A Rewarding Way Of Life

 Mike Sullivan and his son, Ryan, today run the Sullivan 
 family farm in Burdette, Ark. Sullivan received his degree 
 in agronomy from the University of Arkansas in 1984 
 and then returned to the farm.

 Photo by John LaRose

Raising Crops Without Roundup Challenges Arkansas Farmers 

Mike Sullivan of Burdette, Arkansas, is one of 8 precision ag growers, reserchers and crop consultants making presentations at the 19th Annual National Conservation Systems, Southern Precision Ag Conference.

(First Of A Two-Part Series)
MidAmerica Farmer Grower

   Farming has always had its trials and tribulations, but the same stamina that brought the Sullivan family farm from the 1920s through today still prevails. Mike Sullivan and his son, Ryan, run the farm in Burdette, Ark. in the Northeast part of the state in Mississippi County, about an hour north of Memphis.
   “I just finished my 30th crop,” Mike said. He received his degree in agronomy in 1984 from the University of Arkansas then came back to the farm. “Time flies when you’re having fun. I’m fixing to enter my 31st crop since I graduated and we’re farming a little over 12,000 acres now. When I first started I was farming about 2,500 acres. I don’t know where the end is, but I never would have thought we’d be farming this much land; it looks like that’s the trend now the way it’s going.”
   Ryan, 21, is his only son, although Mike and Cynthia also have a daughter. Ryan will graduate from Arkansas State University with an ag business degree in December 2015.
   “I’m almost out of school and I’ve been working on the farm my whole life in summers and between baseball games,” he said. “I’ve been out here as much as I possibly could since I’ve been able to and I just love farming. There’s not anything else I’d rather do.
   “Everything has evolved so quickly that things that you would never imagine a few years ago are happening now,” Ryan continued. “I can just about imagine what farming is going to be like by the time I have kids. That might be me sitting there and my kid sitting here. It’s very exciting to me to be in farming with the way things are now.”
   With Mike representing the fourth generation of the family and Ryan the fifth, the farm as seen much continuity.
   “My great grandfather, James F. Tompkins, came to northeast Arkansas from Alabama in the early 1920s and worked for Three States Lumber Company around Burdette,” Mike said. “At the time, all of Mississippi County was wooded swampland. I can’t even imagine what a chore that was to clear all this land, but through their hard work, blood, sweat and tears, we have some of the best farmland in the world right here in the Delta; but it had to be a challenge! Once they got it cleared they had to drain it because it was a swamp. Then, in 1980 we had one well at that time for 2,500 acres, and now 100 percent of what we’re farming is irrigated; we probably have 100 some odd wells on the whole operation, so it’s really changed in the last 30 years.”
   There was a historic drought in 1990 that everybody remembers. Mike recalls working for his dad, James “Pat” Sullivan, driving a cultivator all summer.
   “He was old school, and he believed that if you kept cultivating you would bring moisture up to the top,” Mike recalls. “We never did find it all summer but we planted beans all the way up to the first of August that year.
   “I remember those long days driving a tractor thinking ‘if I ever get to the point to where I can, we’re going to get everything irrigated.’ That drought in 1990 is really  what started the irrigation in northeast Arkansas.”
   They started with pivots in the 1980s and early 1990s; but as the pivots got old, they leveled the land.
   “Instead of having dryland at each corner of each pivot, we saw the benefit of the irrigation, so we leveled our ground, and that opened up rice production for us in northeast Arkansas. We usually grow around 4,000-5,000 acres of rice with the balance in soybean,” Mike said.
   The soybean yields have increased tremendously from the crop rotation/irrigation, it’s a natural here. At that time, a lot of Mississippi County farmers produced the most rain-grown cotton in the United States. Now this area is slowly but surely becoming a big rice producing area.
   “We have tremendous water resources here in this county,” Mike stated. “As long as the Mississippi River doesn’t go dry, according to the water hydrologists, we’ll always have water here in Mississippi County, so that’s a tremendous asset that we have.”
Mike laments the fact that Ryan didn’t get to see the Roundup Ready era when Roundup sprayed over the whole crop would kill every weed. He was too young to remember that.
   “We, in Mississippi County were the epicenter of pigweed resistance when it first started,” Mike recalled. “I’m guessing it was seven or eight years ago when we noticed a few fields that we sprayed with Roundup two or three times had a few pigweeds that made it through the first time. I thought that maybe the sprayer missed the spots, and then I realized that we had some resistance issues. We really didn’t know how good we had it with Roundup; and now that we’ve lost the Roundup control of pigweeds and a few other weeds, it really has changed the way we farm now. It’s made it quite a bit more expensive.
