Women in Agriculture: McGehee Producers Gin

guest post by Donna Watts of McGehee Producers Ginn

Team Work

‘Women in Ag’ these days does not necessarily mean that you are married to a farmer.  I am a cotton ginner.  I am proud to be a part of McGehee Producers Gin.  I have always said that success is only possible when you have a group of people who are as dedicated to the job as you are.  Let me start out by saying that my co-workers are family to me.  The five of us have been working together for more than twenty years, one of them being my husband of 31 years. We have seen changes in the ginning industry and are fortunate enough to have leaders that make these changes become a reality in the way our gin is updated and maintained.  We have seen lean years and we have seen abundant years.  We employ between 35-40 workers during ginning season, which this year started on Sept. 13 and ended Dec. 18.  At the beginning of each season I always think of Matt 9:37 “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” 

Ginning Season

My responsibilities are numerous.  In the off season I am pretty much free to come and go, but once the gin cranks up, I am there for the duration.  I am responsible for the day to day operations of the office.  During ginning season, I turn into Gin Mama!   Ginning season has always been my favorite time of the year, and when it quits being rewarding is when I will hang up my hat.  I complain about the hours and no time to spend at home with the dogs, no time to clean house, no time to cook a decent meal, no time to go anywhere or do anything, and the fact that there is no time for anything but go home, eat, sleep, and get up and do it all over again, and again, and again.  I am rewarded, though, with the friendships I have made, and the respect that I have earned from my co-workers, the producers, the truck drivers, my bankers, and all those who I am in contact with on a daily basis.

Details Matter

During the ginning season, my job is to see that the producers' modules have been entered into our system and the weight for each module is entered. After the bales are ginned, I check to make sure each bale has been posted to the correct farm.  I send a file to the warehouse where our weights are compared.  Once we are satisfied, the electronic warehouse receipts (EWR) are issued to me as the holder.  The process is sort of like handling a car title.  The EWR is transferred from me to the marketer, then to the buyer.  At the end of the season, once all business for the year has been concluded, we return money to the producer and his landlords in the form of a per bale gin rebate.  This is very nerve racking, as I have to see that all information on both the producer and the landlord along with all addresses, tax id numbers, and percentages are correct.  Once that is out of my hands, I can start to breathe again. 

Paychecks

Another duty is payroll.  If you have never done payroll for 35-40 people, you should do it just once.  I manually add up the time cards, then use my Quickbooks program.  I enter time, print checks, sign them pass them out, and pray that everyone’s is correct.  This process usually takes a couple of hours to complete, that is, if the phone leaves me alone.

Grand Central Station

We gin for the cottonseed and store it in three seed houses.  When the contracts are filled, the seed tickets are invoiced and mailed.  Our scales stay busy.  At any given time, there may be three module trucks that belong to the gin, a seed truck, weighing both empty, then full, three trailers that carry eight round modules coming from Leland and Greenville, MS, three trucks carrying 8 rounds from Indianola, MS, two trucks with dual trailers carrying 9 rounds each from England, AR, and one truck carrying 8 rounds that hauls from the Star City, AR area.  That, along with local cattle ranchers who come by for cottonseed to feed with, the scales keep the office help hopping.

By The Dawn's Early Light

I work seven days a week during the season.  I try to get to the gin by 7am, as there is always something to do as soon as I get there.  Sunday mornings are my early days.  Sunday is Safety Meeting Day.  I am the Gin Safety Director and it is up to me to see that our employees are informed, trained, and provided with the safest environment possible to work in. 

Safety First

We have regulations that are set by Southern Cotton Ginners Association and it is my job to see that we are in compliance.  Our yearly inspections have always been rewarding and I have the highest regard and deepest respect for our Safety Director in Memphis.  We have received awards for 'Safety' and 'No Lost Time' each year since 2005 when I assumed the responsibility.  This year, we have received the Diamond Award again which is the highest award possible.  This is the third consecutive year for the Diamond.

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Work Hard, Play Hard

In my “spare” time when I just feel the need to escape the office, my favorite activity is to paint on the round modules that are facing the highway.  I am a huge Razorback fan, so we get out there with our module paint and start decorating.  I’m not an artist, so I always inlist the help of Donnie Peacock to draw what we lovingly call the “jumping hog”.  People stop and take pictures and sometimes it leads to them asking questions that result in what I call my fifty cent tour. 

The 50 Cent Tour

I love to take people through the gin and explain the cotton ginning process to people who have never seen cotton and think that everything is just blown out the back.  It’s amazing to hear where they are from and how they ended up in McGehee, AR. 

Love What You Do

I love my job.  I love the sights and the sounds.  I love the people I work with.  I love riding in (and sometimes driving) the module trucks.  I love the smell of fresh cotton being ginned---- and no---- “Clean Cotton” does not smell like those candles with that label.  I love the technology.  I love the bonds that are formed and I especially love the fact that I have been entrusted with this job which literally puts people’s livelihood in my hands.

