As we publish the March edition of Delta Business Journal, farmers are beginning to break ground in their fields and are readying for the 2018 growing season. We have mentioned multiple times—on a good day farming is a tough business. The hard work and untold hours in the field, the sacrifice and uncertainty of this business, is not an occupation for the faint of heart. Farmers roll of the dice each year and as they do nothing is for sure but the debt. Toward that end, we at the DBJ salute our farmers and we are thankful for their efforts and determination as the economy of the Mississippi Delta is dependent on agriculture.
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Delta Precision Technologies, LLC
By Susan Montgomery
Henk van Riessen’s one of those lucky people who grew up understanding what his vocational field would be.
“At age 12, I already knew I would go to agriculture school ,” said van Riessen. And he did.
That let him in 1993 he to Auburn University in Alabama, an ocean away from his native Holland. He enrolled at Auburn to fill study-abroad requirements for a post-graduate program in Holland. He had planned to return but instead stayed at Auburn to get his Ph.D.
“Things change, and things can change in agriculture,” said van Riessen. “You just need to go with the flow and seize the opportunities that are given to you.”
Those changes and opportunities brought van Riessen and his wife, Barbara, from Alabama to the Mississippi Delta in 2003. They settled just outside of Cleveland, and he worked as a manager and precision agriculture scientist for the agricultural-technological solutions company, InTime. He then spent a year and a half as precision ag director at Wade, Inc., and late last year, launched his own business, Delta Precision Technologies, LLC.
The firm helps any business with its computer equipment, software and data management, but it particularly serves agribusinesses and farmers.
Here in the flatlands, growers are starting to accumulate mountains of data about their farming operations, van Riessen said. The ability to collect and use this information comes from the new equipment they are now putting into the fields.
“Tractors, combines, sprayers—pretty much any modern machine in ag nowadays can provide that data,” he said. A tractor might issue data on its engine, attached equipment, fuel levels and the weather. GPS comes into play. The tractor guides itself around the field. The driver doesn’t steer it, instead he monitors its progress—as would an airplane pilot flying with instruments.
In the case of a fertilizer applicaton, for example, the rates of application might change with specific variations in feedback from conditions in the field.
And instructions and responses to the tractor might be be issued from a computer in an office or from a cell phone.
“It is important here in the South where—it’s now true in the whole United States—we have drivers who are not owner drivers. We need to be able to control what is happening with that particular treatment. Ag needs to be more efficient to be able to stay profitable,” van Riessen said.
His job is to help the grower be more efficient, and that means customization. “The grower needs so much help as to what will be profitable in his situation,” he explained.
Van Riessen continued, “All of that data that is coming at you needs to flow so it will benfit the farm.”
“With my ag background, I can help the grower make decisions that will help the grower move forward into this new era of data,” he said.
Every farm operation is different, and some are larger than others. A larger farm owned by a corporation might have more money for technological advances. “It’s more delicate to move a 2,000-acre farm into the digital world than a 30,000-acre farm,” van Riessen observed. But they all tend to need help with the transition.
“Nowadays, there is an app for everything. The grower can manage the farm from the smart phone. But he is no expert at setting that up, and he needs the help to set that up,” he said. “The age we are living in now is so different from what we were used to 20 years ago.”
One of the changes is the amount of precision required in activities such as setting up a tractor with a planter. With the new equipment, the planter must be centered behind the tractor with its boxes set exactly for what is needed, precisely 30 inches apart—or 38 inches, depending. “Every planter I have ever seen had to be adjusted,” he said.
He tries to aid growers in identifying the “economic optimum where precision agriculture is going to pay off or where it is going to cost something.”
“Technology is changing how we farm,” he continued. Remote sensing, which he has taught at Delta State University, provides a detailed overview image of a field from planting through harvest. The images are collected by aircraft and drone flyovers, or via satellites. Satellite imagery, he said, is cheaper and faster.
The data informs the grower at the time and later, when he wants to make decisions about a new growing season. But there is so much informatiion.
A combine going through a field will issue GPS information about yields every second. “If it takes two and a half hours to harvest a field, you can figure out how many data points you are going to have,” he said.
Or, “the grower has 150 fields and does five or six applications throughout the year. That is going to be a lot of data. That data needs to be managed,” he explained. “You are going to have a lot of data that can be managed in a way so we can access it later.”
