Tall grain bins shelter one side of Becton Bell’s farm headquarters, but the bitterly cold, early January wind is still biting. As he checks several trucks lined up to haul grain, Bell shrugs it off.
In this corner of the Delta, at least, optimism reigns.
“My brother, Ross, and I are fifth-generation farmers and reside down in Wilson, Ark.,” says Bell. “So, the family has been here for a long time. I’ve lived in this area pretty much my whole life. The Bell family is from Bassett, Ark., and my great-great grandfather purchased the original home place back in the early 1890s. He bought roughly 900 acres and started farming, and there have been Bells farming around here ever since.”
Bell’s great-grandfather, Edward Becton Bell — “my namesake, actually” — expanded the operation, rented more land. “He had seven boys, so over the generations the farm split some. My dad and uncles have retrieved a lot of that land and pulled it back together.”
The Bell operation plants “a diversified spectrum of crops. Currently, we grow corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and off-and-on grain sorghum. We grew cotton until three years ago. Cotton prices are going up, but we’re still not ready to get back in. Never say never, but we’re just not enticed enough yet — the alternative crops are doing well enough to where it doesn’t warrant the investment to get back into cotton.
“Ross and I have each other’s backs. One of us can step away if necessary, and the farm doesn’t miss a beat. Our father is semi-retired, but he’s still a huge help here. He’s around pretty much daily if he’s needed.”
Bell is married to Kaci Costner, whose “family is a deep-rooted farm family from just south of Manila, Ark. I met her in high school, and we got married after college. We have two beautiful daughters, Hadleigh, 12, and Whitley, 9. They’re attending the excellent new Delta School in Wilson.
“Kaci has been very supportive. Marrying someone who grew up on a farm means she knows what to expect from this work. That’s been very important. It’s been nice having someone understand why I’m working 90 hours a week.”
The recent revitalization of northeast Arkansas’ Wilson is the envy of many Delta towns. Bell serves as Wilson’s mayor.
“The mayor job is something I felt led to do. I felt if I was going to be here and be part of the community, it was time to step up and make the quality of life better for everyone. I want my kids to want to stay here — it seems everyone in my generation not tied to a farm left. I want that dynamic to change.
“We’ve seen rejuvenation in Wilson. It’s been refreshing, and there are people now wanting to move here. People show up in town and their jaws drop: ‘Wow, check this place out!’ To know we can live here in the Delta’s fertile land and make a living is a blessing. To know Delta communities like ours can turn things around is a breath of fresh air.”
The focus has been in building back up the old town, the old neighborhoods. “We want that to happen first rather than see a lot of urban sprawl out into surrounding fields. It’s bringing the old neighborhoods back to life, and we’re now on the cusp of starting new developments.
“One other dynamic is when Big River Steel came into south Mississippi County. It’s located just north of Wilson and employs around 500 people, a strong set of jobs.”
The Bells farm about 10,600 acres. Last year, they had about 8,000 acres of soybeans, around 2,100 acres of rice and 500 acres of corn.
“We had record yields for corn and beans — beans by quite a wide margin. The rice crop was very solid. It was a great year yield-wise and the markets for rice were substantially better than the year before.
“For 2018, the natural rotation of our rice, which is a bit unbalanced, means we’ll have around 2,900 acres. That’s fine because there are some good forward contracting options available. That uptick in rice will come out of our soybean acres.
“We’re just using corn as a rotational tool, really. The yield bump for the crop following corn is very beneficial and justifies keeping it in the rotation.”
Asked about dicamba, Bell says the technology is a must for the operation. “Having the dicamba-tolerant technology is a benefit to farmers locally that you can’t put a number on. The pigweed problem is too great. Some of the first glyphosate-resistant pigweeds in the state were found right around here. Since then, the pigweeds have picked up ALS resistance, PPO resistance, you name it.”
But the pigweeds couldn’t shake off Engenia. “Because of that we had the cleanest crops in years, at least since Roundup quit working. We had a phenomenal experience with the technology.
“There were some isolated drift incidents close to the south end of the county, farmers who didn’t plant Xtend seed and their beans showed drift symptomology. But when it was all said and done, they cut great crops. So, the beans grew out of the symptomology.”
Bell isn’t one to condone “any off-target trespass. At the same time, this is a technology we need desperately and we need to figure out how we can use it. I don’t know that there’s been enough of an effort at the (Arkansas) Plant Board level to help us do that.”
If there’s to be a dicamba spraying cutoff, “it should be late May, early June. There’s a date in there where we could get one good shot over-the-top of our cotton and beans. Maybe we could cut off the spraying before the plants are flowering heavily. We can figure this out and use the tech effectively — it can be done if we put in the work.”
The drift claim data points to a later cutoff date, says Bell. “Last year, drift claims spiked in mid-June. Back up two weeks and you’re looking at a spraying cutoff of May 25 to June 1.”