Rediscovering Nature in the Concrete Jungle

As urbanites, we spend the majority of our time surrounded by man-made things. 

There's a Big World Out There

We often forget that there are vast oceans to be navigated and deep forests to be explored and expansive mountain ranges to be traversed.  We fool ourselves into believing that most problems can be solved by well-designed blueprints and well-placed raw materials.  

Fast Moving

The daily expectations of perfectly functioning infrastructure, buildings, cars, restaurants and shops leave us far from the perspective a hike in the woods can bring.  People, images and messages are everywhere.  There’s no mental space to think and regain sight of our small place on the planet.  We need vastness to right-size ourselves in the midst of a world typically focused on self reliance.

No Waiting

Expectations and demands are high.  During any day or season, I can stop by a grocery store with fully stocked shelves and overflowing piles of produce from around the world.  In an urban culture of Amazon Prime Now, where many items can be delivered to my doorstep within an hour, the idea of delaying desires is antiquated.  No one waits for fresh, in-season blackberries, they just grab the expensive ones that have been imported from another climate.  

Patience Required

We lose sight of the fact that a seed had to be planted, watered, fertilized and protected.  And the fruit had to be nurtured, harvested, sorted, packaged and shipped.  There are farmers, brokers, bankers, truckers, cold/dry storage managers, marketers and retailers involved throughout the lengthy process of getting our food from the field to our tables.  

Perspective

For me, the farm provides space to come to the end of myself and see the natural order designed to sustain life beyond my neighborhood.  Beaches, mountains and campgrounds are frequented for this same dose of reality.  Current circumstances are reviewed, gratitude is refreshed and priorities are renewed.  

Nuggets of Truth

I remember that I am a tiny piece of a giant puzzle.  I remember that just as the grass withers away and the flowers fade into the winter, my life is but a sliver of the story of this beautiful earth.  I remember to not take myself too seriously.  I remember that there is very little I can control.  I remember that the images I see on social media are only images, not the real-life experience of smelling the fragrant trees while climbing a mountain or feeling the salty air on my face at the beach or looking for miles across the sprawling prairie that provides life for so many creatures.  

Freedom to Be

We gain perspective about ourselves and the world when we observe the miraculous order of creation.  It feels good to feel small.  It feels empowering to release the weight of the world from my shoulders.  It feels productive to labor within the limitations of my own design and not worry about circumstances out of my control.  I am free to take responsibility for what is mine and leave the rest behind.  

Women in Agriculture: Sherrie Miles of Miles Farms

Sherrie Miles is running a corporation!  

Expansion

You may not realize that modern farming operations have to run more like corporations than ever before. The profit margins are so small that in order to stay in business, family farms must grow and expand to be sustainable.

Starting Young

Hear from Sherrie Miles of Miles Farms as she explains her integral role and how she began her "career" as a 13 year old!  She is a terrific model of a strong, intelligent woman in the field of agriculture.

Not the Story You Hoped to Tell

Maybe you didn’t put all your eggs in this one basket, and maybe you knew better than to hang all your hopes on this one deal.  But you were really hoping this one would go your way.  You worked hard.  You analyzed all the angles.  You invested energy, money and emotion in this one.  Turns out, your ship didn’t come in.  You’re disappointed and down.  This is not the story you hoped to tell.

What Now?

Keep plugging along?  Go back to the drawing board?  Change directions? 

Factors Out Of Our Control

Matt Miles was in the middle of the best cotton season he had seen in a while.  His fields were about a month away from harvesting when the weather took an unseasonably cool, wet turn.    August, which is typically the hottest and driest month of the year, brought 14 consecutive days of rainy, cloudy weather to southeast Arkansas.  There was nothing Matt could do about it and certainly no way to anticipate the anomaly.  

Basic Botany

While we all learn in elementary school that plants need water and sun to thrive, farmers know first-hand the effects of minor changes in the weather.  The young cotton bolls on Matt’s plants were at an early stage of development that requires consecutive hot, sunny days to expand into the full fluffy cotton that can be used in so many products.  Instead, there was damp, cool weather that stalled the bolls’ development and even mold and rot on the stem.  Matt lost 30-40% of his cotton.  In just a few short weeks, his year changed.  

Reaction

Matt’s response:  Grateful and Hopeful.  Of course he is disappointed.  He had invested the same time, money and energy as always into the 2016 crop and had high hopes for a big harvest.  But he is also grateful for the excellent crop he had on his farm that was able to withstand the unpredictable weather.  And hopeful because he knows what it means to recover and “farm through” difficult years.

Long-term Perspective

This seasoned farmer has known disappointment like this before.  He's a courageous leader who has surrounded himself with good financial and scientific counsel.  Matt understands that a farming operation is not defined by one year:  not one good year or one bad year.  He has the perspective of time that has taught him to look at a 5-10 year business model to determine success.  

Looking Ahead

Matt’s a fighter.  He has been all his life.  He will survive.  He will trust.  He will get back on the horse and plant again next year.

