We had driven past nothing but soybean fields for the last two hours.
Greenville, Mississippi had been a fleeting interruption to the endless rows of green, it’s boarded-up storefronts a sobering glimpse into the decline of rural life in the southern state.
Every field we drove by was perfectly level…and I do mean perfectly. The Mississippi River delta is an already flat landscape, but as we had learned at our tour stops as part of this ProFILE bus tour through the South the day before, each of the fields we drove by was “land-leveled” to a slope of less than 1%. With over 60 inches of rain a year (nearly twice what we’re used to in Michigan), often coming down inches at a time, well drained fields are a must. When rain doesn’t fall, irrigation is delivered through furrows down those same, perfectly sculpted slopes. Abundant supplies of groundwater makes this cheap—but labor intensive—method of irrigation the system of choice on most farms in the region.
After taking a wrong turn and driving past several more miles of soybeans, we hopped off the bus at Lost Ball Farm on the west side of the Mississippi River to meet with Matt Dennis. At 28 years old, Dennis is the 2021 Young Farmer Achievement Award Winner for the state of Louisiana. It was quickly apparent that efficiency was the name of the game on Dennis’ farm. We were eager to ask questions, wanting to learn as much as possible in the short hour we had with him, and Dennis answered all our queries as quickly and efficiently as he runs his operation.
Our ProFILE class was filled with awe—and a bit of jealousy—when Dennis revealed that some of his fields were three miles long. Every stop, every turn reduces efficiency, he said. Every field on his farm is planted one of two directions. Efficient and simple, which which is essential as he often hires new employees through the H2A program every year.
“Everything he does, he has a reason for it,” said Terry Page, Michigan’s YF Achievement Award Winner, after touring the farm. Even the running of the grain carts during harvest is meticulously planned.
“Managing compaction is one of our biggest challenges,” said Dennis. The heavy clay soils of the delta are prone to compaction, especially under wet conditions. So his grain carts only run on the top half of the fields, reducing unnecessary travel, and eliminating the potential for that extra compaction on the lower ends of the fields.
While internet service is limited in Dennis’ area of Louisiana, the GPS networks covering the area allow Dennis to use precise location data and auto-steer technology to meet his efficiency goals.
Technology like GPS can allow farms to address challenges more efficiently, as well as managing larger fields in less time. “Balancing sustainability and efficiency is important as farms have access to ever-improving technology,” said Emily Reinhart, Grassroots Policy Outreach Specialist. While taking out fence rows and tree lines to make larger fields can reduce labor challenges, other challenges—such as wind erosion—can arise. Longevity is just as important as short-term efficiency, though much harder to measure. “Farms can reach out to their county conservation district (https://www.macd.org/find-your-district) to get technical assistance on how field management practices may impact soils in the long-term.”
Many of the challenges faced by the farms we visited were familiar to our Michigan ProFILE class, but the landscape, soil type, and weather patterns called for different solutions - managing excess water through furrow drainage, rather than tile; adding water during dry spells through flood irrigation, rather than center-pivots. However, one challenge that is foreign to Michigan farmers is hurricanes - and as news reached us one week after our tour of Hurricane Ida crashing into the Louisiana coastline, we could better appreciate the fortitude and creativity of farmers like Matt Dennis.