Sunday, June 23, 2024

Sustainability at its Finest

How a Southeastern Arkansas Team Takes it to the Next Level


Jim Whitaker, a McGehee, Arkansas, native, is a fifth-generation farmer alongside his brother Sam in a well-rounded rice, cotton, corn, soybean, and wheat operation.

The Overall Operation

The Southeast Arkansas farm is comprised of a sandy loam and clay soil mixture along with a whole host of conservation measures to keep it going. Some of these measures include every acre of rice being zero grade and flooded for waterfowl, every row crop acre having a cover crop, and planting wildlife food plots.

“Our goal is to have every acre protected from erosion, offer habitat, and have a biodiversity aspect,” Jim said.

As far as rice goes, most of their fields are in a continuous rotation with their zero-grade field, and all their equipment is tracked so as to not create ruts. Their wells are being electrified and running off solar, making them energy neutral on their rice production. “Everybody has a corner somewhere that’s not able to be farmed, and it doesn’t take but a few acres to put solar in.”

Jim said he’s a fan of row rice when it is no tilled behind soybeans with water impounded at the bottom of the field, all while keeping an eye on nitrogen levels. He said he has not seen good success with water running out the bottom of the field and excess nitrogen, noting the importance of careful management and the impact of nitrous oxide being 265 times more potent than methane. “Row rice can be a really good tool if it’s managed properly.”

Jim, along with having a plethora of involvements in other committees and organizations in the rice industry, is currently the chair of the Arkansas Research Promotion Board and said research and promotion is vital to their operation.

“If we export half of our rice and don’t have anyone working internationally on export markets, how are we going to do that? If we’re looking for new fungicides or irrigation practices, we have to have research to validate. If we’re going to do carbon credits, we have to have a researcher that first does the greenhouse gas work.”

He discussed a benefit derived from these funds in the new research center in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

“We want it to be the epicenter of research and education. We need to teach the next generation about rice farming and waterfowl habitat. I’m a strong believer in that and what we’re doing. When you look at it as a whole, research and promotion dollars have done exponentially more good than harm.”

“Every day when I wake up, I have people working for me all over the world, in Washington D.C., on the University level, and on the county level to help me be a better farmer — every day on my behalf, and that’s funded by our rice research and promotion check off.”

A Team Effort

A myriad of people makes up the framework of Whitaker Brothers operations. Jim covers the rice and movement of grain, while Sam manages the row crops. Both of their wives lead different administrative roles, and all of their children are involved on the farm as well.

“We have kids with agronomy degrees, MBAs, and even one with a law degree, so we’ve got the dream team of children,” Jim said.

Jim and Lesli Whitaker in one of their rice fields on Trinity Farms. Jim, a McGehee, Arkansas, native, is a fifth-generation farmer alongside his brother Sam in Trinity Farms and Whitaker Grain, a well-rounded rice, cotton, corn, soybean, and wheat operation.

Jim’s son Scott scouts rice and makes chemical recommendations, and his daughter Jessica is the project coordinator for the South Arkansas Ducks Unlimited in partnership with rice stewardship.

“Environmental factors really play a big role on us; whether it’s a wet or dry season, or even nighttime temperatures, that can mess us up sometimes,” Scott said.

He discussed how nice it is to have the agricultural community to help learn from previous mistakes. “Most of us learn from other’s mistakes or our own, so anytime someone wants to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done this; it didn’t work,’ I can appreciate that.”

Jim and his daughter Jessica spoke at a TED Countdown Summit on climate change and rice sustainability solutions in July of 2023 in Detroit, Michigan

Beyond the family, Jim said they have assembled a really strong group of people as coworkers. “We have a data guy to help track everything we do, a grain manager, a conservation specialist, and a manager and support staff for each crop of their operation. Each one of them is so independently important.”

Elijah Wojohn, their conservation specialist, planted fields that were too wet to plant rice on in some different millets for ducks and geese and frequently checked rice moisture levels. “I want to increase calories available in the landscape for wintering ducks and geese and just try and enhance and restore as much waterfowl habitat as we can while growing rice.”

Jim’s son Scott harvesting 2023 rice in McGehee, Arkansas.