Unexpected Joy

What about you?  How do you respond to disappointment?  Maybe you throw a tantrum or reach for your favorite comfort food or binge-watch Netflix.  Maybe you run it off at the gym or give yourself a timeout to regroup.  Whatever the strategy, we all must figure out how to push through disappointing seasons.  It’s often in these hard times that we remember our priorities and we rehearse the truth that it’s our response to our struggles that strengthens us not our avoidance of them.  That's the unexpected joy of maturity.

Changing with Grace

Change is often gradual and subtle. 

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Right Before Your Eyes

You hardly realize the growth and development that is happening before your eyes.  Plants, animals, and even skylines are constantly changing with grace and beauty all around us.  

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Crops Transform

A cotton plant grows deep roots and a sturdy stem.  The next thing you know, you see white blooms, then they turn pink.  Next, the bloom falls off to make a way for an emerging boll of cotton.

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Time to Harvest

You drive by a field every day and one day you realize the bolls are opening and fluffy white cotton can be seen throughout the field.  Suddenly, it's harvest time and change is upon us again.  

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Neighborhoods Transform

Our established, urban neighborhood here in Dallas is busy with renovation.  For years we have driven down the same residential streets and seen the same homes full of character and stories.  Lately, we drive down a familiar avenue and see a cleared lot where a bulldozer has just finished tearing down one of those old homes. 

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Within a few weeks, a foundation is poured, a new home is built and a moving truck is unloading the new owners’ possessions.  The neighborhood changes again.  

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Missed Opportunity

So many times in my life, change isn’t received with grace.  I often resist and work against the development.  I continue to try to stick to the old processes, digging in my heels, so things will stay the same.  In doing so, I miss the character that deepens in the process and the improvements that are enjoyed from the results.  

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Be Kind to Yourself

By design, seeds must die before they sprout new life.  Leaving the old ways behind so that something new can sprout in one's life sometimes feels like death.  We have to shift our minds and emotions and bodies to align in a new direction for the fruits of change to blossom and bloom.  I know in my head that change is good and brings new opportunities.  But in hard moments of growth, I don’t always give myself grace for the journey.

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Worth the Hard Work

Modern farmers can’t afford to dig in their heels and resist change.  They must stay on the cutting edge of science, conservation, technology and marketing in order to stay afloat.  “How can we do this better?” is a question they must ask themselves daily.  By regularly asking this question over the last 30 years, agricultural professionals have developed practices that conserve water, enrich the soil, reduce chemicals, and produce more yield with fewer inputs.  Now that kind of change is certainly worth all the hard work! 

 

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Life is Messy

The process may not always be graceful to the outsider, but I like how Sam Whitaker speaks about their farming operation.  Whether it’s new farming practices they implement or financial growth strategies they analyze, Whitaker Farms looks at a five year picture of development to get accurate numbers and comparisons.  This perspective allows time get the kinks worked out of a new strategy.  Many of the steps along the journey will probably look messy to an outside observer— and maybe even to you.

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Choose to Focus Ahead

Change is hard for some people, but hard doesn’t mean bad.  It’s in the challenging seasons that we build character, grow gratitude, increase perspective and strengthen perseverance.  Set your mind on the prize ahead and the journey will be worth it.  

 

Stages of Growth

During the spring planting season as a child, I remember thinking harvest seemed so far away.  “I will be in the second grade by the time the rice will be ready to harvest!  How can Dad spend all that time thinking about one thing?!”  All the stages of growth seemed long and slow.  It felt like the crops would never be ready to harvest.  

There Must be a Better Way

In our microwave society, it’s easy to think that every process can be done quicker if we just put our minds to it.  It sometimes seems as though our knowledge of science should be able to provide short cuts so we can get to the finished product faster.  

 

young soybeans

young soybeans

You Can't Be Where You're Not

But faster doesn't mean better.  Growth takes time.  There’s no way around it.  Whether it’s physical growth in a plant or intellectual growth in a person, you just can’t be where you’re not ready to be.  When learning a new skill or beginning a new project or entering a new stage of parenthood, it often requires every ounce of mental energy we have to think through decisions.  Nothing comes easily because we don’t have the experience and confidence under our belt to anticipate the results.  Patience is required for ourselves and others to live through situations or get to know new clients or fail at a few tries before we can move forward in confidence.  

stages of cotton:  blooms white,  the bloom turns pink, the boll develops, cotton opens the boll

stages of cotton:  blooms white,  the bloom turns pink, the boll develops, cotton opens the boll

Every Stage Has Value

We, like plants, have to go through all the stages of development.  A cotton plant can’t skip the blooming stage because that’s what brings out the bolls of cotton.  Likewise, a young athlete can’t skip the strengthening stage because that’s when strong muscles and discipline are developed through the hard work.  

