Everyone’s day begins with breakfast, no surprise. But the Warrens’ day begins with breakfast to order. Requests have been placed the night before and the family matriarch, Connie, has been up for a while before the seven grandkids sleepily troop into the kitchen.
“When we say Connie cooks, that doesn’t give you the full scope of what she does,” says Tasha, as mid-November winds howl outside. “We wouldn’t function without her. For breakfast, whatever you want: eggs, sausage, pancakes, gravy, chocolate gravy. Then, she packs lunch for everyone and brings it to the field every day. Every night, she feeds all the hands -- maybe 15 folks.”
The rest of the Warren clan – patriarch Don, sons Chris and Anthony and their wives Tasha and Melissa – are no less idle. If there is work to be done, pitch in. That is the unspoken mantra of this true, tight-knit farming family from Lambrook, Ark.
“I’m a second-generation farmer,” says Don. “My mother and daddy moved here in 1939, just before WWII. They lived here until they passed away.
“I was born and raised here, same as Connie. Her parents also farmed here. We got married, our kids -- Chris, Anthony and their sister, a nurse in Helena -- came along and now they’re starting to tell us what to do,” says Don, laughing.
The Warrens farm 9,250 cropland acres, none of it more than 14 miles from the main shop in Lambrook.
“We’ve certainly taken on more acreage. Ten years ago, we were farming around 3,000 acres,” says Chris. “I started farming in 1998 and Anthony started two years later. Around 2003/2004, we combined acres and started working together.
“It’s worked out so much better with us working together. We don’t have to maintain separate shops and equipment.
“Truth is, we kind of had our hand forced on that. Quality labor is scarce. Plus, it’s nice to have just one sprayer running the 9,200 acres. Consolidating like we have keeps overhead down and also means we’re watching each other’s backs that much closer.”
The Warrens haven’t shifted crops as much as some east Arkansas neighbors. “We’ve always grown grain over cotton,” says Anthony. “This year, we raised about 5,500 acres of soybeans, 2,000 of grain sorghum and the rest was in rice. Grain sorghum has always been in our rotation.”
Don agrees. “We’ve done the same crop rotation for a long time. Way back, when I first began, I grew cotton. But with the soils around here we couldn’t really compete with the cotton farms. So, we got out of cotton long before the bottom fell out of the market.
“Soybeans, grain sorghum and rice are our main crops. We did grow some corn for a few years until the price turned south.”
The family has a fleet of grain bins with a 250,000-bushel capacity.
“The first bin went up in 1997 and we’ve added on five times since,” says Anthony. “This year, we used the grain bins early-season for soybeans and milo. But we ended up having to pull all that for rice -- it was a great crop and we didn’t have any room for anything but rice.”
How did the 2014 season work out?
“We got off to a later start than normal,” says Chris. “Our finish, though, was timely. The rains this year did us – everyone, actually – a real favor. They hit at just the right time all through the season. We had a record soybean crop for our farm.”
“I bet we didn’t irrigate 10 percent of what we normally do,” says Anthony. “The thing is, the times we did irrigate a rain usually came in right behind it. We could have gotten away with even less irrigation. It was that kind of year.”
The Warrens acknowledge fellow producers are saying they’re likely to bump soybean acres up in 2015. Even so, “I think we’ll probably stick with what we’ve found works best,” says Don. “It is tempting to plant more soybeans. The current price of growing rice, the inputs, makes soybeans more attractive.”
Resistant weeds are another reason to stick with the rotation. “We have a lot of resistant weeds – mostly pigweeds,” says Chris. “Marestail isn’t too bad for us. The major reason we’re not upping our soybean acres next year is because of those weeds. We have to keep the rotation to fight resistance.”
The female touch
The women of the family know the business and are perfectly willing to join the grind. They happily signed up from the get-go.
“Chris and I got married on July 3,” says Tasha, who chronicles each growing season with her camera. “On July 5, he put me at the grain bin shipping rice. That fall, I started driving trucks.”
The operation has two combines. “The year Tasha and I got married, daddy was driving one and we were in the other,” says Chris. “Daddy had to park his combine and go to the grain bins. She looked at me and said, ‘Who’s going to drive that combine?’ I said, ‘It’s either going to sit there or you’ll have to drive it.’ She said, ‘Okay, show me how.’ And she’s been driving it ever since.”
“It’s actually great because our kids have always been out there with us,” says Tasha. “They’ve stayed a few days with an aunt but, for the most part, they’re outside on the farm.”
“A lot of our dates were spent just riding on the tractor,” says Chris. “I couldn’t get away from the work so that’s what we did.”
Simply put, says Don with another laugh, “We all do what needs doing.” The women in the family “are awesome. Melissa drives a combine all fall. We spell her in the afternoons when the kids are home from school and need help studying. Tasha drives trailer-trucks. When the trucks start stacking up, we’ll all drive them.”
The last decade has brought major changes to the farming landscape. “One of the big things around here in the last few years is irrigation,” says Don. “Farming dryland, with the cost of inputs and fuel, is just too risky. And whatever land isn’t yet leveled is set to be. That’s proven to be worth the cost and landlords realize that. You’ve got to have good landlords and we’re so lucky to have them.”
Another change: the migration of youth from the Delta.
“A lot of the real go-getters have left for jobs and the city,” says Don. “We’ve been forced to adapt. Consider what that means. Everything from bringing in labor from South Africa to buying larger equipment in order for the workers we do have to keep pace.”
The Warrens are hardly the only ones bringing in labor. “I know there are a lot of Romanians working in the county, farther north,” says Chris. “There are a lot of South Africans, as well. There are so many, in fact, that they all get together for cook-outs and social functions.
How do the Warrens vet prospective workers?
“We do what we can: Skype, phone calls, resumes,” says Chris. “Some of the fellows here now we Skyped with last winter. We talked to their families. It was really about them interviewing us, as well. These guys are in the mid-20s and their parents wanted to know they weren’t sending their sons off to some crazy American employer. They wanted to know we were going to take care of their boys properly. You know, ‘You’re going to provide for my baby, right?’ Totally understandable. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’d have been doing the same thing.”
The South Africans, says Anthony, “have worked out really well. We’re very pleased. We have nine 18-wheelers that someone has to drive during harvest. The three fellows that came in from South Africa all have driving licenses and can also weld. That’s been a big help to us.”
On the operation, Chris takes care of all the spraying. Anthony works the crew and machines “and I do whatever else needs doing,” says Don. “Well, the farm had gotten so large that Anthony couldn’t keep up with the mechanic and welding work.”
“It’s been so nice having that back-up,” Anthony agrees. “We want to keep them around.”