When van Riessen was at Auburn, a long time farmer asked for an explanation of precision agriculture. Van Riessen said the grower remarked, “Gosh, I have been doing this all my life.”
The man would ride along beside a driver on a combine, sitting with a map on paper. He would mark the location of the biggest harvest in the field.
If a grower knows which part of a field produces the largest harvest, he can apply more fertilizer at that spot.
Now, a similar objective remains but the tools and methods have changed. “If a recipe can be generated for the grower, it should help him make money, “ van Riessen said.
“He now has a much better feel for what the fields are doing and what he needs to do next.”
Van Riessen said there are few similarities between farming in Holland and in the Delta. Wheat is grown in both places, but in Holland it springs from land derived from “the bottom of the ocean” rather than “the bottom of a swamp.”
His parents had “a hobby farm” and he milked cows as a teen-ager and worked on potato farms. His father raised warmblood horses, which are well suited for dressage, the classic equestrian art sometimes described as dancing with horses.
The movements of both the rider and horse are exact.
Van Riessen occasionally has taught riding and dressage since he has lived in Cleveland, but he doesn’t ride much these days. He and his wife, who trains and boards dogs, have a couple of horses on the place, and he is teaching their daughter, Cassie, 8, to ride. They also have a son, Willem, 3, who will have the advantage of his father’s expertise in horsemanship.
Van Riessen’s suited for the pastoral setting. It’s akin to a house on a homeplace. He reflected on the needs of farmers. “I do the computer hardware, the technology part, anything they need for that, yes.” But his work occupies a niche “that as far as I know has not been addressed in the agriculture community. The growers don’t know how much is out there.”
They do know of course, that they want “to get what they need, no more and no less.” And that is precisely what van Riessen tries to offer.
By Angela Rogalski
All across the Mississippi Delta, and the entire country, for that matter, Ag pilots gear up for their day very early and get into the mindset they need to do their job. It’s an important service they provide, treating and protecting the crops we all need for food and the many other things that the plants’ byproducts produce.
Glenn Holloway III owns G3 Flying in Lambert, Miss. and is a second generation Ag pilot who realizes both the importance and the dangers involved in doing what he loves. His father, Glenn Holloway, Jr., owns Holloway Air in Drew, so he grew up in the aerial application world and is very familiar with every facet of the business.
“My dad started flying lessons in his mid-twenties and worked his way into the business from there,” Holloway says. “And I always liked the agricultural aspect of what my dad did, and the importance of it when it comes to the consumer and the farmer. The flying is just a part of it. And living in the Delta, it’s a good way to make a living. Of course, with the legacy part of the business, aerial application is something that a parent thinks twice about before actually encouraging their child to get into. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be, but there is still an inherent risk in what we do. The flying so low and the fact that anytime you’re in an aircraft of any kind, altitude is your best friend. The higher you are off the ground, the more time you have should an emergency situation arise. And when we’re actually applying the pesticides, we’re about 10 feet from the ground, so that in itself gives you pause. But, being around it all of my life really helped me get into it, and there was a lot I didn’t have to learn when I started, so I do enjoy it.”
Holloway explains how his part of the business works. “Farmers call us and tell us what pesticides they need on which crops. Some acreage, depending on what’s planted, such as rice, will need more than one application, so you make more trips between the actual spraying and fertilizing. Corn can usually give you a couple of trips, and soybeans would be your least sprayed fields. With them, it’s about two or three trips across every acre.”
Holloway adds that while his business and his father’s are separate entities, they do help each other out if needed.
“My dad and I work together quite a bit, so we’re there for each other when we need to b. And that’s an awesome part of it.”
The Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association has been around since 1954, when it was first founded. Vicki Morgan is executive director of the organization and says that its purpose is to promote the Ag Aviation industry.
“We promote professionalism, high standards and hyper-ethics. We try and get the Ag pilots in Mississippi to be on the same page, so to speak, with each other. And also to band together as a group in order to help affect legislation and laws that have to do with agricultural aviation. We have about 275 active members today, and those numbers are divided into different categories. There are operator members, individuals who actually own their flying service and they can also be pilots. Right now we have about 75 members who are operators. The remaining numbers are defined as associate members, those who are in the industry, but aren’t necessarily pilots, and then we have allied members, who are our vendors, people who provide services and products to the ag aviation industry.”
