use it to water 1,000 acres and hope to fill it up once throughout the summer.

“We removed 80 acres of land to build this, but this is the future,” Brantley said. “This is what will keep us in the rice business. 20 years from now, whoever has water will be your rice industry.”

They have a tailwater ditch that runs alongside that captures the water or can be pumped into. All their pumps are natural gas and are used to irrigate and move water around the farm.

Brantley said the long-term outlook is all about water. “The two big irrigation projects are the Bayou Meto Irrigation District and the White River Irrigation District. We’re in the Bayou Meto Irrigation District here and are two years away from having river water pumped through here.”

“We have a plan that might take 20 more years to get it to completion as we just have it in Phase I, to help make our groundwater sustainable. We’d pump in the river water, let it flow through here, they pick it up on the bottom end, and pump it right back into the river.”

He said that these irrigation projects are sustainable projects. “It won’t replace all the water. There will be some people who never stop using well, but it makes that aquifer recharge or stay at the level it is today.”

Improving Systems

Brantley said they are living in Walmart’s world by having to do more for less so are always trying to improve systems across their crops. Even on their row crops, he said they try to improve their no-till systems with undertakings like cover crops. “We’re furrow irrigators, and we have pretty flat soils, which makes it hard to get water to go through all of that,” he said.

As far as sustainability goes in rice, it’s again all about water. “It’s how little can we use? Where can we save, recoup, restore our water?”

He said they are working with companies like Gerber and Indigo on some other sustainability measures as well.

“We’re doing a study with Gerber on some row rice to see if they can achieve lower arsenic levels than normal. The rice industry’s arsenic levels are good, but they’re wondering if they can grow some and lower it even more.”

New technology is being implemented and improved in various aspects on the farm.

“It’s coming at us so fast, it’s hard to keep up,” Brantley said. “From all of the equipment, the guidance, the autonomy that’s around the corner — the ability for us to see and manage from an office or computer from the tractor or even our pick-up trucks — that’s all helping.”

He said for their farm, they try to pinpoint the technologies that will work best for their operation.

“As our farm’s grown, we try to find the technology that manages people and their time so we can make sure they have the right resources they need to be efficient.”

Autonomy is a factor that some are worried about, but Brantley does not necessarily see this resulting in fewer people working down the road.

“I had one guy say, ‘You’ll replace me,’ and I said, ‘No, you’ll manage three or four tractors.’”

He said this will allow them to farm smarter with more technology. “That’s what’s exciting. That’s where there will be growth. It’s wild to think what a farm will look like in 20 years.”

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