 

a developing cotton boll

a developing cotton boll

Don't Rush the Process

If a farmer tried to harvest cotton before the bolls were fully developed, it would be a mess.  His time and money would be wasted driving the cotton picker over the field getting no results and destroying the maturing plants.  If a gardener tried to harvest cucumbers before they were fully developed, it would be a missed opportunity.  He would waste his time picking off the young produce to get a small, hard, tasteless vegetable that no one wanted to eat.   We can’t rush the process.  Even though these are obvious sceneries, I sometimes find myself rushing the journey through seasons of maturing in my life and the lives of others in an equally absurd way.  

harvesting cotton

harvesting cotton

Multiplication for All

After the plant has sprouted, established a deep root system, grown a strong stalk, and developed fruit, it’s time to mature for harvest.  The multiplication process benefits many. 

harvesting soybeans

harvesting soybeans

It’s the same for people.  After we step into a new project or season of life, learn new processes to establish a strong root system, and weather storms to gain confidence, we are ready to produce fruit.  We are ready to multiply our efforts to benefit others.  

kids playing on a truck full of harvested rice

kids playing on a truck full of harvested rice

Stretch Your Brain

The hard work invested in the process pays off in the end.  Patience is rewarded.  Crops bear fruit and multiply and so do people.  We are never too young or too old to start new projects or tackle new skills.  It's good for our brains to be stretched and challenged-- to remember how to learn something new.  And all those around you benefit from the overflow!  What new things are you learning?  Is there something out there you have always wanted to master?  Take the first step, grow through the process and enjoy the benefits.  You can do it!

The Butcher Block

We have a unique piece of furniture in the middle of our kitchen that we lovingly refer to as “the butcher block”.  My amazing husband surprised me with it when we moved into our house fifteen years ago. 

my kids displaying their baking skills

my kids displaying their baking skills

It’s the center of activity in our home.  

friends celebrating 

friends celebrating 

Grand Central

My friends sit nearby it on a stool and visit while I chop, stir and toss lunch.  We leave notes for each other on it.  Some of our best conversations are had leaning against it. 

my son showing his cast

my son showing his cast

When our kids were young, they climbed on an adjusting stool called the Learning Tower to be able to reach it. 

my daughter standing on the Learning Tower

my daughter standing on the Learning Tower

Appetizers are served on it when guests come for dinner. 

Birthday candles are blown out on it.  

celebrating my nephew's birthday

celebrating my nephew's birthday

Science experiments are conducted on it.  

discovering the science of an egg and corn syrup

discovering the science of an egg and corn syrup

So, so, so many interactions happen around the butcher block.

the buffet

the buffet

Available 

And the thing every member of my family knows about this focal point is that whatever is on the butcher block is available to be eaten.  If there’s a colander of fresh blueberries sitting there, pop a few in your mouth.  If there are sliced bell peppers, grab a handful as you walk by.  If there’s a cinnamon roll from Bubba’s Chicken, fork off a bite and enjoy.  If there’s something you want to save for later, don’t leave it on the butcher block because it will get eaten! 

kids sharing treats

kids sharing treats

The Rhythm of Our Home

Every home has a rhythm, and the butcher block has been the platform for our family to establish a rhythm of eating healthy food.  Something my kids often hear me say is “Eat what’s on the butcher block before you eat anything else.”  Translation:  I’ve put things on the butcher block you may not otherwise have chosen.  Eat the healthy food that’s there first, then you can have the chips and crackers you would have reached for.  It’s fun to hear them divide and negotiate who will eat what so they can move on to other foods.  The fruit always goes first.

bedtime snacks

bedtime snacks

Eat Real Food

So, what’s on the butcher block?  It could be any number of things from my refrigerator.  Sometimes it’s red, orange or yellow bell peppers and nuts.  There are often cherry tomatoes, bananas, apples, or cucumbers.  Celery, carrots, grapes, berries or avocados can also make an appearance.  All types of plant-based nutrition find their way to our kitchen's butcher block.  

 

kid-friendly red knives from Pampered Chef, cinnamon carrots, kiwi, apple 

kid-friendly red knives from Pampered Chef, cinnamon carrots, kiwi, apple 

Non-Organic

When grocery shopping, I always choose non-organic produce.  Growing up with farmers and continuing to visit with them about their current farming methods that are safer than ever, gives this consumer confidence!  I'm no longer confused or afraid of buying non-organic produce.

yum

yum

Well-Balanced

Just because my kids eat a variety of produce doesn't mean they would choose it every time.  Our bodies have a predisposition to crave sugary foods, so it’s hard work to stay away from them.  And we certainly don’t always.  We try to keep a balance in our home of routinely eating a variety of food around our table together, and that includes enjoying treats together.  By encouraging them to develop a broad palate, we hope our kids will mature into adults who enjoy the value of a healthy lifestyle.  

What's Your Rhythm? 

When my husband brought this fun piece home, we had no idea our butcher block would provide the creative avenue for our family to learn to eat food we wouldn’t naturally choose.  You might even say that this piece of furniture is teaching us to make healthier food choices.  Hopefully some of the experiences will stay with them as they begin making their own nutritional decisions.  At least for now, they are ordering lots of veggies on their Subway sandwiches.  That's a good start!  What’s your rhythm?  How do you train yourself and your family to eat real food?  