Morgan adds the benefits of belonging to the MAAA are many, such as the annual convention they host every year.
“And at the convention pilots can receive their recertification credits or their continuing education units; we call it recertification, and they have to do so many hours of that each year for their license, so this enables them to come to the convention and over a two-day period they can get all of their recertification credits. In addition to that, we conduct a safety meeting each year, where we address safety issues. We also update pilots on laws pertaining to agricultural aviation at convention, so we try to be a significant and useful tool for Ag pilots. We also have our website for more information and about how to join.” msaa.com
Before coming onboard with the MAAA six years ago, Morgan says she had no idea of the real importance of Ag pilots to farmers, consumers, and the population in general.
“I have lived in the Delta for 30 years, so of course, I have seen the Ag planes flying many times. And I always found myself thinking how exciting their job must be, but what I didn’t realize was what these pilots really do for all of us. What they do allows farmers to produce far more crops of better quality, in a cost effective manner. It really does contribute to not only what we eat, but the clothes we wear; crop byproducts are just used in so many different ways. And I never realized what it took for them to actually do their jobs. I rode with an ag pilot two years ago and we went 170 miles per hour, 10 feet off the ground. It was something I will never forget. So, their job isn’t an easy one, but it’s vitally important and one that the pilots have a deep passion for.”
Robert Garrett is manager of Flying Tiger Aviation in Bastrop, Louisiana. The company specializes in training aerial applicators. Garret says that in order to be a commercially-rated pilot, whether in Ag aviation or general aviation, you have to receive the same licensing in order to do it. Plus, in the case of Ag pilots, each state has their own license testing entity for working with pesticides and chemicals and in order to disperse economic chemicals from an aircraft, they have to be licensed, which usually consists of a written test.
“You start at zero and work your way up to it,” Garrett adds. “Ours is a six month program, which has proven success. We’ve had pilots leave here and go immediately to work. Of course, that depends on their own knowledge and ability. And some that come to us already have an agricultural background, so they have some knowledge of chemicals and crops, but they want to put the aviation aspect into it and that’s what we teach.”
Garrett adds that many of their students are from the Mississippi Delta region, but in truth, their program attracts a worldwide clientele.
“We get students who come here from all over the United States and we get a lot of international individuals who come to us for training as well. This is our 19th year in operation and we have recently taken on some major growth changes. We are now associated with Louisiana Delta Community College; we’re a vocational training program through them. Students who come through here have the opportunity to receive 100 percent financial assistance in order to attend and complete our training program, which is significant. There is no other program like this in the world.”
He adds that it’s his personal goal to change the perception many people have about Ag pilots, such as the one in the movie “Independence Day,” where the Ag pilot flies everyway but correctly.
“It’s one of my personal goals to change the public perception of what this job is. It’s not uncommon to see an Ag plane flying in the Mississippi Delta because of the rich farmland we have there. But in other parts of the country, it’s not so common. I’ve been going up to Iowa for the last seven or eight years to help operators up there, and there’s only about two weeks out of the year that you’ll see aerial applicators doing any work there. So, the general public is a bit fearful of them. It’s been a goal of mine to try and educate the public about what we do. We’re not daredevils; we’re trained professionals.”
Pete Jones owns Air Repair, Inc. in Cleveland and in partnership with Kawak Aviation Technologies, has been developing and manufacturing a precision hydraulic application system for dry products such as fertilizers for the last ten years. Jones says that the technology his company and partners are using is singular to Air Repair.
“The system Ag pilots used to disperse fertilizers and other dry products was forever controlled by a hand-operated lever,” Jones says. “What we’ve done is replace that method of opening and closing that gate with a hydraulic cylinder and a hydraulic system, and interfaced it to a GPS system. With this process, you never have to touch the system.”
The Air Repair, Inc. system starts with a robust power pack that is capable of the demands of prescription and constant rate gate movement. The power pack utilizes a pressure switch and accumulator to give instant open and close signals to a gate cylinder with an internal feedback probe or “Smart Cylinder.” Jones says this type of feedback, coupled with the instant hydraulic pressure running through a proportional control valve will allow for constant on the fly gate adjustments. The systems are largely sold in the Delta, but Jones adds that interest is starting to branch out.