   “What we used to see was perfectly manicured fields,” he recalled. “Now we have spotty pigweeds and it gives me heartburn to see our turnrows and around the edges of our fields growing up in pigweeds. Unfortunately, with the labor situation, I don’t know what the answer is. We have dicamba resistant crops coming out, hopefully, if it gets approved this next year; and then there’s the 2,4-D resistant crops, so there is help on the way. But we lost the best weed control that we’ve ever had in history, because we sprayed it too often. So now Ryan gets to deal with resistant pigweeds.”
   Ryan has spent a lot of his time trying to keep the turnrows clean. While Mike tends to look at the big picture, Ryan is meticulous; he looks at the small picture, and really concentrates on trying to keep the turnrows clean, trying to hand weed around the edges. 
   “Rice really helps with our rotation,” Mike said. “We spray our rice levees, we don’t plant them; we have all level-to-grade fields so our levees are 193 feet apart. So we run a Mudmaster with a hooded sprayer on it and we spray Grandstand and Roundup which kills everything on the levee. That keeps us from repopulating our fields with pigweeds.”
   Ryan finds the turnrow situation to be a never ending battle with no solution.
   “Even over the turnrows you can’t control these big pigweed,” he finds. “If they’re under a foot tall, you can pretty much kill them with Gramoxone; but when they get over a foot tall and their root system gets so big, you just cannot kill them with anything. The only thing you can do is pull them out of the ground.
   “You can mow them, you can spray them and kill them all the way down to the ground, and they’ll grow back out of those roots,” he continued. “It’s a very frustrating thing and it takes a lot of work, a lot of labor and a lot of cost to keep a farm looking clean now. Hopefully there’s something like this dicamba that will help even on turnrows.”
   The vast majority of the farm is Sharkey Clay ground, but there also are several areas in northeast Arkansas where the New Madrid fault runs from New Madrid down toward Marked Tree. These earthquake areas are full of sand blows that are very prominent throughout the county.
   “We might have a field that is 90 percent and 80 percent Sharkey Clay, and right in the middle of it you’ll have a sand blow where the earthquake spewed the sand up out of the ground. So that’s a challenge in a way,” Mike said. 
   Most of them are probably a third of an acre out in the middle of a field and the sand seems to go on forever in depth.
   “When you fly over the fields in Mississippi County you can spot every sand blow from the air; most of them have the sulfur deficiency and it really shows up,” Mike said. “When we flew over in the spring you could tell every field in Mississippi County had ammonium sulfate put on the wheat. The ones that didn’t looked like they had the measles, you know, yellow areas; and the ones that were treated with ammonium sulfate, the problem was solved.”
   One problem with the sand blows in rice production is the paddy with a sand blow does not hold the water so well. About half of Mississippi County is Sharkey Clay which is ideal for rice production; the other half is Sandy Loam ground.
   “We have very diverse soil types on our farm,” Ryan said. “The north end of the farm is pretty loamy and then you get farther south and it starts getting more of the gumbo, we call it; and when you get all the way to the south end it’s the worst gumbo there is. It’s very diverse from one end to the other.”
   “Over the years, we found that leveling Sharkey Clay makes it very productive by adding rice to the rotation along with irrigated soybeans. A lot of farmers refer to Sandy Loam as 'good ground' and Sharkey Clay as 'bad ground'.
   “You can make Sharkey Clay which is ‘bad ground’ into ‘good ground’ by leveling it, putting rice on it and starting rotation. I venture to say that, as far as a per acre land value right now, that good leveled Sharkey Clay farm is worth just as much per acre as a Sandy Loam ground now; because the key in the future is going to be what’s under the ground, the water.
   “Water, especially in Ryan’s lifetime, is going to be huge,” he continued. “We’re already seeing the water table deteriorate drastically in parts of Arkansas. We know India and China and the major rice countries are having huge water problems; and we know what has happened in California, so I think we’re sitting here on a very valuable precious resource in water that I hope we don’t ever take for granted.” ∆
   BETTY VALLE GEGG-NAEGER: Senior Staff Writer, MidAmerica Farmer Grower
   (Continued next week)

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