 

All Work and No Play?

I remember when my brother got our first ATV.   It was a 3-wheeler.  We still have it. 

What's All the Fuss?

I was about 8 years old, and for several weeks, I kept hearing my brothers obsess over getting a 3-wheeler.  I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. 

Helpful Around the Farm

My dad said it could be used to easily ride to different places on the farm and to haul small loads.  But I couldn’t figure out why my brothers were so excited about a new piece of farm equipment.  Then I realized that ATVs aren't meant for all work and no play!

Finally, I Have Some Fun Around Here

Little did I know, it was different than any other “work vehicle” we had ever had.  It was fast and fun!  My first ride was with my dad and I couldn’t believe how exciting it was.  My brothers had had motorcycles for years, but I hadn’t been old enough to ride one.  This was my closest encounter with this kind of adventure.  I couldn't get enough!!

Work and Play

Three-wheelers actually were a huge benefit to our farming operation because they allowed workers to zip around the farm and take people and equipment from one end of a field to another.  They saved everyone lots of steps. 

Earned Freedom

Through the years I progressed in my freedoms with riding 3-wheelers.  First, I drove with my dad sitting behind me on the 3-wheeler.  Then I stepped up to following him on a separate 3-wheeler.  Eventually, if they weren’t being used during working hours, I could ride on my own as long as I stayed within sight of our house. 

Sunday Afternoon Rides

Many Sunday afternoons, my dad and I would go for rides together around the farm and on trails through the woods on our neighbor’s hunting land.  It was one of my favorite things to do as a kid.  The sunshine beaming down and the fresh air blowing my hair felt terrific.  I could get lost in my thoughts for hours.

Improved and Still Fun

Today, the farm has 4-wheelers that are more powerful and more stable than 3-wheelers.  My kids enjoy them as much as I did (and still do).  They love the feeling of independence as they ride on dirt roads far back on the farmland. 

 

Still Lost in Thought

They love “flying” on them down the runway that the ag planes use.  They love sharing rides together so they can create stories and dreams about what they would do if…..  When we come back to Dallas, they love telling their friends how fast they went and how muddy they got on them.  I loved all those things, too.

Learning the Farm Life

My kids love the farm.  No matter what time of year we go, there’s always something to learn and fun to enjoy. 

friends exploring a rice field in the middle of harvest

friends exploring a rice field in the middle of harvest

Room to Breathe

At the farm, they are free to experience something they don’t have much in the city:  wide open space.  Space to explore and discover without adults lurking about.  Space to look up and see birds in the distance and squat down to see tiny insects on top of the water at their feet.  Space to get lost in their thoughts and dreams.  Space to unearth the joys of learning about themselves and creation around them. 

lost in thought

lost in thought

Unintentional Learning

This freedom flows deep into their bones and gives them a taste of life outside their own everyday experiences in the city.  One of the best opportunities for learning is when you don’t realize you're in the middle of it. 

inspecting cotton that's ready to harvest

inspecting cotton that's ready to harvest

Climb In

Loading up in my brother’s truck is where it all usually begins.  The kids climb in the back while Phil and I hop in the front seats.  We drive around the farm roads looking and chatting until we hear the kids calling from the back for us to stop. 

checking out a flooded road

checking out a flooded road

Plenty of Time

They have seen something worth checking out.  We have no schedule.  No place to be.  Just plenty of space to stop and smell and listen and examine.  

my kids and my parents

my kids and my parents

A Full Load

During one particular October visit, Phil mentioned that he had seen a few Bald Eagles flying around the farm recently.  My parents had joined us in the truck to see if we could spot one. 

discovering nature 

discovering nature 

Catching a Glimpse

As we were driving around the farm letting the kids out to explore, we kept our eyes peeled for a sighting.  We had been out for a few hours and were giving up the search to head back to the farm house.  My mom looked over at some nearby trees and spotted the most beautifully poised Bald Eagle perched on a dead tree branch. 

majestic

majestic

 I snapped a shot just before he flew off in search of more food.  Isn't he breath-taking?

my daughter and me in a wheat field ready for harvest

my daughter and me in a wheat field ready for harvest

Not Just for the Kids

Did I mention that my kids love the farm?  Well, the truth is... I do, too.  I love the wide open space and the room to breath.  I love the smells and the sights of the fields.  The life-giving air restores me and brings much-needed perspective.  Stepping away from schedules and devices and buildings and meetings gives my mind rest.  Everything is close in the city, and my thoughts don't have time to complete themselves.  My husband often hears me say "I need to breath" and he knows that means a trip to the farm is coming soon.  

Teamwork in Agriculture: Miles Farms

If you spend any time visiting with Matt Miles about farming, you quickly learn that he sees modern farming as a team effort.  

Layne, Sherrie and Matt Miles from Miles Farms

Layne, Sherrie and Matt Miles from Miles Farms

Matt's agronomist, crop consultant and office manager are just a few of the people he depends on to to make decisions about the safety and success of his yield.  In this short clip, you'll hear Matt explain how his team is developing a plan to draw out the nutrients in the soil for the enrichment of their crops.  

