With cities and housing encroaching and the competition for land rising, west Tennessee farmers like Jason Luckey are suddenly finding themselves farming in an increasingly urban environment.
The optimist in Luckey says that's more food and fiber for farmers to supply. But it also means he must become more active in the community to survive.
This was never more apparent at a Lion's Club meeting Luckey attended in Humboldt. One member, perturbed at the high prices farmers were receiving for corn, complained to Luckey that he had recently paid more for a steak than he had ever paid before.
“I told him I had sold my cows last week for the cheapest I had sold them in five years.”
Further discussion on agricultural economics enlightened the Lion's Club member and Luckey went home that night, “feeling good that a group of people there had a little bit better understanding of agriculture. They thought everything was hunky-dory with all the high prices. It's not necessarily so.”
Luckey, the 2009 recipient of the Farm Press High Cotton Award, farms in partnership with his brother, Ken, and nephew, Zac Luckey. His father Rege, has retired, but “he's still the boss,” Jason says. “We owe everything we have to him.” The Luckeys farm 3,600 acres of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and beef cattle near Humboldt, with the help of one full-time hand and one part-time hand.
Ken and Jason began farming together in 1988, as Jason was finishing up high school and after Ken returned to the farm after a career with Case IH. After high school, Jason went on to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1992. Zac joined the farm this season.
Luckey, 38, has made participation in farm and community organizations a second job — a mantle that young farmers must be prepared to take these days. “You can sit around in shops and co-ops and hear the complaining about what's going on. But it's my future, and I wanted to get involved to make sure that people understand what's going on out there.”
In 2004, Luckey was president of Tennessee Young Farmers and Ranchers, a Farm Bureau program which fosters leadership and networking and education. He also participated in the AgStar Leadership program, which prepares young farmers and ranchers for leadership positions. It includes sessions on current events and government and media training.
Such skills are crucial when many of your neighbors don't know a bur from a boll. “There are houses now where fields used to be. Medina is coming from one direction and Jackson is coming from the other,” Luckey said. “If you read and educate yourself, then you can speak of agriculture with some knowledge.”
In nominating Luckey for the award, former Delta High Cotton winner and Somerville, Tenn., cotton producer Bob Walker said, “He produces consistently good yields and a high quality crop every year. And it's all dryland.”
Noted Gibson County Extension Agent Philip Shelby, “Jason has put his heart and soul in not only his farm, but in getting other folks involved and creating awareness of the issues producers face with his activities. I see him involved in every aspect of community. He's a top quality individual.”
One of the farm's proudest efforts have been in conservation. Luckey's brother, Ken handles all the FSA and NRCS rules, regulations and programs for improving and maintaining soil conservation on the farm.
“We have created a lot of wildlife habitat on field borders and underneath treelines,” Jason said. “The wildlife strips consist of native grasses to protect and help build populations of quail, turkey and other birds in the west Tennessee area. Where water leaves that side of the field, the strips help us stop erosion at that point, too.”
One soil conservation project involved improving a major ditch that ran through one part of a field. It had several spots where water leaving the field was eroding soil as it went into the ditch. “We built a levee alongside the ditch directing the water toward a pipe where the water will leave the field without eroding the soil.”
Rotating crops and no-till are other methods the Luckeys use to preserve the soil for future generations.
“We've pretty much kept our cotton, corn and soybeans at a third of our acreage, with wheat a part of the bean acreage. We don't vary too much from that. At the very most, we go three years with one crop before we rotate. The rotation really improves the soil.”
The benefits can be more than agronomic, according to Luckey. “At times we would try to talk ourselves into planting a crop for the market price, but we stuck with our rotations and we were glad we did. By that fall, the crop that everybody was cutting back on either made a good yield to offset the price, or the market turned around and went the other way.”
The farm is 100 percent no-till, and ground is broken only if a field is rutted up at harvest. “When we first started out with no-till, we were doing part of the crop no-till and part of the crop conventionally. We noticed during droughts that the first fields to show signs of stress were fields that were not no-tilled. The ground cover protects the soil and keeps that moisture in the ground.”
Profitability is also a crucial component of conservation practices, and part of a philosophy that began several generations ago. “My father says when the terraces were being built, my grandfather (Clarence Eugene Luckey) would drive over the terrace after it was made. If his car drug, he wanted it wider. He wanted to be able to farm the terrace.”
