Four years ago, Graham French got an offer he couldn’t refuse — farming a 1,050 acre rice and soybean farm in Arkansas County, Ark.
Only two years before, French had graduated from Arkansas State University with a degree in agricultural business and finance and moved back to Arkansas County to work for Arkansas rice producer Ronnie Bauman.
Under Bauman, French learned the day-to-day activities necessary for getting a crop planted and harvested. When the offer to run his own operation came up, he knew that knowledge of individual fields was critical, especially in regard to soil type, crop mix and variety selection.
French, whose parents are not farmers, depended largely on his landlords for advice. Farmers John Harvill, who leased him the Arkansas County operation, and Lucian Walls, who later leased French a farm in Seaton, Ark., “pointed me in the right direction. They’re both very knowledgeable and know their farms. They helped out a lot.”
The Farm Service Agency in Prairie County lent a hand to the young farmer, too. “There are a lot of fine folks there, and the government has a lot of opportunities for first-time farmers, like direct loan packages which you can use to buy equipment, and a government guaranteed loan. Those were the tools I used to start building some equity. It’s worked out really well.”
French’s equipment line that first year included a Caterpillar tractor, a Caterpillar Challenger 45, a Case International 7150 with front-wheel assist, a John Deere combine, a few old trucks and enough implements to get the crop in and out.
In 2006, weather “hit our operation just right,” and rice yields were excellent across the farm. That first year, French went with 40 percent hybrid rice, with the remainder in Cheniere.
Today, French farms about 2,600 acres of rice, soybeans and wheat. Good friends Blake Staton and Steve Lookadoo help French run the farms, and French’s wife, Britteny, handles the books.
After harvesting of the previous crop, French’s first job is to get the levees down “and either run the rollers across the rice stubble and burn the crop residue or disk to get the straw back into the soil and breaking down.”
On heavier soils, French plants rice with a John Deere no-till drill, followed by Roundup, FirstShot, and Command, then puts up levees. “On sandier soils, we’ll disk and float and do a more conventional tillage program.”
Major weed problems in rice are sprangletop, barnyardgrass and smartweed.
French’s rice lineup includes CL XL729, CL XL730 and CL XL745, Clearfield hybrids from RiceTec, which are a good fit for the farm’s soil characteristics. “Several of our farms have a lot of mixed dirt, going from sand to buckshot — a collage of dirt. The hybrids seem to be more consistent across different soil types than a conventional variety.” He follows RiceTec’s recommendations on seeding rate, planting at 28 to 32 pounds per acre.
French started planting rice on April 15 this season, but wet weather extended the planting season to around June 1. “We had rice that we harvested in August, and we have rice now (mid-October) that’s still green, and won’t be ready for harvest until November.”
According to the National Weather Service, rainfall in Arkansas ran from 150 percent to 600 percent of normal throughout the state. This spring, rising waters from a creek running through the farm created a lot of extra work for French.
“We spent as much time pumping water off the field as we did pumping water on the field. There were a couple of fields that had we let the floodwater take us, we would have never gotten it planted in rice.”
On some ground, French build smaller protective levees on top of existing levees to keep back the water. “This summer we knocked the smaller levees down and smoothed it back out. We also set out a lot of portable pumps running to keep up with all the rainfall.”
Fields were so wet that French was not able to apply fertilizer by ground, so he flew on DAP and potash at the three-leaf stage.
French applied 100 pounds of nitrogen on his late rice “to try and push it. Everything before that got anywhere from 225 pounds to 275 pounds of urea with Agrotain, put out by air. The Agrotain is a bargain. I think I’m getting less lodging and less disease pressure because of it.”
A permanent flood was established the second or third week of July in some fields, “but on other fields we were cutting wheat when we were flooding rice.”
Stink bugs have been a problem in years past, but this year, chinch bugs surfaced and were treated with Karate.
French sprayed a fungicide on two rice fields totaling about 90 acres — out of 1,200 acres of rice. “On the two fields, there was a point during the season when it was very cloudy and rainy, and the rice shut down and the sheath blight was attacking the boot and the flag leaf.”
As of mid-October, a few acres of rice were still left to harvest. “We just have a few odds and ends to wrap up. We’re ready to get the grain out, get everything washed up and start preparing for next year.”
French said yields have been very good. “The grain retention on the CL XL729 is excellent. We know the wind isn’t going to shatter it, and it’s a good milling rice that’s going to yield above average.”
Forward contracting rice has become much too risky for French, especially in light of an unpredictable basis and rising production costs. “I can lock a price out for the next two years, but I have no idea what fertilizer, seed and fuel costs are going to be. The dynamics change so much for one season to the next. And what we spray and what we plant changes every year as we get new technology.”
In addition, basis moving in the wrong direction can suddenly put French in a position where he has to sell a crop for less than production costs. “We used to do a lot more forward contracting, but we haven’t done much in the last year and a half.”
After the 2009 crop year wraps up, it’s time for French to start his winter job managing duck hunts at his lodge, Crooked Creek Outfitters. “We lodge 10 hunters and lease about 1,200 to 1,300 acres of what we farm for hunting.”
The hunting venture has proven profitable, “although the economy has been affecting how much money people are willing to spend on recreational activities. But we’re hoping things are turning around.”
French also has an excavating company and runs some over-the-road trucks. “We have something to do for every month out of the year. Everything hinges off the farm, the excavating, the hunting club, the trucks. It keeps us close and working together.”
Although French is off to a good start in farming, he understands that each new morning and each new season brings a new set of challenges and opportunities. There’s no time reflect on past accomplishments or failures.
“You have to keep your head down and keep driving. I’m a first generation farmer and I’m highly leveraged. That’s the thing. I have to take it year by year and hope for the best.”
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