Courage Continues

How comfortable are you with risk?  Do you need all your financial bases covered before you begin a project, or does the pressure of the unknown motive you? 

A view from the air of rice harvest

A view from the air of rice harvest

Risks Abound

Farmers are intimately familiar with risk because there are so many variables beyond their control.  Fluctuating input costs, market prices and weather conditions are among the biggest.  In the midst of this very risky business endeavor, their courage continues and we are thankful everyday we have an abundance to eat!

Looking out the window of my dad's truck when I was young

Looking out the window of my dad's truck when I was young

Truck Rides

I remember riding with my dad in his farm truck.  We drove around so many green fields that all looked exactly the same to me.  What could his eyes see?  How could the next rice field look any different than the other nine we had slowly circled? 

Me on Daddy's shoulder 

Me on Daddy's shoulder 

Looking Out Windows

But I didn’t mind.  I enjoyed having the windows rolled down, looking for snakes and turtles in the ditches and being with my daddy.  On many warm afternoons I dozed off for a while, especially if one of his farming buddies joined us and they talked shop. 

The grain dryer in our area

The grain dryer in our area

The Dryer

We usually ended up stopping by “the dryer”, as everyone called the grain dryer that was sure to have a hot cup of coffee.  There was always a small group of farmers crowded around the TV watching a station full of numbers. 

Jim Whitaker  and my dad discussing farming

Jim Whitaker and my dad discussing farming

When to Sell

As a kid, I didn’t realize that these farmers were strategically watching the market prices and trying to know when to lock in the best price for their crop.  “Three dollars is really high for rice right now” I would hear one say.  Another would reply “I don’t think it will ever reach four”.  Some years it didn’t, some years it did, but no one could have known before a seed was even planted earlier that Spring.

 

Unknowns on All Sides

A farmer confidently runs his operation with many unknowns on both the cost AND return sides. Some business models are based on signing contracts spelling out exactly what is expected of each party involved.  Other models give bids after careful calculations of material or labor costs that change little before the project’s completion.  Not so with farming. 

Ag airplane hanger prepared to provide spray services for local farmers

Ag airplane hanger prepared to provide spray services for local farmers

What If's

While a farmer always tries to use as little expensive chemical as possible, he can never know for sure what pests will begin eating away at his crop mid-season or which disease or fungus will bring mold that will deteriorate the sturdy stalks. 

Family enjoying a tractor ride

Family enjoying a tractor ride

Fuel and Other Unforeseen Costs

Who ever knows how the fluctuating oil and gas markets will drive fuel prices in the next month, much less six months, which is a typical growing season?  So a farmer can’t predict the cost of fuel for a tractor to make a pass over the field.  This could be a dry year.  If so, he will have a high electric bill to pay for pumping water to irrigate.  Although farmers spend much of the slower winter months refurbishing their equipment, many parts and maintenance costs are required throughout the season but he can’t know how much.  After all the unpredictable inputs, he now must try to get the best price for his yield.

A rainbow over the farm

A rainbow over the farm

Weather forecasts

Weather is impossible to predict, and it effects almost every aspect of farming.  Rain and wet fields can create delays during optimal planting time, as tractors can’t drive through the fields in wet conditions.  High winds gusting when it’s time to apply fertilizer and chemicals make it impossible for the ag airplanes to fly.  Extreme heat during the summer growing season scorches tender plants and sometimes rushes plant development which brings low nutrient levels. 

Rice that was blown over in the field just before harvest  

Rice that was blown over in the field just before harvest  

Down Rice

And just when the farmer has fully invested in his crop and put his hopes in bringing a bountiful harvest to provide for his family, rain and wind can blow the entire crop down overnight.  This makes it more expensive, if not impossible, to harvest.  Because the combine, which is the equipment used to harvest grain, must drive so slowly to pick up the “down rice” in the picture above, fuel and labor costs are greatly increased.   

My dad's weather radio

My dad's weather radio

Listening to the Weather

In our house growing up, the weather radio was strategically placed in the most receptive window with the antenna extended as far as possible.  This special radio only received one station that repeated the weather every 15 minutes.  I think my dad got it for his birthday.  He was thrilled!  I used to sit by him in the sun room and wait quietly until they announced the forecast for the next 24-48 hours.  There was no immediate accessibility to the hourly predictions or the 15 day forecasts we have in our pockets now.  Even when he heard the report, there was little he could do about it.  He would look at me with resolution and say “We’ll see”.  Then the two of us could visit.

Matt Miles  in front of his soybean crop

Matt Miles in front of his soybean crop

Courage Continues

Agriculture Professionals are well aware of these risks and continue to courageously develop their operations for the good of their families and ours.  And just like many other business owners, they don't want to be doing anything else!

Springtime Planting: The Beginning of a New Growing Season

We all remember times when we were full of hope as we executed a strategically planned project, event, or proposal.  That’s how farmers feel every time they begin a new growing season.  Hope abounds during Springtime planting!  

cousins planting the family garden

cousins planting the family garden

What Will This Year Hold? 