“The users of this system, by and large, have been in the Mississippi Delta. However, we have begun to break out of this area and it’s gaining some traction in other parts of the country, the Midwest, California, and all up and down the Mississippi Valley: Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and other parts of Mississippi. Recently, we sent some systems to South Africa, where they are applying fertilizer to tea crops, and to Australia, which is a big agricultural country too.”
The Missing Man Formation is performed to honor and give an aerial “salute” in memory of a fallen pilot and was used quite often during World War II when a pilot and his plane did not return from battle. Brad Ouzts, along with a group of local Mississippi Delta pilots from Shelby, Clarksdale, Benoit, Shaw and Cleveland, began getting together to do this as a way to honor the deceased. Ouzts is owner/operator of Cleveland Air Service and has been an Ag pilot for 28 years, and says to be a part of this honorable and special tribute to his fellow pilots is something he is very proud of.
“As an Ag pilot myself, this is something that I feel is very important and when we have colleagues or friends who were aerial applicators pass away, this is a way to honor them and their families,” Ouzts says. “I got started when I was asked to participate in one of the services and ever since then, I’ve tried to be available to do it. Sometimes I’m the lead aircraft and sometimes I’m on the side or in the back, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m just honored to be a part of the group. And it is a group effort, we’re all proud to do it. I’m not the head organizer, but I have been involved in the group for a few years, so it’s a very special thing for me and for all of us.”
Ouzts says it’s an emotional time for everyone involved, for him and his fellow pilots, and the deceased pilot’s family and friends.
“It’s a very moving part of the service, because once the family walks out from the tent or covering over the coffin at the cemetery, that’s when we try and time the flyover. No one has a dry eye after that. It’s beautiful and touching and very sincerely done. We generally do it with five aircraft and the person who is in the middle of the formation does the actual exit and we all have our smokers on, except the one in the center. And we smoke before we get to the cemetery, and as soon as we get to the burial site, we cut off and the middle plane pulls up and cuts his smoker on, heading straight up to heaven. It’s very emotional.”
By Becky Gillette • Photography by Austin Britt
Patrick Johnson and his father, Pat, have traditionally planted a lot of cotton on their farm in Tunica County. Even while cotton acreage in the state decreased sharply in recent years due to low prices, the Johnsons did not sell their cotton equipment. That puts them in good shape to participate in a cotton comeback this year.
“Because we kept our equipment, it won’t be that difficult for us to increase our acreage,” says the younger Johnson, who serves on the Delta Council and is the current chairman of the National Cotton Council Environmental Task Force. “The harvest equipment is the most expensive piece. It is so expensive that you really need a good volume of production to justify buying it. In recent years with cotton prices down, the only way we could justify the expense was by picking other people’s crop, as well as ours.”
Mississippi cotton production dropped to a low of only 320,000 acres in 2015. But this year, better prices for cotton are expected to increase the state’s cotton acreage up to 600,000 to 700,000 acres.
“On our farm, we are going to have a big increase in cotton acres this year and that will be representative of many operations in the Delta,” Johnson says. “I think it will be a good thing for cotton to come back because it provides an economic impact you don’t necessarily get when you are loading grain on a truck and hauling it to the river for export.”
Johnson said there have been some years he got the same price for cotton as his grandfather. This year while cotton prices aren’t great, the potential for profitability is higher than with corn and soybeans.
“It is not a great situation, but cotton becomes the best option because the other crops aren’t as good as they were three or four years ago,” he says.
The Johnsons started growing rice in the 1990s, and that crop has been great for them. Yields are more consistent than anything else they grow.
Overall, it is a challenging time for the ag economy of the Delta and the U.S. Growers have had to adjust to major decreases in prices for commodities like corn and soybeans.
“Cost of inputs and land rents increased because commodity prices were so high several years ago,” Johnson says. “Now that we are transitioning into a time of lower commodity prices, it has made budgets really tight on farms in the Delta. Input costs for seed, chemicals and fertilizer keep going up. And equipment costs are a big expense for farming that only go up, for sure. Every year as time passes, you have more money tied up per acre than the year before.”
On the positive side, ag technology continues to improve. That covers the seeds planted, the equipment used, and the practices used on the farm.
“The technology is getting better,” he says. “Really, it has to be for us to be able to make a profit. We have to continually work to be more efficient and find ways to get higher yields. You have advancements that are being made by the Cooperative Extension Service in the public sector and you also have private companies investing a lot of money and doing research to develop better varieties and better technology.”