But the overriding benefit of environmental stewardship is measured over time. “We do it for our future,” Luckey said. “It's important for us to conserve our soil for the next 30-40 years for me and for my son. I hope to have it as long as my father has. We try to use everything we can, terraces, catch basins, filter strips and wildlife strips, and we diversify our crops. It's not going to make you a living if you run it ragged.”
The same goes for land that Luckey doesn't own. “It's important that I take as good a care of my landlords' land as I do my own. I hope to make a good living and I hope they see that I'm just as concerned with their farm as I am my own.”
Luckey's cotton acreage is spread out over 50 miles among the small towns and communities north of Jackson, Tenn. Cotton acreage was down a little bit in 2008 due to delays from a very wet spring. The crop is 100 percent dryland.
Last fall, Luckey went with a fall burndown program of Valor, Roundup and Clarity on cotton behind cotton. A hot dose of Gramoxone at planting when the weather is warm will knock marestail down that might have escaped. He'll begin planting around the last week of April, and is usually finished by May 20.
Potash is put out in the spring and after planting, about 80 units to 120 units of anhydrous ammonia is side-dressed. “Anhydrous is still the cheapest form of nitrogen,” Luckey said. “Every year, we think about leaving it, but we keep coming back to it.”
Cotton varieties DP 444 BG/RR, ST 4554B2RF, ST 4498B2RF and PhytoGen 370 WR are planted on 38-inch rows with a Case IH 1200 planter. The Luckeys use seed treated with fungicide and insecticide at their local Helena dealer in Humboldt.
The cotton crop usually requires an over-spray of Orthene for thrips, applied before the fourth true leaf with a Roundup application.
To cut costs, the Luckeys scouted their own cotton in 2008. It's been time consuming, but it also allowed Zac, who started working on the farm this season “to sink his teeth into something,” Luckey said. Gene Miles (Extension area specialist) helped the Luckeys develop their scouting programs.
Plant bugs have become the primary pest in the Luckeys' cotton crop. “We had been making a blanket spray for plant bugs at pinhead square, but last year we were able to eliminate some of that on some fields. The last couple of years, we've used Centric, but we've also used Trimax.”
In a dry year, Luckey can limit his weed control to two Roundup applications, while wet years will stretch it to three. The high cost of diesel fuel has put more emphasis on saving trips across the field for Luckey. “That's what is so good about the Roundup system. You can piggyback several products with Roundup.” For spraying, the Luckeys use a John Deere 6700 with 60-foot boom.
At layby, Luckey will add Direx to Roundup. On DP 444 BG/RR, the application will be made with a hooded sprayer. At one time, Luckey was sure that Flex cotton would eliminate the need for hooded sprayers, but now he's not so sure. “Where are we going with these resistant weeds? Today, I'm wondering if we won't be putting some kind of hot chemical under the hoods with residual under the hoods.”
The Luckeys shoot for a one-shot defoliation program. “This past year, I went with Finish on the early cotton. As I got into the later cotton, I started adding Ginstar to keep my regrowth down.”
Luckey's 2008 cotton yields have been excellent thanks to timely rains and good cotton varieties. He and Tennessee Extension Cotton Specialist Chris Main have placed extensive variety trials on the farm.
“I really put a lot of emphasis on variety selection and getting good grades as well as yield,” Luckey said. “I want to be sure I'm producing a grade of cotton the world wants. I try to keep that in mind with my variety selection.”
Luckey harvests with one 6-row, Case IH 620. As the 2008 harvest season began, yields were coming in around 800 pounds. His best cotton, harvested in late October, yielded a more than respectable 1,400 pounds. Cotton is ginned at Crockett Gin in Maury City and Farmers Gin, in Humboldt, Tenn. Luckey markets with Staplcotn.
Equipment dealers for the Luckeys include Tri-County Equipment in Trenton, Tennessee Tractor in Alamo and Trenton and German Equipment Co., in Brownsville. His chemical purchases are made through Helena Chemical Co. and Gibson County Co-op.
Luckey is also an advisor to the board of the Farm Credit Services of America, in Three-Way, Tenn., and was on the national nominating committee for Farm Credit Services of America. He is currently the state director for Tennessee Farm Bureau Insurance and is an alternate delegate for the producer segment of the National Cotton Council.
Jason and his wife Amy have three children, Camille, 8, Rachel, 4 and Leck, 9 months.