Excitement fills the air.  The sky is crystal blue and the leaves are that light green color that tells you they have just begun their life.  Courageous farmers have tried new methods and are anxious to see if their risks will pay off.  Will they see more sustainability from their resources this year?  Will they have a higher yield in the Fall?

a plow that is pulled behind a tractor 

a plow that is pulled behind a tractor 

Busy Hours Through the Winter

Farmers have spent the winter analyzing the market to determine which crops will bring the highest price, planning how many acres of which crops to plant and preparing equipment for long hours of operation. I remember listening to my dad discussing new ideas for the next growing season and wondering why he was already planning for next year when it seemed so far away to me as a child.  

a water furrow:  part of the drainage system in a rice field

a water furrow:  part of the drainage system in a rice field

Getting the Land Ready

Now it’s time to get the land ready by draining the water off the rice fields and spraying herbicides to kill the weeds in row crop fields like cotton, soybeans and corn before they plant. 

No-till Farming

For years farmers began the pre-planting season by tilling the soil, which is done by driving a tractor over each field several times to prepare the soil.  The tractor pulled a plow to loosen the ground and kill the weeds that had grown through the winter.  Farmers have realized that these multiple passes over the fields cause soil erosion and is an unnecessary fuel expense. 

Many, in fact, have moved away from this annual practice in order to keep the nutrients in the soil for the crops to consume.  Also, the breaking up of the ground releases the greenhouse gases that are stored under the surface.  So, by moving to "no till" farming, valuable nutrients are preserved and greenhouse gases are contained.  

a tractor pulling a planter with cotton seed

a tractor pulling a planter with cotton seed

Let's Plant

Once the seed has been purchased, it’s time to get started.  Most seeds are placed in the soil with a planter, which is an implement or attachment that is pulled behind a tractor.  This one fascinating piece of equipment opens up a furrow, sprays a liquid starter fertilizer, drops the seed, and then covers the seed all in one fluid motion. 

 

a rice planter

a rice planter

Rice is planted using a slightly different type of planter.  One large hopper holds the rice seed for a tractor and small tubes are attached to many drop points that are strategically spaced across the implement.  Tracks, instead of tires, are used on the tractors because the soil is moist for rice and tires would make deep ruts.

asparagus "crowns" (young plants) for the garden-- some being planting and some being enjoyed 

asparagus "crowns" (young plants) for the garden-- some being planting and some being enjoyed 

Time to Watch and Wait

Everything is in full swing now.  In a few short days, green sprigs will break through the surface reaching to the sun for life and growth.  Hope for a bountiful harvest abounds.

Standing on Science: Debunking Organics

Have you recently heard “organic may not be what you think it is?”  I’ve been hearing that a lot over the last few months and this recently published article in Forbes magazine answered many questions I've had about the value of organic foods.  I'm going to follow this author's lead as he is standing on science to debunk the mysterious world of organics.  

standing in a rice field

standing in a rice field

The Author

Steven Savage was an enthusiastic supporter of the organic movement and its founding principals 30 years ago.  Simultaneously, he celebrates the changes this movement has brought and expresses his concern for unethical marketing about organic foods that has promoted a "super brand."  

standing on a pipe that's part of our water recycling system

standing on a pipe that's part of our water recycling system

Taking Action

Over the last 20 years, conventional farmers have heard the concerns the organic movement has highlighted, and they have taken action.  Fewer pesticides are used today.  No-till farming, which isn’t used on organic farms, allows for significantly less soil erosion on conventional farms.  Water-recycling has become common place on many conventional farms as a result of innovative engineering.  Higher yields seen by conventional farmers have resulted in using fewer acres for producing, which frees more land for natural habitats to be reclaimed.  Sustainability and soil health continue to improve because agriculture professionals have been actively listening.

standing on the top bar of a grain truck full of harvested rice

standing on the top bar of a grain truck full of harvested rice

No Difference

I appreciate that, even though Steven was an early backer of the organic movement, he hasn’t been blind to the negative transformation it has taken.  He has remained clear-headed by looking objectively at scientific studies about pesticides and nutritional values and taking those findings seriously regardless of any preconceived ideas he may have had.  He states that “many consumers believe that the Organic label means the food has superior nutrition and is safer, especially in regard to pesticide residues.  This is not true. Studies have shown no appreciable difference in nutrition between crops grown either organically or conventionally.”

standing by a pond

standing by a pond

Creating Confusion and Fear

Steven acknowledges that food labels and organic-funded marketing are creating confusion and preying on the fears of uninformed consumers.  They have attempted to create a “super brand.”  He mentions that parents, specifically, have been pressured into breaking their budget in order to “protect” their children. 

standing beside the goat pen

standing beside the goat pen

Relief on Parents' Faces

I have seen first-hand the relief on the faces of friends who are mothers when I tell them, using scientific evidence, that conventional farming methods are completely safe and are actually far more environmentally friendly than organic methods.  One friend even said “Oh I’m so relieved!  When you started talking about food safety, I thought you were going to give me one more thing I should feel guilty about or avoid.” 