Over the past 20 years he has been farming, he has seen major improvements such as the use of GPS for precision agriculture that allows growers to make variable rate applications that only put fertilizer where it is needed. Johnson said in addition to cost savings, that is a more environmentally friendly practice.
“In agriculture right now, like a lot of other business, sustainability is becoming an important topic we have to address,” Johnson says. “And we are addressing it. One of the great things people don’t necessarily realize about farming in this day and age is that farmers want to be progressive and implement conservation and the best management practices because all these inputs cost money. There is an environmental benefit and a benefit to our bottom line, as well.”
One sustainability strength he sees for the area where they farm is there is a good water supply. With severe droughts in some other areas of the country and the world, no one takes water for granted any more. Water levels in aquifers in the Delta are declining, and pumping groundwater is expensive. So steps are being taken to be more efficient in irrigation water usage.
“Making sure we have water available in the future has become a high priority for farmers in the Delta,” Johnson says. “That is a big area where you are also seeing technology implemented in our irrigation practices to conserve water. The Cooperative Extension Service is doing a lot of research on how to be more efficient with irrigation polypipe, and we are now using computerized hole selection in the irrigation pipes. You put a description of the field into a computer program and it tells you how to punch the holes to water the fields evenly and have less waste. That is something that has gained a high adoption rate in the past few years.”
Delta Council Executive Vice President Chip Morgan says Johnson has been extremely progressive with regard to conservation and environmental issues.
“He has been one of the key spokesmen relative to water management in the Delta, which is the biggest resource we have,” Morgan says. “He has been an advocate of everything that needs to happen in order for us to ensure that future generations have sufficient irrigation supplies to continue making profitable yields. Patrick has been very active in our Delta Council Research and Water Resources Committee. He has been to Washington D.C. many times with us to meet with EPA about crop protection registration, and the challenges we have with not being able to get access to new technology because of how slow the regulatory process is.”
Johnson is known being proactive in studying issues of concern to agriculture such as the decline of honeybees that some have blamed on long-lasting agricultural pesticides.
“Patrick works with the bee specialists and with the crop protection industry,” Morgan says. “When it comes to the honeybee pollinator issue, there is nobody in the U.S. who has had a bigger role in the farm community in meeting this problem head on both at the end of the turn row and in Washington. Patrick has studied the pollinator issues, and has bee keepers on his farm. He has met with bee specialists at Mississippi State. He knows precisely what the problems are, and how to prevent them. And he has taken the steps to do it. That is just his nature. His is quiet and understated. That is just his nature. But he is a problem solver. He works with science to find where the problem really lies.”
What are the biggest challenges in agriculture today?
“We are always we are at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to the weather,” Johnson says, who graduated with a degree in biology from Ole Miss in 1996. “That presents a challenge for us. But the biggest thing from the business standpoint is that commodity markets are global. That means that the things that affect our crops locally don’t necessarily impact the commodity markets. So that can also be difficult. We are growing a crop and most of the time we don’t know what we will get for it from a price standpoint. We market our cotton and rice through two marketing cooperatives, Staplcotn in Greenwood and Producers Rice Mill in Stuttgart, AR. But we’re on our own marketing our other grains, and it’s always a challenge to do a good job with that.”
The Johnsons have benefitted from vertical integration. The family owns an aerial applications business, Tunica Air Inc.
“We got into that business with my uncle and cousins because it integrated so well on the farming side because we grow a significant amount of rice,” Johnson says. “The aerial applications are made in rice when fields are flooded and you can’t do it with the ground equipment. If it rains and conditions aren’t right to get in the field with a ground sprayer, farmers will use aerial application in any crop. On all crops, application timing is critical. So at the air service we work to be sure that applications are made on time for our customers, as well as on our own farms.”
The Johnsons have been in Tunica for a long time. Johnson is the fourth generation member of his family to farm on land located just south of Tunica. He and his wife, Emily Johnson, live in Tunica where they are involved with the Tunica Presbyterian Church. Johnson is also on the board for the Tunica Chamber of Commerce.
For recreation and fitness, Johnson plays tennis and rides a bicycle.
“There is a group that has gotten into cycling in town,” he says. “I mainly do it for the fitness, but then there is also just the comradery. We have a lot of fun.”