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Butch Scipper: Bridging government and agriculture

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Standing next to a World War I howitzer, farmer and Chancery Clerk Butch Scipper combines his passion for agriculture with his love for serving the residents of Quitman County, Miss.
His agricultural and government experience has specifically benefited the area’s farming community.

Butch Scipper has always been passionate about two things; farming and serving the residents of Quitman County, Miss. A third generation farmer, Scipper (pronounced “sipper”) was elected chancery clerk in 1992 and appointed county administrator that same year.

“Both of my grandfathers and my father were farmers in this county, and I’ve been farming since I was 24 years old,” says Scipper, who is now 66, and married to his college sweetheart, whose father, Layton Phelps, also farmed. “After college, I became a farming apprentice to Mr. Phelps. He grew rice in the grand prairie fields around Stuttgart, Ark., and the Mississippi Delta until he bought land in this county in 1976. We all moved here and started farming rice and soybeans.”

Scipper’s fortuitous return 40 years ago has paid more than a few dividends to the citizens of the county, but the combination of his agricultural and government experience has specifically benefited the area’s farming community. Because farming is the biggest, and basically the only industry in Quitman County, farmers know they have an understanding voice when they need one.

“When a farmer comes in this office and has a problem between himself and some aspect of our local government, whether it’s a road, taxation or drainage issue, I can more closely and objectively understand the terminology they’re using to relate their problem,” explains Scipper. “They can’t say I don’t understand how it’s impacting their farm, because I do. I farm!”

The Farming Side

The buckshot soils around Quitman County are ideal for rice production — trapping water in the top foot of the profile offering little internal drainage. “We often can’t get into the fields as quickly as we’d like to, but if you stick with it in the summer, it’ll stick with you all winter,” laughs Scipper, after repeating an often-used, humorous reference to buckshot’s propensity to stick to a pair of boots.

“External drainage is important. We try to move water off our land-formed fields and into adjacent ditches so the sun and wind can dry them out quicker.”

All of the farm’s equipment is designed to work in buckshot soil. Dual floater tires allow tractors to make as small an imprint as possible to minimize compaction.

Hybrid rice varieties have been good to Scipper and his son Layton, once a professional welder who traveled often but assumed full-time management of the farming operation in 2005. “He makes all the business decisions today. I may offer input, but he has the final say.”

The 4,000-acre operation that is spread across multiple counties is a business, and is managed like one with an employee meeting held at 7 a.m. every day.

“From buying seed to marketing the crop, farming has evolved into a global business impacted by global events. Large-operation farmers can no longer do every job themselves. We have specialists who help us with everything from plant growth and pests, to marketing and financing,” says Scipper.

“The farmers in this county aren’t just producing food and fiber for the Mississippi Delta, they’re producing it for the world.”

Modern communication technology gives today’s farmers access to global trends that influence what they plant and how many acres they dedicate to each commodity — but they still need help. “What happens in China, Egypt, and so many other countries can impact the decisions we make right here in Quitman County,” says Scipper. “We can’t remain abreast about everything that can potentially impact our profitability, so we hire specialists.”

Data is becoming more and more debilitating from an efficiency standpoint. Scipper knows it can bog down a farmer if he does not manage it. “If you get to a point where you start missing things, or make late or uninformed decisions, your profitability will suffer.”

Dip Farms is 90 percent irrigated. Scipper is working toward his goal of having one moisture sensor for every 40 acres. Eric Dirks, owner/manager of Hydro-Tech Solutions in Clarksdale, Miss., is Scipper’s irrigation consultant. “Our eyes and hands once told us when to irrigate, but those days are over,” says Scipper. “No more looking out the truck window, or picking up a dirt clog to guess soil moisture levels. We have sensors buried at incremental depths and I get real-time readings.”

During irrigation season, Scipper hands his son the latest soil moisture readings before each day’s employee meeting. Weather forecasts via smartphones show where it is more likely to rain. Their decisions are based on all available information. “Technology is only as good as the service you have to support it. When a worker ran into one of our remote monitoring stations, Eric was out here in less than an hour and I was getting soil readings again in less than two,” explains Scipper. “I’ve also learned to never be a first adopter of new technology. Most of them will need ground-proofing for each operation. That can hurt efficiency. We are not a research facility.”

GPS keeps their tractors and combines on the same row path, minimizes compaction, eliminates overlap, and allows them to cover more acres each day. “I spend more time looking backward than I do forward on a tractor. If a planter chain snaps, I can stop in 10 or 15 feet instead of 300,” says Scipper.

The Government Side

Scipper loves his job as chancery clerk, but also loves to farm. He has a great staff at the courthouse in Marks, Miss., and his son has an excellent crew of workers on the farm. “It allows me to split my time, which benefits the county and the farm,” says Scipper.

Scipper hates telling a citizen he cannot provide a solution to their problem. “Birth certificate requests are a great example. People need them all the time, but they haven’t been kept at courthouses in 70 years,” says Scipper. “We gladly give them the number to Vital Records in Jackson, Miss., and they leave satisfied.”

Quitman County is the number one county in the state participating in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Many farmers do not realize when they move land from row crops into the CRP, the federal government still considers that row crop land because they are receiving what basically amounts to rent for that land.

“Many farmers also don’t realize they must bring that CRP contract into the tax assessor,” says Scipper. “And more importantly, that CRP land will be re-categorized from being taxed as row crop land, to being taxed as forestry land, which will cut their taxes by about 90 percent!”

Farmers have approached Scipper complaining their taxes are just too high. He knows that a review of farm buildings should be one of their first considerations. “Do they have buildings on the farm they’re not using but incurring a tax? If so, it may be an item to be considered salvaged,” says Scipper. “Everyone has to pay taxes, but we want to tax everyone fairly, and because I know farming, I can help another farmer in that direction.”

The chancery clerk stories Scipper could tell about interacting with Quitman County farmers are almost endless. From complaints about poor road drainage on farming operations, to the difference between a turnrow and an access road, the language barriers between farmers and government are many.

“It’s important for government to maintain a good relationship with our farming community,” says Scipper. “It’s the largest economic engine driving the profit potential in our county.”

No matter if Butch Scipper is standing in a field of buckshot soil or in the halls of the Quitman County courthouse, he may not literally be wearing two hats, but he always seems to have them on.

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