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Faith, forethought lessen gamble of growing new crop

To some farmers, the idea of growing a new crop might seem worse than betting all your earnings on an unknown hand, but Lee County, Ala., producers Mitch Lazenby, 33, and Troy Sims, 33, may just have the odds in their favor.

“Farming is the ultimate Las Vegas gambling risk. You simply have to pick a path that will reduce your risks as much as possible,” Lazenby says.

Their lush, green peanut fields suggest these east Alabama farmers have been dealt a winning hand. “We haven’t dug them yet, but we don’t know how much more we could ask from peanuts,” Lazenby says as he cracks the shell of a healthy immature Georgia Green pod. “It’s been pretty labor intensive, but we know farming is more than a livelihood, it’s a lifestyle.”

For Lazenby’s family, that lifestyle began in 1870 as survival farming and continually evolved to meet the demands of the day. “My great-grandparents had everything from cotton to sweet potatoes to a mule. In 1959, my father began farming cotton more intensively. He made money every year, something I’ve been blessed to continue doing.”

After his father’s retirement in 1999, Lazenby and lifelong friend Troy Sims decided the operation was ready for the vision of the next generation. “We always said if we ever had the opportunity to work together, we would. We chose peanuts to rotate with cotton because we needed a crop that would work well with cotton and one that wasn’t a host crop for nematodes. Plus, I like to see different things grow, and my dad always stressed the need to diversify,” Lazenby says.

In addition to the sage advice of Lazenby’s father, Sims and Lazenby also sought counsel from around the Southeast regarding first-time peanut production. “We’ve been to peanut meetings, peanut scout school, peanut expositions and consulted various Extension specialists while putting together our game plan for the year. The way I see it, we have the best of both worlds — the expertise of my dad and the fresh management approach of today’s producers.”

Part of that approach includes using today’s technology most efficiently. “Troy is the computer guy. He surfs the Internet and finds the most useful GPS-related equipment for our farm. Most farmers go to providers for that information. We take the backdoor approach because Troy has that expertise.”

Sims and Lazenby utilize GPS for variable rate spreading, grid sampling, and acreage reporting. “We can’t justify a yield monitor with only 300 acres of peanuts, but the acreage reporting has been very useful in boll weevil eradication,” Sims says.

Conservation-tillage is also a part of the duo’s progressive approach. “We planted wheat as a cover crop in this field,” Lazenby says as he points to a healthy 60-acre stand. “It has helped greatly in weed suppression, and these peanuts look fabulous. You need organic matter for cotton, and peanuts like it, but people still don’t grab conservation-tillage with both hands for various reasons.”

One of those reasons is lack of time, Lazenby says. “For smaller operations, it’s harder to justify planting cover crops because you can’t just drop what you’re doing in December and jump on a tractor.”

In addition to trying conservation-tillage, Lazenby and Sims also incurred first-time expenses, like buying new equipment. “The harvesting equipment was the biggest expense at around $150,000. We’re both perfectionists, but the sky is not the limit with money. We’ll buy what we need, but only that.”

Lazenby and Sims also found the demanding spray schedule of peanuts to be a new challenge this past summer. “We’ve had more than 20 inches of rain in the past eight weeks, and we couldn’t get in the field to spray. We don’t know how long peanuts can really go without being sprayed, but we’ll find out,” Sims says.

Lazenby also includes Auburn University’s Ag and Forestry Leaders program as a vital part of his learning process. “It greatly improved my communication skills. My wife Dawn is currently involved in the program in efforts to step back into the ag environment. You can never know too much about what you’re doing,” Lazenby says.

Another key to starting a successful new crop is acquiring knowledgeable cohorts, Sims says. “You have to find trustworthy people who know what they’re doing and be dedicated if you expect to make it work.”

Lazenby also encourages new farmers to be passionate about agriculture, unafraid of hard work, and satisfied with little or no return. “It takes a while to put it all together. You just have to roll with the punches.”

Lazenby and Sims both attribute their success thus far to faith. “There are things we can control, like the speed of a tractor and the days we harvest, but there are far more things we can’t control. You have to believe that the Lord will provide, and you’ll be able to pay your bills,” Lazenby says. “And you better be prayed up.”

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