Delta Council 2017-18 president
By Becky Gillette | Photography by Rory Doyle
George W. King Jr., the new president of Delta Council, doesn’t draw a line between work and play. He considers farming his primary hobby. He also likes to bicycle, and often enjoys riding along Lake Washington.
“When you ride early in the morning, you won’t pass a car on the west side of Lake Washington,” says King, whose family farms about 6,500 acres of soybeans and corn in Washington County. “We live on the lake. It is pretty. It is really a nice place to live if you like a rural setting. The communities here are close knit.”
Being a farmer can be stressful at the best of times, and currently commodity prices are at levels that allow no major setbacks if a profit is to be made. King is still bullish on the future of the Delta agriculture. He is a big champion of the Delta and the kind of advocacy necessary to help enhance the ag economy of the region.
“The Delta is a unique place to live,” King says. “If you want to farm, there is some of the best land in the world here. The Delta is like every other place in the world. There are all kind of challenges to overcome with the cities and towns. But, all in all, it is a really nice place to raise a family. I wouldn’t like to live in a big city. That wouldn’t appeal to me.”
Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, says King has shown excellent leadership qualities for many years.
“When he got involved with Delta Council, it was clear to everyone who worked with him that he would one day be president of Delta Council,” says Morgan. “It was just his time, and we couldn’t have a better person in that job. In the past five years, George has been the conscience of the groundwater challenges that face the Delta. People are not going to find George King on the shoulder of the road or on the left or the right. He is going to be near the center line. And George is going to be cautious before he makes a decision about things important to the economy of this region.”
King and his wife, Lisa Nelson, attended Mississippi State University where he received a degree in agronomy and she received a degree in ag economics. King grew up in Leland and was first attracted to farming in high school when he started working for Ray Beckham.
“I just enjoyed the work, being outside, the whole aspect of farming,” says King. “After college, I worked with my cousins on the McCaskill’s farm. In 1987, we started Nelson-King Farms with Lisa’s father, Thomas H. “Boots” Nelson, and my brother-in-law, Tommy Nelson. This is our 30th crop. Currently, Tommy’s son, Trey, and my son, Walt, are also farming with us.”
There have been some great years…and some tough ones. Current low commodity prices are a concern.
“It makes it where you can’t make a mistake,” says King. “There is no room for error. If you make 60 bushels of beans per acre instead of 70 bushels, you are in a heap of trouble if you want to be profitable. Corn, if you don’t make a really good crop, you can’t be profitable at these price levels.”
The farm is on a soybean/corn rotation with about half of the acreage in each crop. Corn prices are down 40-50 percent or more from the highs and 20 percent from a year ago. Soybean markets are down about 25 percent.
“We used to think $10 per bushel for beans would be fantastic, but that is not great with what we are paying for rent and input costs,” says King. “We need some stability in prices and that is tough in the market we are in.”
More cotton is being planted in the Delta this year because cotton prices have shown some improvement. King says they haven’t grown cotton in about five years, and decided against getting back into cotton this year because of the huge investment needed in equipment.
“We always did our best when we were a third cotton, a third soybeans and a third corn,” says King. “Then, when cotton was having a tough time, we dropped it. While it looks like we could start growing cotton again, we can’t make the investment to grow cotton for one year. We have to see some stability before we get back in it. And, we don’t want grains to go back down to force us to go back in cotton. We want it all to go up.”
King says they constantly evaluate seed varieties to determine which varieties work best of their farm.
“It is changing so fast,” says King. “My nephew does seed trials each year. You have to be a little careful on unproven varieties. The new varieties coming out need to be tested before you plant them on thousands of acres.”
One emerging threat has been pigweed resistance to Roundup. A year ago, they planted dicamba soybeans on 500 acres. Those are a variety of soybean that is resistant to dicamba, which kills pigweed. Those performed well. So, this year King will plant about 3,000 acres of dicamba soybeans.
“This is a new technology that allows us to spray over pigweed, which is probably the biggest weed pressure we have right now,” says King. “We use a mix of Roundup and dicamba. I tell everyone all the time, my father-in-law’s generation saw huge advances in horsepower. Our generation is seeing huge advantages in technology. We are able to farm a lot more acres with a lot less labor. You can have five men farming 5,000 acres.”
One of the biggest looming threats to agriculture in the Delta is groundwater depletion. King has been chairman of Delta Council Water Resources Committee for the past five years.
“Water is a huge challenge for us,” says King. “Agriculture is the biggest water user in the Delta by far. For the past twenty-five years, our water supplies have been going down. And the Delta has about 800,000 acres not currently irrigated that might come under irrigation some day. We must find a way to end the depletion of the aquifers.”
Solutions can be complex. Weirs or dams can be used in some areas to pump water from a river instead of from beneath the ground. Inner basin transfers take water out of one river and divert it to another for surface water irrigation. Another third avenue being studied is direct injections. Water from an aquifer source close to the recharge might be pumped to another area and injected into the ground. There is currently a test project with this. And, while the water is only being piped a mile, it will help provide information about whether directly injecting into groundwater supplies might be a partial solution.
King says all three of those alternatives sound simple, but for each there are a lot of challenges.
“And, all those projects cost money and you have to figure out how you are going to pay them,” says King. “Right now, the Delta is trying to find out which method is the best and how to pay for it.”
Another challenge for the entire ag economy of the U.S. is the new farm bill being drafted this year. The White House has proposed cutting 28 percent from farm programs.
“It was a huge cut to ag programs,” says King. “But, I think that is a starting point. Congress is the one who ultimately decides the budget, and no matter who the president is, we hope Congress will continue to see the importance of supporting agriculture in the U.S.”
King sees a bright future for Delta ag.
“It is just like farming has always been,” says King. “You have to be aware prices can fluctuate. When it is time to work, it is time to work. You must pay attention to all the details of the farm to make it work. You have to keep up with technology, take care of the land, be able to irrigate, and be able to produce top yields.
“Having my nephew and son on the farm allows me time to do things like my Delta Council work. We have a good partnership. Those two young men have pretty much have taken over the day-to-day operation of the farm. When you have a good partnership like this, one of us can be gone at any time. And, if something is going on at the farm, all of us want to be here. That makes a good operation.”