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Farming with an Audience

Every year, Jimmy Moon Jr. and Billy Baker put their successes, mistakes, shortcomings and strengths on display for 600 to 700 visiting farmers. It's like "farming in a fishbowl," for the cotton producers, who manage 3,800 acres of cotton production and research trials on Judd Hill Plantation, site of the annual Judd Hill Cotton Technology Field Day, just south of Trumann, Ark.

Moon, who also farms 1,300 acres of his own cotton and runs a Case IH and Valley irrigation dealership in Trumann, says managing his 2,000-acre portion of the cotton operation at Judd Hill "is challenging. We always try to do a good job. But when we know we're going to be seen, it probably costs a little bit more."

That usually involves extra manicuring and mowing around the turnrows prior to the field day. But for the most part, Judd Hill Plantation is run like any other Delta area farm. Moon and Baker are required to finish the year under budget, which means that weeds which can't be economically controlled might be seen poking through the canopy.

The cotton operation is the principal asset of the Judd Hill Foundation, established by the late Ester Hill Chapin in 1985. The purpose of the foundation is research, experimentation and the dissemination of information to the public on progressive farming techniques. There are studies on agricultural economics, enhanced seed types, fertilization, irrigation and pest control. All of the farm is irrigated, mostly through center pivots.

Companies such as Monsanto, Deltapine, Stoneville and Aventis pay to put their products in the farm's trials. They're planted side by side with other products and the results are published after the conclusion of harvest.

What makes this field day a valuable one for farmers is that Moon and Baker operate the research and production aspects of the farm just like they would operate their own.

"In the tests that Billy and I do, we use normal farming practices," Moon said. "And most are large test plots, 40 acres. It's not two rows, 40-feet long. Both of us have to pay our bills at the end of the year. Neither one of us will spend too much money just to make something look good, because that's not what it's all about."

That doesn't mean that Moon or Baker go for the cheapest way out, though. "We may choose an alternative that may be more expensive," Moon said.

No matter what their decisions are, their peers view the results in living color each year in August. "When farmers come out here and look at something, this is not a show," Baker said. "What you see is what you get. If we mess up, it shows. If we do good, it shows."

In most years, Moon and Baker start preparing for the field day about two weeks before the event, Moon says. "This year, we've been dressing up until the very end. We got started a little late because our crop was a little later, our irrigation was a little later. It really pushed us.

"It's been another extremely difficult year to farm," the producer added. "The spring was unlike any I've ever had. I have four different ages of cotton within my operation, four different planting dates separated by a good bit of time. We started April 28 and finished up on May 24. With the equipment I have, I normally would have done it in seven days."

Baker, whose father also farmed on the Judd Hill Plantation, says preparing for the Judd Hill field day can be stressful. "We want this field day to work, first of all. There's a lot of planning that goes into it. If we don't do our part as farmers, then everything else crumbles."

Both farmers credit their work crews with helping them manage the responsibilities. "Several of my crew have been with me on the field day for years," Moon said. "If I had new help every year to help with it, it would really make it rough on me. Our sponsors are a lot of help also."

Moon credits one of his crew, Marty Renshaw, with helping him juggle his own cotton acreage, his dealership and the needs of Judd Hill. "As long he's around, I don't have to be there. He's really my right hand man, been with me 20 years."

Visiting farmers aren't the only ones who are impressed with what they see on the farm. Moon himself says no-till trials have changed his mind about the practice. "Last year, I had a 40-acre test plot of no-till and before 1999, I wouldn't have had any no-till," said Moon, who has been farming on Judd Hill since 1990.

"I didn't think it was for me. It wasn't for our type soil. There is tremendous interest in it this year because of the decreased labor needed and how well it worked this spring when we had so much sand blowing. The sand did not blow on the no-till. This year, I have 750 acres of no-till and next year, I may have 3,000 acres of no-till.

Proceeds from the Judd Hill Foundation, a 501C-3 corporation, go to two primary beneficiaries, the Arkansas State University Foundation and the University of Arkansas Foundation. The trust has given over $1 million to ASU to establish the Judd Hill Chair of Environmental Biology.

"Environmental biology is becoming very important to farmers today," said Mike Gibson, trustee of the Judd Hill Foundation. "We're looking for our own research and data where we don't have to be dependent on the government data so much."

For the UA Foundation, the trust has donated money to rural heath care, to establish area health education centers, which was of primary importance to Mrs. Chapin, the founder of the trust.

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