By Clifford Mitchell
Crop production in America has come a long way.
Air conditioned tractors, equipped with the latest technology are obviously a huge step from the one-horse outfits that began tilling the Earth.
While it seems a measuring stick can be put on all facets of technological advancements to gauge its success, most also will agree market prices seemed to have slipped to pre-historic lows.
The challenge, enjoyed by most, is to use the business of agriculture to take care of the land and make an adequate profit.
As with most sectors of industry, the lack of competition--at the input level and the marketplace--seems to have a choke hold on progress.
Near Oxford, KS, David Hutchins, along with his wife, Betty, son, Tyler, and daughters, Jessie and Shelbie, is the third generation to make his living off the land.
"Dad gave me some acreage to farm in 1968 and I have kept adding acres," Hutchins says. "Farming is what I always wanted to do. It is a lifestyle that you buy into. And I depend on a lot of family to help get the crop to town."
Hutchins also is a Novartis and Garst seed dealer. In 1996, he placed second in the National Grain Sorghum Yield Contest. He also has been a two-time grain sorghum yield winner in his county.
"Conditions have to right to raise those kind of crops," Hutchins says. "Being second in the yield contest was a highlight for us, because I have never raised much more than 100-bushel sorghum."
Like a lot of farmers, Freedom to Farm helped Hutchins break the cycle of wheat as the only option. Hutchins uses a rotation involving wheat, sorghum, soybeans and sunflowers to spread risks and add diversity to his operation.
"We need diversification. I can't be tied to one crop. I have to have my ground ready to plant to whatever the market dictates," Hutchins says. "I have to maintain the rotations to maximize yields. The rotations help keep the ground clean for the next crop."
Hutchins speaks freely about the good and bad points of Freedom to Farm. It is no secret the bill came a long at a bad time, due to economic depression in parts of the world and record grain crops, driving farm prices down.
"The thing about Freedom to Farm that we like is we get to pick the crops and grow them on the acres we want to grow them," Hutchins says.
The start of crop rotations for Hutchins actually came before Freedom to Farm, but like most farmers he knew changes had to take place for the good of agriculture.
"Rotations came for me when I got some ground that had a history of rotations, when we were in the program," Hutchins. "Some land had been in wheat for 50 years or more, before Freedom to Farm allowed us to break it out."
A typical rotation on Hutchins' ground might include wheat to soybeans, followed by grain sorghum and back into wheat.
"I like three years of row crop with beans, because it helps break up some of the problems we have in this area," Hutchins says. "I like beans, because they are a legume and do nice things to the soil."
Even though Hutchins likes the benefits soybeans give his soil, grain sorghum is a better income producer and fits his soil types.
"Anytime you raise a legume, you can't always measure the value of that crop with the yield. It is a soil builder and prepares a nice seed bed for the next crop. The value doesn't always go to town in the truck, and people don't want to look at that," Hutchins says. "I have low pH ground that is best suited for wheat, but my soil types are clay and heavy types that will hold moisture for sorghum."
With the moisture conserving soil types and terraced environment he farms, Hutchins says just a little help from Mother Nature and good management practices will bring in the crop.
"My ground is more conducive to grain sorghum. So, I lean more toward sorghum acres than beans," Hutchins says. "Good soil fertility and tillage practices, coupled with a few timely rains, will get a good sorghum yield. I try to keep a log book of planting rates, fertility rates and chemical rates for future reference."
Not only do the soil types fit grain sorghum, but Hutchins likes the way the crop fits into his schedule.
"I will plant milo in May, harvest wheat June 10, then have another window to plant milo," Hutchins says. "In July and August, I can work ground for wheat, then harvest my May milo, plant wheat and then harvest the June planted milo."
Hutchins advises others to spread out the maturities on the row crops. For his operation, this helps in two ways.
""This spreads out the risk of getting a timely rain and spreads out the workload, so you are busy, but not killing yourself," Hutchins says. "It is a smart practice. It goes hand-in-hand with not raising one crop and not planting it all at the same time."
