Aug 11, 2023
By Christi Bland-Miller
Christi is a fourth-generation rice farmer from Sledge, Mississippi.
LITTLE ROCK, AR – Our first session went so well our class couldn’t wait to meet up for the second session and another adventure in rice country – this time through the mid-south with Dr. Steve Linscombe as our guide.
Our first stop was at the Elk Chute Lodge in Kennett, Missouri, a beautiful duck lodge where we met with farmers and Leadership Program alumni from Missouri for a barbecue dinner. The next morning, we started out at the Martin Rice Mill in Bernie, Missouri. David and Mike Martin, both leadership alumni, gave us a history of the area, known as The Bootheel, which was historically a wetland until levees, ditches, and canals were built to drain the surrounding swamps. The Martin family actually cleared their land using mules and now farm more than 7,000 acres of really good rice ground. Another Bernie operation we visited was the Tanner Seed Company, run by Zach Tanner who is famous for growing foundation rice seed. He talked about roguing, a technique of removing weeds and other rice varieties, to ensure pure rice quality.
At the Missouri Rice Research Center, we met up with our classmate, Dr. Justin Chlapecka, a rice specialist there who showed us his variety trials that were being planted in five-foot increments and the research combine that will harvest the rice. We also toured the farms of two more alums, Rance Daniels in Hornersville and Zach Worrell in Rives, who only grow row rice due to the soil type that makes it difficult to pull levees there. Their crop consultant, Amy Beth Dowdy, the first female rice consultant I have ever met, was on hand to answer questions. That evening we had dinner in downtown Memphis, with Dr. Louis Rodrigue, an old friend of Dr. Linscombe’s and an expert on the dynamics of the supply chain and ag inputs.
The next day we headed for Mississippi, my favorite state! Our first stop was at Buck Island Seed Company in Tunica, where I often buy rice seed and Pioneer soybeans because they are located about 20 minutes north of my farm. They are known for their seed treatment facilities and recently expanded their business to include crop protection services. In north Tunica County, a lot of farmers do continuous rice on zero grade fields, which is very different from my operation at the south end of the county where we hardly ever do rice behind rice and typically precision level our fields with a fall instead of zero grade. Curtis Berry, a fellow rice farmer in Tunica, showed us some of his fields and then we headed to Shelby Air Service just south of Clarksdale. Ike Brunetti is a pilot there who has been flying for more than 40 years – he has more flight hours than most FedEx pilots – and has adapted flying techniques to reduce drift and provide accuracy of pesticide and herbicide applications.
The airstrip is next door to Helena Chemical, where we had lunch before we headed to Stoneville and the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center. There, Dr. Jason Bond and his team of passionate, young graduate students showed us their research plots and gave us a tour of the facility. Next, we met up with leadership alumni Austin Davis on his farm in Shaw where he’s focused on growing varieties that are not necessarily the highest yielding but are definitely higher quality.
We always eat well while traveling with the Leadership Program, however, the dinner we had that night at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville was remarkable. Doe’s was established in 1941 and while the restaurant doesn’t seem to have changed in the last 5O years as far as appearance, the quality hasn’t changed either – it’s fantastic! We ate, drank, and truly enjoyed spending time with our Mississippi rice family who embodied the state’s motto as the “Hospitality State.”
The next day was devoted to Arkansas and started with breakfast at Isbell Farms in England where one of their fields has been in continuous rice production for 64 years, something that’s unheard of in the Mississippi Delta where I live. We stress rotation because we have the ability to grow other crops whereas the Isbells only grow rice, but they rotate varieties including one used to make saké that we got to taste. The Isbell family is very innovative and they have implemented many climate smart practices on their farm, including solar panels, to help provide power to their operation.
We toured two huge rice mills, Producers Rice Mill and Riceland Foods, both co-ops headquartered in Stuttgart, Arkansas, the leading rice producing state. Next we stopped at Five Oaks Lodge in Humphrey, an exclusive hunting lodge with access to more than 6,000 acres of flooded timber and rice fields. Five Oaks is innovative in land management and researching migratory waterfowl and offers a graduate class in conjunction with the University of Arkansas at Monticello in Waterfowl Habitat and Recreation Management. The students study the bottomland hardwood forest ecosystems using mallard ducks as indicators of the health of the ecosystem.
The next morning, another leadership alumni, Sidney Robnett, took us on a tour of his farm that has been in his family for generations. He talked about the pros and cons of being a generational farm and how their operation has changed over the years. We made a stop at the University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center for a lesson in the challenges of public versus private research, and then toured the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie that has an impressive collection of vintage tractors and harvesting equipment. It was a great segue for our final destination: John Deere Headquarters in Moline, Illinois.
Two luxurious vans with refrigerators, snacks, and TVs ferried us to the company’s headquarters. We tried to convince Dr. Linscombe that the Leadership Program needs one of these tricked out vans and he promised to look into it … or maybe he didn’t! Nevertheless, the topnotch transportation was indicative of the quality of Deere products we saw including the new X9 combines that can have up to 45 percent more harvesting capacity across all crops while using 20 percent less fuel. Deere offers a special X9 rice package that can handle the extreme wear conditions harvesting rice can have on a combine.
John Deere is one of the sponsors of the Rice Leadership Development Program, along with American Commodity Company and RiceTec. I appreciate their commitment to the future of our industry, and for giving me and my fellow class members the opportunity to expand our horizons and forge strong bonds that will last a lifetime.