The community of Greenleaf, located in the northeastern part of Tate County, Miss., was given its name from a nearby lush green grove when the original settlement started in the middle 1800s. Dairy barns dotted the landscape, and third-generation farmer Justin Hurt can trace his lineage back to the first Hurts who settled in that area.
In those early days, the people in the area who made their living in agriculture had 100 or so acres and dairy cows. “That’s just the way it was back then,” says Hurt, who today spends most of his time farming corn, soybeans and peanuts on over 3,000 acres of row crop ground, while his father, Kenny, oversees Greenleaf Farms’ 450 momma cows and a few young stockers on 1,500 acres of pasture land on both sides of the county. “My brother, Adam, farms with us, and we have six other workers — two are what I call true cowboys who work the cattle with dad.”
Justin’s father remembers all too well the arduous lifestyle of dairy farming. “When dad graduated from college, he knew what he didn’t want to do — work on a dairy operation,” laughs the 37-year-old dryland farmer who has been knocking down record-setting corn and peanut yields on the sandy soils around Moore’s Bottom since 2005. “I worked at a fertilizer plant for one year after I earned my ag engineering technology and business degree at Mississippi State University,” adds Hurt. “It didn’t take me long to hear the farm calling.”
The Hurts farmed land they rented for many years around Moore’s Bottom when Justin was young, but the family started buying land 12 years ago. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t spending time in this bottom area,” says Hurt. “I told my wife, Anna, when we got married, if we bought some of this land, I already had a spot picked out for our house.”
The land and the crops
Folks in the Mississippi Delta deal with irrigation. Hurts deals with erosion — specifically, how to prevent it. Water flowing into the Coldwater River from Arkabutla Lake, a reservoir in DeSoto and Tate counties, passes through the Arkabutla Canal on highly erodible land farmed by Hurt.
“We’re not irrigated because our fields aren’t suited for pivots and land forming scares us because we just don’t have the 6 feet of top soil like they do in the Delta,” explains Hurt. “If we lose soil through erosion, or move dirt around, it takes years for it to build back up, especially in those areas that drain poorly where we fight year after year to get a crop in.”
Hurt learned quickly he had to move water off his fields to prevent huge ruts from forming and carrying off his top soil. Through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Hurt spends time in the summer installing pipes with drop inlets and rock structures to help retain that high-erodible soil on his land.
“We set the depth of the pipes as close to the bottom level of that canal as we can,” explains Hurt. “Backhoe and dozer work are time-consuming, but it’s effective at helping us maintain our top soil profile.”
The sandy soils in the area have low cation exchange capacity (CEC), so retaining nutrients, even over a short period of time, is difficult. “We’ve had excellent yields from side-dressing our corn two weeks after emergence with a new high-speed anhydrous rig we bought recently, but leaching is always a concern,” says Hurt.
“Anhydrous is an excellent source of nitrogen, but also requires extra caution being stored under pressure. My father used it when he was younger, and was told if he ever blew a line, to knock the tractor out of gear, take off running, and not go back until the tank had emptied.”
Greenleaf Farms’ crop split usually includes 1,200 or so acres of peanuts, 1,500 acres of corn, and if there is ground left, they will put in some soybeans. The peanuts and corn have been the consistent cash crop. “When the big peanut push came through our area in 2012, we let cotton go and started growing peanuts,” says Hurt.
“Because of the similar harvest timing of cotton and peanuts, and because we didn’t have enough acres to justify buying a round bale picker, we had to let cotton go last year,” adds Hurt. “My dad always said, ‘…Son, if you’ve got cotton and cows, you can make it…’, but peanuts are making money for us right now!”
Hurt learned quickly that farming peanuts is dusty and slow at harvest, but they are not difficult to grow. He has seen more disease pressure the last few years and will most likely double up his fungicide applications in 2019. He rotates corn with peanuts.
“I’ve heard our cost of production is lower than in Georgia where many growers are on a 10-day fungicide schedule,” adds Hurt. “We’re applying them two to three times a season right now.”
If he can get into the fields early, Hurt will start with corn and loves experimenting with plant populations but seems to be comfortable with 38,000 plants per-acre. “I might increase it to 44,000 on a few early acres, but I won’t go heavier than that on too many acres because I’ve had to cut lodged corn before and that’s no fun at all,” says Hurt, who’s father also told him, “…If you don’t have a hiccup or two, you’re not pushing it hard enough.”
Last year was the first time Greenleaf Farms had ever cut corn in October, and combined peanuts in December. Despite the wet and drawn-out harvest, it was probably their best peanut yields to date — almost three tons an acre.
They were in the same boat as most farmers in the South though — both peanut and soybean grades took hits. “Getting a price for peanuts is different than soybeans where you just make a call and get a price,” explains Hurt. “Prices for peanuts are usually announced around planting and harvest, but I’m guessing we’ll be around $400 a ton again this year.”
Hurt sells his O6G varieties to Birdsong Peanuts, but Golden Peanuts has been asking for high-oleic varieties that offer longer shelf life for peanut-rich candy products. High oleic varieties are supposed to garner a premium, but some growers are questioning the yield and grades they have seen.
“The push for high-oleic peanuts stems from the extend shelf life the varieties bring,” says Dr. Alan Henn, plant pathologist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “The oil in these varieties doesn’t turn rancid like the oils in non-oleic varieties. The lower fatty acids are also better for our bodies and have been branded as a heart-healthy food by the American Heart Association.”
Peanut breeders are selecting for better yielding lines, but the O6G variety continues to be the workhorse variety of choice for many peanut farmers.
This year and the future
By April 1, Hurt hopes to be putting corn in the ground, and maybe as early as March if weather allows. Peanuts will go in on May 1, and soybeans after that. “The earlier we can get soybeans in the ground, the better,” adds Hurt. “I may even plant some late soybeans after we wrap peanuts.”
In addition to conducting his own soil testing, Hurt normally does his own nutrient applications. “We used an aerial service to fly in some urea for a tassel shot on corn one year because we had plenty of rain and knew it was going to be a good year for corn,” says Hurt. “We prefer to do everything ourselves. That way, I’ll know it’s done right.”
It turned out Hurt was correct because 2017 was the best year for corn he ever had — up until the hurricane winds laid so much of it down. “It quickly went from the best to average,” adds Hurt.
Hurt planted a cereal rye and radish cover crop on 200 acres that is ready for corn. “It’s another way to keep our soils in place and improve our soil health,” says Hurt.
He wants to keep his record of high corn yields going into the future, and unless there’s a significant shift in commodity prices, he plans to keep with his current crop mix. “We’ll have about the same number of cattle as well,” adds Hurt. “We are small enough that if cotton starts looking attractive, we can make a move to capitalize on that.”
From soil testing and nutrient applications, to his land conservation and preservation efforts, Justin Hurt maintains attention to details. He even devised a clever little ruse to have his girlfriend’s parent pick her up at the airport after a mission trip and take her to prepare communion, all under the guise he had to haul a load of cattle to Oklahoma.
“When they got her in the back of the church, I slipped into the pew where we sit each week,” explains Hurt. “I don’t remember her saying yes, but she grabbed that ring very quickly from my hand!”
Nine years later, Justin, Anna, and their three sons, Noah, 5, Henry, 3, and Luke, 2, live in a house where he always envisioned it being built — looking out over the fields he farms in Moore’s Bottom.