Like most farmers with experience, Hutchins has his preferences. "Early milo seems to do well, because it can use the subsoil moisture. My favorite, is the shorter varieties planted in late June," Hutchins says.
Experience also tells most farmers to match maturity with the planting date and bloom with the rainfall in the region.
"There is high water usage in sorghum from bloom until fill. The June planting is ready for Labor Day rains and an October harvest," Hutchins says. "With other planting times, it depends on how dry it gets. I have had my best yields with the late June planting."
The variability in weather and soil moisture also plays a role in planting times in southeast Kansas.
"The soils in May sometimes are too wet. If it is too wet, we won't get a good stand--if you don't get a good stand, there is already a strike against you," Hutchins says.
As a seed broker, Hutchins has access to new hybrids or varieties. He uses test plots to show the performance of the different hybrids in the area. Hutchins maintains there are two factors, standability of stalk quality and drought tolerance, he must keep in mind for his area.
"In high water use times, the stalk will sacrifice itself to make grain. Rainfall is the biggest factor in determining if we will have a stalk that will stand," Hutchins says.
Hutchins prefers conventional tillage methods to no-till or minimum tillage practices, but also says he depends on the year to help identify which tillage practices are going to work best.
"I have not been as successful with no-till as I have been with conventional till. I am not sold that all soil types will work in no-till. I think we have too much moisture. Where no-till seems to work best is where they need to conserve moisture," Hutchins says. "The cost of fuel may make no-till a more viable option this year. We have to control input costs and have a big yield, because the market prices aren't there."
The increased capital requirements and mentality of most farmers make change difficult. Hutchins takes a common sense approach from one angle, the bottom line, to determine his next move.
"I will update as the budget allows and farming practices change, but I have to sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper to see if it works," Hutchins says. "Economics and Mother Nature dictate how we mange the farm."
Marketing options are somewhat limited for his crop in southeast Kansas, but Hutchins takes steps to help maximize earning potential.
"Most sorghum grown in this part of the world goes to a feedlot in western Kansas, so corn dictates the price. We have very few marketing options, that is why I bought a semi," Hutchins says. "The government also has announced a program for on farm storage, which is something I might be interested in, because I don't want to be dictated to by the local markets."
With the low market prices and lack of competition in the market place, Hutchins sometimes is frustrated when it is time to market his crop. It seems that agriculture may operate just a little different than other business.
"It is sad when to be successful farming a family farm you have to have two incomes," Hutchins says. "A farmer has no control over his price. What other business produces a product where they have no control over the price? We are raising low-price crops and the cost of living keeps going up."
Agriculture is in a time period where the industry is trying to get a foothold on which way to go to add value to the end product. Some say it is pretty simple, relax trade barriers and U.S. farmers can feed the world; others believe there is too much red tape tying up profits.
Hutchins believes the cheap food policy and consolidation have a lot to do with depressed farm prices.
"I don't think the government should continue to throw peanuts at us to feed the world. They will keep a handle on agriculture to keep a cheap food policy," Hutchins says. "Consolidation leads to control and that is a lot of our problem."
Another problem farmers continue to face, that is out of their control, is urban politicians making policy to fatten campaign wallets and ensure support.
"The urban population doesn't understand what we are doing. They think we have it made, and we don't," Hutchins says. "People gripe about the farmer getting subsidized, but people get subsidized everyday at the supermarket."
Hutchins explains his views of the future in a bleak and somber manner, with agriculture changing and moving away from the family farm. He sees younger farmers forming partnerships to share expenses to farm the land and meet financial requirements, hoping the market place won't push them out.
When asked if he has any words of advice, Hutchins says if a producer is kind to his land, it will give him good returns.
"You have to keep trying different things, because no two years are the same. What works this year won't necessarily work the next," Hutchins says. "Don't be afraid to try different things, if you think they will work. Fit the farming practice or the crop to the soil."