After leaving the hill country around Houston, Miss., in the early 1900s, Wayne Dulaney’s great-grandfather, a timber cutter, saw opportunity in clearing the oak and cypress trees on the outskirts of what is today Clarksdale, Miss.
By 1913 Dulaney’s great-grandfather had established a farm and became the first generation of Dulaneys to make their living off the land. “Cotton was grown on our farm until 1978,” says Wayne Dulaney, who along with his brother, J.D., are now the fourth generation of Dulaneys operating what is now appropriately called Gen 4 Farms.
“How we ended up with this low and lonely buckshot ground when there are all of these rich and wonderful Delta soils across this region, I’ll never understand. When turtles crawl across the buckshot in the spring, mud builds up under their shells, they become stuck because their feet can’t reach the ground and they eventually die. We find them everywhere.”
By 1991, Wayne’s father, Edwin, and Wayne’s uncle, Terry Dulaney, started a seed business bearing the family name. They sold the business to Local Seed Co. in 2017 when Terry decided to retire. “I worked as a Field Representative at Helena Chemical for five seasons, but when we sold the family business, I was retained by the new owners, and I still work for them today. In 2008, when our father retired, J. D. and I took over the family farming operation.”
J. D. handles the field operations side of the business and Wayne takes care of the purchasing and marketing side, lending some crop consulting/agronomic advice, and working as the liaison to FSA and NRCS. “The delineation of duties just fell into place,” and it works out really well,” says Wayne Dulaney.
Balancing Crops and Using Water
The brothers will farm roughly 4,000 acres this year, with around 1,100 acres going into rice. “Our total rice acres will be influenced by the level of seed production we do for Local Seed Co.,” says Wayne Dulaney. “I wish we had another high-value crop like corn, but we’re limited on the acreage we can dedicate to corn.”
The brothers found out long ago that conditions have to be right if they go heavy into corn in any given year. They remember back in the early 2000s, they harvested 200-bushel corn for several years. The next thing they knew, their yields dropped by 50 bushels.
“We were perplexed and wondered what we were doing wrong,” says J. D. Dulaney. “Then we realized we can’t plant corn just to plant corn. Conditions have to be right — the right moisture and the right planting window. Corn is a numbers game. If growing conditions aren’t good, our decision is made for us.”
The brothers may plant up to 3,800 acres of soybeans this year. Back in the 1980s when their father, Edwin, and uncle, Terry, controlled the operation, they were making 50-bushel soybeans when everyone else around the area was harvesting 25 bushels. “Everything was planned around a soybean/rice rotation,” says Wayne Dulaney. “We work our soybeans quickly and efficiently. We can irrigate every soybean in eight days.”
The utilization and management of surface water is almost an art form for the Dulaney brothers. Their father had an engineering background, was big on efficiency, and understood the difference between taking a 40-hp diesel to get 2,500 gallons of surface water per minute, versus having to drill a 120-foot well and using an 80-hp pump to bring up water at 1,800 gallons per-minute.
“We pull water up no more than 20-feet from the Sunflower River. We basically have a weir system on our farm where we can capture it and use our 14 relift pumps to distribute it back across our land,” explains J. D. Dulaney.” “Many farmers hate re-lift pumps because they can be cantankerous to prime. Sometimes in the summer, I’ll get four calls a day asking me how to prime or fix them.”
Pipe leaks occur often. J. D. tells people to pack mud around the pipe’s fittings and listen for air leaks whistling. When the air leak stops, it will prime right up.
Edwin Dulaney started land-forming the farm in the 1960s. Wayne and J.D. spent many hot summers driving dirt pans. They did everything on a one-tenth row slope and no side slope because rice was the primary commodity. “Granddad always told us, ‘We paid for this land with cotton, but we made our money growing rice,’” remembers Wayne Dulaney. “During one stretch, we had five bad crop years in a row and my dad told us that cotton bought this place and cotton almost took this place.”
Back in those days, they were farming just over 2,000 acres and were around 30 percent irrigated. Today, they have less than 500 acres that rely on rainfall, but they lay out run-after-run of poly-pipe and run Pipe Planner across the farm. “We have a lot of headaches during irrigation season, but I tell my sons, Parker and Trip, to just be glad you’re not having to move gated aluminum pipe from daylight to dark seven days a week like J.D. and I did.”
Labor and Generation 5?
Global positioning system (GPS) technology has generated the biggest changes on the farm; both positive and negative. “It increased our efficiency in many areas, but the technology is also my worst enemy,” says J.D. Dulaney. “I can’t find workers who know how to use it. My dad once said, ‘…we don’t have tractor drivers anymore…,’ and he was correct. They just go where the A/B line takes them, whether it’s through a soft spot in the field or a clearly visible mud hole where they will more than likely get stuck. A good tractor driver is a dying breed.”
Through the H2A Program, Gen 4 Farms currently has three South African employees. “We’ve been lucky most of the time with the program,” says Wayne Dulaney. “We’ll get one or two good workers, but then we’ll get one that just wants to come over, make the money, and go back home to fund their own operation.”
There is one employee on the farm that stands almost as an institution — James Sykes. “James has been with us since he was 17 years old and he’s 79 now,” says Wayne Dulaney. “Nobody can outwork him. We let him do what he wants to do because he knows what needs to be done. Two of his sons served as Marine Color Guards for President Reagan.”
After farming for 62 years, there are countless stories about Sykes. While driving an old car into town recently, he felt something on his leg, looked down and a big chicken snake was crawling across his lap. The car door would not open from the inside so James bailed out the window after slamming the car into park at 30 mph. “James has watched us grow up. He’s watched our children grow up. He’s part of our family and our farm,” says J.D. Dulaney.
Trip and his older brother Parker will most likely cause a farm name change if they become the fifth generation of Dulaney descendants to farm. “Trip definitely wants to farm. Parker is a senior at Mississippi State University majoring in ag engineering technology and business, with a geospatial remote sensing minor and a precision ag certificate. He’s already lending his knowledge about precision ag to our operation,” says Wayne Dulaney.
Each subsequent generation of Dulaney farmers has worked the sticky buckshot ground their great-grandfather settled on many years ago. “We’ve learned how to make water dance on and off this land pretty well after decades of trial and error,” says Wayne Dulaney. “The land continues to tell us what direction to take our operation, and if we continue to correctly interpret what the land tells us to do, we might not end up like those spring turtles.”