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Diverse Prather operation keeps cash flowing year-round

If you're one of Steve Prather's farm hands, you work levees in the summer, run an excavator in the fall and guide duck hunts in the winter. There's not much time to catch a breath for these talented guys.

Prather's farming operation is uniquely diversified to keep cash flowing and employees going year-round. Guiding takes place in December and January, equipment is maintained and overhauled in February and March, the growing season goes from April though September, and custom land-leveling takes place until duck season starts up again.

Prather farms 800 acres of rice and 1,600 acres of soybeans, just south of Shaw, Miss. He is 100 percent flood irrigated on all 2,400 acres.

He started his duck hunting enterprise 15 years ago because rice farming alone just wasn't showing the profits he required. “Money was a big concern. I had to find something else to make money,” said Prather, who was named 2006 Rice Farmer of the Year at the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference, in Tunica, Miss.

The Delta Wildlife Foundation in Stoneville, Miss., formed Delta Outfitters about the time that Prather started guiding, and Prather was one of the first to join the organization. “They were working through the Department of Tourism, doing a lot of advertising. As soon as I joined, I started getting calls.”

Prather's first duck-hunting customers were a family from Charleston, S.C. who returned every year after that until the father developed health problems three years ago.

“Their routine was to eat Christmas dinner in Charleston, get up from the table and be here hunting the next morning.”

Recently, Prather added a Quonset hut for lodging up to eight hunters at the farm's headquarters. If the lodging enterprise works out, he could expand to another hut next door. Prather is set up to guide four groups of hunters per day, with four people per group.

Prather designed and built 10-foot metal duck pits for the venture, 15 of which are permanently buried at various points around the farm.

He plans to bury four more pits on an adjacent farm which Prather is renting this year. “Then we're going to start training our newest workers to duck hunt.”

Prather doesn't need to market the guiding venture much these days, although he still does some Internet advertising. “At first, we printed brochures and bought I don't know how many mailing lists. About half of them came back. The addresses were wrong. So if I'm going to spend any money, it will be on the Internet.”

After duck hunting season, Prather and his hands work on equipment, getting it ready for the field. The pace is slower because Prather's work force — Prather's son Justin, Danny Irby, Floyd Dantzler, George Davis, Rocky Fernandez and Joe Garcia — needs a little down time. “I don't want them getting too grouchy,” Prather said. “You hunt every day for 60 days, that's a chore. You're tired. We do slow down a little in February and March.”

The rice and soybean crops occupy everyone's attention from April through September. Fuel and fertility costs have squeezed Prather's crop profit margins, but not his creativity. When it's time to drain a field, Prather uses an implement he designed and built called a levee swiper. It will eliminate the levee, “swiping” it across the field. Prather has also developed a mathematical formula for determining an ideal slope based on row length for any field.

One thing Prather hasn't found an answer for is glyphosate drift. His rice crop has been hit several times, “and the problem doesn't seen to be getting any better.”

Harvest is followed by fall tillage and precision leveling maintenance on the farm.

Most of the farm has been under a minimum-till or no-till program for years, but last fall, Prather deep-ripped 700 acres, after seeing yields reduced in soybeans and rice. “Eight to 10 inches of my ground was compacted, not only from traffic, but by the ground (clay and heavy clay) contracting and swelling.

“Joe Pettiet, (soil consultant from Leland, Miss.) told me soils were like a deck of cards, they can stack up on you. You have to break that up. If you don't, moisture can't get in there, the roots can't get in there and nutrients can't get in there. In addition, salt was building up from the irrigation water. I needed to till to get that salt back down into the ground.”

Prather purchased a V-ripper from a dealer in Hamburg, Iowa, last summer. Such equipment is hard to find in the Delta these days, he says. Early in the 2006 growing season, he is already seeing the results, with larger soybean and rice plants growing in the ripped lanes.

“We rode the no-till wagon as long as we could, and now we're going to get our compaction problem solved with some tillage,” Prather said. “Then we're going to get back on no-till and see how far we can ride it. The question for me now is how much tillage is enough, and how much is too much. In the spring, the ground has to hold the tractor.”

After their own ground is ready for the winter, Prather's hands start custom work, consisting of precision leveling, maintenance work on precision leveled fields that have settled, plus excavation work.

That part of the schedule can be hectic, according to Prather. “Everything you do in the Mississippi Delta is tied to weather. The track hoe can go in any weather, but the business is cyclical. The land leveling is up and down, too. You have to weather a storm every now and then. This year, dirt moving is going to be short with the price of fuel, and people don't have a lot of money.”

Not any one of Prather's enterprises produces a windfall of cash. But each helps with cash flow and keeps employees on the job. “I used to keep up with hours we worked, and we keep our hands year-round. The figures showed that we weren't putting in the hours. Farmers think they work all the time, but they don't. You take three months off, you're unemployed during that time. On my farm, I can't afford that luxury. We have to be making money 12 months out of the year.”

When income is compared to expenses, duck hunting tops all his enterprises, followed by rice, soybeans, excavating and land leveling. According to Prather, a big benefit of his diversified approach is that every year “something is going to miss and something is going to hit.”

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