Their grain manager Mark Hatcher operates all the inbound and outbound grain. When the crew is not running in full force, they will go help where needed on the farm.

“It can get really hectic sometimes, but it mellows out,” he said. “You’ve got to really love the job if you want to do it.”

They have an offsite company that monitors their grain and sends Mark daily emails with the data. With that, they are able to see how much energy they are using, see temperature and moisture levels, and even turn fans on and off automatically when needed. “It helps for when we have problems with a bin, we are able to go in and see what’s going on,” Mark said.

Conservation specialist Elijah Wojohn and chief technology officer and agronomist Kyle Lassiter work to bring solutions to the growing need for conservation and sustainability on the farm.

Jim said they figure about a 30% energy reduction with this technology and come out with better grain at the end.

Leveraging Data and Improving Soil

In 2016, Whitaker Brothers sold the very first agricultural carbon credits in the world to Microsoft.

“Going through that verification program and the data collection and being audited by the American Carbon Registry, I realized we were on a trajectory where companies are going to demand this in the future. It’s not going to be a ‘we want your data;’ it’s going to be a ‘we have to have it,’” Jim said.

Mark Hatcher, grain manager for Whitaker Grain, operates all inbound and outbound grain on the farm.

Between companies with net-zero claims and their stockholders, Jim said they will have to come to the farm level to meet those expectations.

Kyle Lassiter, their chief technology officer and agronomist, said they have a handful of platforms they use when it comes to data collection on the farm — My John Deere, Ag World for the financial and warehousing side of things, and a solid Excel spreadsheet can help get the job done. “It’s only going to move forward — bigger, faster, stronger, smarter.”

A Department of Energy grant funded a Cloud-based eddy covariance tower on the farm. It measures methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide gas-exchange levels with the soil as well as rainfall with moisture sensors down in the ground.

He said it is fun to see the synergy component of everybody and all the moving parts across the farm. “You get to see the teamwork create the final result.”

Jim said they have several years history of every gallon of water that’s been pumped on the farm through their data collection. Every three years, they take an inbound water sample and an outbound water sample. With this, they now have picture evidence of water leaving the rice field cleaner than when it came in.

Scott, Jim’s son and rice agronomist, is holding inbound and outbound water samples that are taken every three years. With this, they now have picture evidence of water leaving the rice field cleaner than when it came in.

“The reason is because our fields are flat; when rain comes, everything settles down for the rice plant to use rather than run off.”

A Department of Energy grant funded a Cloud-based eddy covariance tower on the farm. It measures methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide gas-exchange levels with the soil as well as rainfall with moisture sensors down in the ground.

In addition, they have both the Precision King system and the Aquarius control system on some farms to the point where they can go so far as to schedule irrigations and save water on every crop they have.

Building the Future

The Whitakers are doing more than just waiting to see what is next.

Jim recalled how the Rice Leadership program he accepted in 2010 helped him get more involved in the rice industry and enhance his own farm from what he came away with. “I’ve been all over the world since then. They develop you, and then they push you out to do more.”

He discussed the difficult, yet rewarding, integration of cover crops. “Cover crops are hard to figure out and plant into. It’s a mindset — you determine ‘who am I farming for?’ If you’re farming for next year, no cover crop; if you’re farming for the next generation, protect the topsoil at all costs.”

He said in the short term, they will have a more conservation and environmentally friendly mindset and methodology on the farm to adapt to increased regulations and help with scope three reductions and carbon offsets for other companies ahead of their 2030 net-zero claims.

Jim said their long-term strategy lines up with what is happening across the nation. “I think we need to combat imports and pay close attention to ethnic markets in our country and what they desire — aromatics and basmati — and we need to put effort into growing those for them as that is one of the fastest-growing markets in the country.”

The decommoditizing of rice is something he said should be further investigated. “We are the leading country in the world; we don’t need to be competing for the cheapest rice in the world. U.S. rice is better hands down than any other rice in the world.

Jim said the most challenging aspect of the farm is having that multi-generational family farm with many coworkers who depend on the farm every day amid all the fluid conditions like weather that go with farming. He said the team has been integral in shaping the present and future of the operation.

“Finding, training, and keeping good workers is key. They make all the difference.”

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