Jim Whitaker accepted the inaugural USA Rice Sustainability Award at this year’s USA Rice Outlook Conference in San Antonio, but he was insistent that the credit for the accomplishment is equally shared with his brother and business partner, Sam, as well as his wife Lesli and sister-in-law Alicia.
But he didn’t stop there. “This is not possible without our team of employees,” he said. “We have the most awesome group, 20 to 25 employees, depending on the season, who are passionate about what they do for us. We have seven father and son teams. Some of them have been with us for over 10 years; the newest employees have been here for four years. It’s truly a family operation.
“This is a group effort,” he adds. “We work together, and we all have different roles and responsibilities. I just happen to be the one who was nominated.”
The McGehee, Ark., farm’s sustainability efforts have evolved over the 25 years Jim and Sam have been farming, and now shows how sound conservation practices benefit both the environment and the bottom line.
True Sustainability touches three components:
1. Economic (Does this practice make or save the farm money?)
2. Environmental (Does this reduce our impact on the environment?)
3. Social (Does this make life better for farmers and their communities?).
Those benefits include improved wildlife habitat, cleaner water and cleaner air.
Technology, he says, allows them to farm sustainably. “Over the years, we have adopted technology and practices that have been win-win for the farm. We are saving water, using 60 percent less than the state average for rice production. We have reduced nitrogen use by 20 percent and increased yields. New practices make nitrogen more available.”
He says alternate wetting and drying is a key factor in resource conservation. “We grow continuous rice,” he explains. “We are on a zero grade, perfectly flat. After we put on the initial flood, we stop up the pipes, and let water naturally evaporate.”
He uses a freeboard techniques and Isbell floats to gauge water demand. “Visible flood gauges allow us to dry to zero; saving water; the flooded soil stops emitting methane gas and microbial activity stops.”
The zero-grade naturally saves water, he says. “If we get a 6-inch rain we catch it all on the farm. We allow the climate to provide as much water as possible.”
He says rice is known as a “water hog. Now, we’re using less water than soybeans, corn or cotton. Rice is the most ecologically friendly crop we can plant, if we manage it properly.”
They also use no-till or minimum-till practices. Another advantage of zero grade is slowing down the movement of water through their farms.
“The water that leaves our farm is cleaner than when it comes in,” Whitaker says. He opens up his tablet and shows a photo of two jars of water, one, a bit cloudy, is water coming into the field from drainage canals. The other, crystal clear, was collected from runoff out of the field. “When the water slows down, sediments have the opportunity to settle out and the rice picks up the excess nutrients,” he says.
He and Sam started farming together 25 years ago, and the beginning came with instant challenges.
“We got an FMHA loan and rented the only ground available, the worst ground possible,” Whitaker says. “Sam and I went to every field day the University of Arkansas had. We worked with Extension agents; we sucked it all up. We did not know 20 years ago that what we were doing was sustainable. We started with contour levees, then leveled the land to straight levees finally going to zero grade.”
But they were eager to learn better, more efficient ways to grow rice. “I had to quantify everything,” he says. “We were early adapters of technology, and when we found out that it worked, we adopted it, across the board. The system has evolved over the last 25 years.”
USA Rice Leadership Training
Whitaker also credits a leadership course he took in 2010 through USA Rice for much of his business success. That course introduced him to other rice producers and leaders, and created a networking opportunity. “There are about 180 of us,” he says. “The USA Rice Leadership Class is a big reason I’m here today.”
Whitaker says the next challenge he and Sam face will be preparing the farm for the next generation and preparing the next generation for the farm. They have four children between them, two each. Jim and Lesli have a daughter, Jessica, 21; and a son, Scott David, 18. Sam and Alicia have two sons, John Arthur, 20, and Harrison, 15.
“We want to get them out of college and find something they are passionate about. But we also want to pass the farm to the next generation with the same passion and commitment we have. That’s our struggle — passing the farm on to the next generation without dropping the ball.”
He says all four of the children work on the farm in the summers. Jessica is working on an ag business degree, and his son will pursue a farm-related degree, as well. All four “are outdoor enthusiasts,” Whitaker says. “They are interested in agriculture and they love the land.”
Jennifer James, a Newport, Ark., rice farmer, chairman of the USA Rice Sustainability Award committee, and the recent recipient of the Field to Market Sustainability Leadership Award, presented Whitaker with the award.
“He made outstanding progress in sustainability while increasing profitability,” James said. She said the Whitaker farm’s efforts improve the environment “while feeding the world. They have been increasing sustainability for years,” she said. “His efforts should be an incentive to everyone in our industry.”
In brief remarks as he accepted the award, Whitaker said, “What an honor to receive an award for doing what is right for the environment. USA Rice is leading the world in sustainability. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we have an obligation to future generations. It is our job to leave the land better than we found it.”