Careful planning and an experienced staff are keys to success
BY CARROLL SMITH
Sam and Jim Whitaker grew up farming with their mother and father, then took over the operation when their father retired. All total, this past year marked the brothers’ 19th crop. They farm thousands of acres of rice, soybeans, cotton and corn in southeast Arkansas.
“Twenty years after he pushed us out of the nest, we are back, so to speak, and he still helps us today,” Jim says. “Good employees and support staff are the key to making it all work. They make us look good. Not any one person gets it all done.”
Although the Whitakers farm a great deal of land, it’s still a family farm in which everyone participates. In 2008, they purchased a local elevator, which became Whitaker Grain. Jim’s wife, Lesli, takes care of the settlements as well as bookkeeping for the farm. His daughter, Jessica, helps with errands and mowing. Sam’s wife, Alicia, also does bookkeeping and the payroll. Lisa Hicks oversees all the scale tickets and weight. And Jim’s, son, Scott David, and Sam’s son, John Arthur, are on the roguing crew during the summer, making sure the fields are clear of any resistant weeds that try to pop up.
“Scott David is starting to see firsthand what these resistant weeds can do,” Jim says. “They take away from the crop and devalue the land, which is detrimental to the landowners.”
The operation also employs from 18 to 20 fulltime farm workers and usually about six seasonal workers. Their crop consultant, Robb Dedman, does all of the soil sampling, grids and fertility work. He points out that they do a lot of test plots on the farm to see what works and what doesn’t.
On top of all this help, multi-layers of seed reps and other industry people also contribute to keeping the farm profitable and viable.
Teamwork, with a capital T, is definitely part of the equation in making Trinity Farms Partnership and Samson Partnership successful operations.
Keeping Water On-Farm
Another important aspect is streamlining. Almost all of the ground is zero graded. According to Sam, they did it for long-term efficiency and water use.
“We’ve had a good experience with zero-grade beans, so if we need to or the market dictates, we feel like we can grow anything we want to on zero grade,” Sam says. “However, we’ll probably stay with rice because we believe we can be competitive. We’ve got enough row-crop ground to grow plenty of beans and corn. All of that ground is either furrow- irrigated or precision leveled, so that it has a grade to it. We took the flattest, heaviest ground to zero grade. That’s where we plant rice.”
“We realize about 50 percent water efficiency on zero grade and 25 percent efficiency on our equipment,” Jim adds. “The planters, ground rigs and combines can all run faster. We run everything by ground. This is more efficient for us because when you have continuous rice, you have to be spot on with your herbicide applications.”
The Whitakers installed flood control structures in the ditches and put in pumps to pick up tailwater or surface water.
“When it rains, we add another board in the box to capture rainwater, so we can go 20 days without pumping,” Jim says. “That’s common with zero grade. Allowing for about a quarter-inch evaporation per day, five inches of water will last you 20 days. We want to be good stewards with what the Lord has given us. If we get a good rain, we catch it in the ditch or the reservoir and hold on to it.”
A few years ago, they drained down the reservoir, repaired it and built habitat structures.
“We have one pump that feeds the reservoir,” Jim says. “We can open two pipes and flush a 60-acre zero-grade field in about 12 hours. Then we can flush the second field in 12 hours. Next, the water dumps into a tailwater recovery pit, so we can pick it up and put it back into the reservoir or into another field. The water doesn’t leave this farm. This is important because we are in the Mississippi River Basin Initiative area, which is a critical water-use area.
“When we installed a 24-inch pipe in the reservoir, we can open it up and water every field on this farm at the same time,” he explains.
In order for the water level to gravity flow, they built the turnrows up two feet higher and put them on grade all the way to the back of the property so they can push more water. Pushing more water equals more head pressure. More head pressure puts water in the field faster, so they can get more gallons per minute where they need it.
“We also built walkways to and handles for the slide gates so our guys don’t have to get all muddy and wet every time they want to let water from field to field,” Jim says.
The Whitakers are quick to say that many of the practices that they use were learned from other producers. One such practice is water-seeding.
“When we started growing zero grade, I talked to Phil Baugh who started zero grading 10 years before we did and used to water-seed,” Jim says. “He and his dad taught me how to water-seed, which they had learned from Chris Isbell. When you water-seed right, you get that tabletop effect because all of the rice comes up at the same time. I figured out that experienced farmers know how to do certain things, and you’ve got to go learn from them.”
As far as weed control in waterseeded rice, crop consultant Dedman points out that aquatics will try to take over unless you have a good weed control program.
“If you’re going to water-seed, you have to use some form of Grasp and RebelEX, Grasp and Clincher, Grasp and Beyond or Grasp and Newpath,” Dedman says. “These herbicides usually go out at three- to five-leaf rice.”
Stay In Touch: Text And Email
Other forms of technology that the Whitakers take advantage of is texting on smartphones and emailing.
“I’ll send out multiple texts in the morning to let everyone know which direction we are going in that day,” Jim says. “Then they send texts back to me letting me know what they have done and are doing. I’m here all day, so I know where everybody is and what they are doing.”
He emails work orders to ag pilots with maps, field locations, rates and where to order the chemicals from. This ensures they have all the correct information, so no mistakes are made. It also saves on phone calls.
“We actually plant rice, beans and cotton at the same time,” Jim adds. “We have three separate crews running on three separate farms with three separate support staff usually going to three or four retailers picking up seed. We have that much faith in them to take care of this work efficiently, and we can put out the seed really fast.
“It takes a big group of us to get everything done in a streamlined manner,” Jim says. “But I’ve always believed in Proverbs 24, ‘Commit what you do to the Lord, and you will succeed.’”
Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.