standing in a horse barn

standing in a horse barn

Scientists Around the World Agree

Referring to several scientific studies, Steven recognizes that the safety and sustainability of conventionally grown foods have been proven time and again.  Scientists around the globe have agreed, international food and health organizations have endorsed these findings, and environmentalists from numerous countries have observed these advancements. 

standing in a truck full of harvested rice

standing in a truck full of harvested rice

Following His Lead

Yet, the money funding the false marketing is allowing the fear and confusion to continue.  This courageous author confidently stands firm in the midst of a national conversation swirling with mis-information.  I respect his fortitude and have come to the same conclusion.  I encourage you to read Steven's article for yourself and let me know what comes to mind.  

 

The Art of Asking Questions

I remember asking my mom and dad a million questions as a kid.  I guess I was trying, at an early age, to develop the art of asking questions.

me in the kitchen cooking with my mom

me in the kitchen cooking with my mom

While I helped my mom in the kitchen, I asked “Why do you have to chop the onions up so small?”  She would answer, “Because the boys don’t like a lot of onions and chopping them smaller will give the flavor without having big chunks of onions in the meatloaf.”   

 

What kind of crop is that?

my daughter in a field of mature cotton

my daughter in a field of mature cotton

As I looked out the window of my dad’s truck and saw different crops growing throughout the countryside, I asked “How can you tell the difference between beans and cotton?”  He answered “Soy bean plants are usually smaller and the leaves are shiny green.  Cotton plants are bigger and the leaves are dull green."

I loved that they both validated my questions by giving me honest, mature answers - even if that led to more questions from me.  I felt smart and encouraged when they responded with “That’s a really good question.” or “You ask good questions.  That’s the way you learn.”   

 

Where is that going?

my son in an empty train car that is waiting to be loaded with cotton seed

my son in an empty train car that is waiting to be loaded with cotton seed

I also remember feeling perfectly settled if the answer was a sincere “I don’t know.”  I would ask my dad things like, “What’s in the boxcar and where is it going?”  With curiosity that equaled mine, he would reply, “Hmmm.  I don’t really know…. maybe there’s cotton seed in there and they are taking it to a cattle farm in Kansas.  Or maybe there are peanuts in there and they are taking them to the Planter’s processing plant in Pine Bluff.” 

I felt a sense of comfort and relief knowing that my dad didn’t have all the answers and it was ok for me not to have the answers to some questions as well.  

 

Still asking

my boys observing and questioning 

my boys observing and questioning 

I love when my kids ask me questions now.  I can see the gears in their minds turning, trying to figure out the world around them and how they best function in it.  

my daughter exploring the farm

my daughter exploring the farm

With many answers at our fingertips today, we can explore and learn together.  However, some questions still don’t have answers and that’s ok too.  But let’s keep asking and perfecting the art of asking questions....

Winter on a Rice Farm

As you probably know, farming schedules follow the seasons. Some seasons are seasons of harvest while others are seasons of rest. My dad has always said that farming is a lifestyle.  When we were young, that lifestyle included vacation schedules that were opposite of what many other people follow. 

 

Instead of Summer vacations, we went on adventures during the winter when the farmland was resting.  I remember my parents planning fun trips to the beach and Disney World and Colorado for skiing around our Christmas breaks at school.  It was always special to get to skip out on a few of the last days of the semester to get to travel with my family.  

 

We only took a week off, but the land needs to rest for several months.  This is what rice land looks like during the winter while the cold weather helps break down the previous year's crop residue.  We can’t see anything happening in these rice fields, but underneath it’s going through the necessary healing process.   The land gets a whole season to be still and produce nothing. 

 

In fact, the rice fields shown in these pictures are actually receiving instead of giving like they do during the growing season.  The thousands of ducks and geese that migrated here for the winter have replenished the nutrients in the soil that it generously gave to last year’s crop while enjoying the rice that fell on the ground during harvest. 

 

It’s getting ready to repeat the next stage in the natural cycle.  Even though we can’t see what’s going on under the rich soil, potential is building.  

While the farmer may have the opportunity during the winter months to take his family on vacation, he doesn’t have several months to rest like the land.  This is the time to plan for next year.  Many questions are swirling around in his mind. 

Which variety of rice will produce the highest yield with the least amount of cost input?  How can he recycle the water more effectively to avoid paying a higher electric bill for pumping and preserve the environment?  What if he tries alternating the water levels to avoid stagnant water and reduce greenhouse gases?

IMG_1444.JPG

 

Spring is just around the corner, and both the rice land and the rice farmer will be ready.  He will have crunched his numbers, secured his funding and refurbished his equipment. 

 

The land will have healed by receiving valuable nutrients from the waterfowl that had the privilege of a place to spend the winter.  Agriculture is full of symbiotic relationships.  This is another great example of the partnerships that are mutually beneficial and will bring them right back here next year.