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Farming in an urban-encroaching environment

WES HOGGARD and his son John take time out from a busy workday for a quick photo outside their Olive Branchbased John Deere dealership
<p><em>WES HOGGARD and his son, John, take time out from a busy workday for a quick photo outside their Olive Branch-based John Deere dealership.</em></p>

Adversity comes in many different forms for our nation’s farmers. From unpredictable weather patterns and fluctuating commodity prices to seemingly ever-increasing input costs and pest complexes that can keep even the most seasoned consultant guessing at times, adversity seems to be a word synonymous with farming.

For one Mississippian who farms just south of the Tennessee/Mississippi state line where Olive Branch (Desoto County) meets the southern boundary of Memphis (Shelby County), Wes Hoggard, owner of Hoggard Farms (and Stateline Turf and Tractor, a John Deere dealership), has to keep his eyes on farm land replete with a very specific kind of adversity with which more and more farmers are having to deal — urban encroachment.

From 1990 to 2000, the population of Olive Branch exploded from around 3,000, to over 21,000. From 1990 to 2010, Olive Branch was the fastest growing city in the United States with an astounding growth rate of 838 percent. Mississippi Highway 302 (known by most in the area as Goodman Road) is a major transportation corridor running thru Olive Branch, with its most western point ending in Walls, and the most eastern point terminating just west of Mount Pleasant.

Urban movement

Hoggard has been farming in this area for over 20 years — long before urban encroachment veered its multi-faceted commercial head. “I’ve been lucky in one respect when it comes to proximity to warehouses, semi-trucks and subdivisions…,” he says, “…because the fields that I farm are, for the most part, linked together with suitable access roads which greatly reduces the number of times I have to move my equipment.”

But Hoggard not only has to deal with changing pest complexes each year, he also has to deal with what he calls “an encroachment complex.” It’s easy to understand his “personally-coined” term as we both turn our heads toward the highway, where a steady stream of cars, trucks and school bus traffic screams by at 65 mph — while we sit in his John Deere 9670 Bullet Rotor Combine just 50 feet from the east-bound shoulder of the four-lane highway.

The fields Hoggard has been farming in this area vary in their relationship to traffic density. “Some fields are still tucked away from most urbanization but some, especially in the last five years, have become neighbors to more and more warehouses, subdivisions and commercial real estate developments,” he adds.

When it comes to making applications on whatever crop he’s currently producing, his only option is a ground rig sprayer. “Ag pilots won’t even consider flying in this area due to the number of roof tops (single unit family dwellings), but even with a ground rig — if there’s a slight breeze, I have to delay spraying, especially if the wind is blowing toward someone’s backyard,” Hoggard says.

And he can’t even think about burning off a wheat field. “That gets people, and the local fire department, way too anxious,” as he shakes his head, pointing to a subdivision that rests adjacent to a set of massive power lines — both of which are juxtaposed along one of the larger fields he’s currently farming.

“Not knowing what land will (or will not) be available to me each year also makes it impossible to forward contract any of the crops I produce,” he adds.

Making it work

Hoggard is a 30-year veteran producer who grows soybeans, wheat, corn and milo on fields that range in size from 5 to 120 acres. Any given year, Hoggard may farm anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 acres of land on which he rarely drops down a plow thanks to advice from his long-time friend, John Bradley.

“Dr. Bradley and I have been friends for a long time, and his advice has helped me be successful at no-till farming for as long as I can remember. It saves me time and labor, but the number one thing it’s done for me is, it has preserved so much land from erosion,” says Hoggard.

Hoggard took over some pasture ground and thought it would require tilling before he could put down a seed, but Bradley told him to let the land lay out over the winter. “The winter freeze and subsequent thawing would mellow the soil that was very compacted from years of cattle grazing. Dr. Bradley was correct, it worked,” Hoggard says.

Hoggard also has more than his share of unwanted activity on the land he farms. “I’ve got great neighbors, and I don’t hear much out of them, but every so often I’ll have a four-wheel drive truck or someone on a four-wheeler come on the land and see how much damage they can do — all in the name of having fun,” he says.

Hoggard also finds an occasional trespasser who thinks just because it is farmland, it’s ok to hunt on it. “The local game warden is a friend of mine. I keep his number handy, but I really don’t have to call him too often,” he adds.

There’s no shortage of wildlife on the land he farms, despite the constant activity from local businesses, warehouses and planes taking off from Olive Branch Airport (which was named the busiest Fixed Based Operation in the United States in 2012). “It’s absolutely amazing…,” he says, referring to the number of deer, turkey and other wildlife. “You would think this urbanization would push them further out. But it’s nothing to see a herd of 15 or more deer on one of the field access roads right next to the highway early in the morning or late in the day.”

Hoggard Farms is pretty much a one-man operation. “I do the majority of the farming myself while my son, John, holds down our John Deere dealership. When I do need help, he, along with my other son, Ben, are both quick to lend a hand,” says Hoggard.

He also has a daughter, Rachel, who is a school teacher (but when Hoggard calls, she gladly comes to the farm and drives the grain cart). “I’m also lucky enough to have a good friend who is an independent businessman and has a very flexible schedule. He just likes driving a combine — so I let him,” says Hoggard.

Looking ahead

It should come as no surprise that with increased urbanization encroaching on more and more farming operations, Extension Service personnel across the country are receiving higher numbers of phone calls complaining about things like oversized equipment on roads or highways and smells with which the general public are just not familiar.

Desoto County Extension Agent Dan Haire, a 20-year row-crop veteran, moved into the area three years ago. “With the population growing as fast as it is, I find myself working mostly with homeowners rather than farmers,” says Haire. “It’s something I’ve had to do not out of choice, but out of necessity, to help keep local farmers in the good graces of their neighbors who just don’t know about or understand farming.”

With constant encroachment by numerous warehousing businesses, schools, shopping centers and subdivisions, it’s very likely more of the land around Hoggard’s fields will be sold for commercial development. “It’s disheartening to see beautiful country land turned into a concrete jungle,” he laments.

Hoggard doesn’t exactly know what lies ahead for his operation — as far as what land will be available in the next year or two — but he sees the tell-tale signs offering more and more land for sale. He’s hoping to find more farmable land in more remote, less urbanized locations in the near future.

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