It’s harvest time on Ray Makamson Farms, and things are going well: Three cotton pickers are running full speed, modules are quickly forming along the turn rows, and there’s nary a drop of rain in the forecast.

Makamson, however, is busy dividing his thoughts between the current field activity and the next one. Call it a forward-looking management style.

When it’s planting time, for example, he is usually focusing on what he needs to do to make harvest and irrigation go smoothly. At harvest, he’s figuring out what he wants to plant in the spring, and where he wants to plant it.

If something goes wrong during the season, he makes a mental note of it, and during the winter, he revises plans and procedures to avoid making that mistake again.

Makamson, the 2011 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner from the Delta states, draws from a number of assets to make this approach work — 38 years of cotton-producing experience, a unique relationship with his employees, his trust in God and a love of farming.

Ray, his farm manager, John Harris, and eight full-time employees grow 3,050 acres of cotton and 700 acres of soybeans near Itta Bena, Miss. His daughter, Emily Gnemi, also helps with bookkeeping for the farm. Bruce Pittman is his consultant.

The Makamsons are part of a rich history of farming in the region. Ray’s grandfather, Loyce, sharecropped in the area, trapped and hunted for a living and raised seven children. He soon discovered that he had another talent, buying and trading land, which laid the groundwork for his five sons, including Ray’s father, Lamar, to become farmers.

Ray says he will never forget the afternoon, soon after he started farming, when his grandfather, Loyce, gave him a backhanded compliment that firmly established his status as a farmer and as a Makamson.

“He flagged me down on the road — something he never did; he never stopped just to talk. I thought I was in trouble. He said, ‘I want to tell you something. I want to tell you I’m proud of you. I just came from my accountant, and he told me that there are now three generations of Makamsons who have tax problems. So, I’m really proud of you. Then he rolled up his window and took off. It was worth a million dollars for him to tell me that.”

Ray applies the same sort of cajoling attention to his employees, continually encouraging and challenging his eight farm hands, who are all from the Greenwood, Miss., area. His calm, but firm demeanor has won their respect and has helped to foster in them a sense of pride in the operation.

“I try to treat them like I want to be treated. But they need to know what I expect of them.”

Pete Doyle, 60, is a great example of how that respect was earned. One day, Makamson was taking Doyle home after work, and “Pete told me he’d never had a birthday party. ‘Sure wish I could have me one,’ he said. So every year, when we get through picking cotton, we have a birthday party for Pete. Even though we found out last year that his birthday is in May, he told us we still need to have a birthday party when we get through picking cotton — so, now he has two.”

Pride in appearance

His pride in the operation is evident in the appearance of the farm, too, according to Trey Cooke, executive director of Delta Wildlife, who has assisted Ray on numerous conservation projects.

“The one thing that strikes you is Ray’s meticulous nature. He is probably the most esthetically-astute farmer I know in the Delta. His shop is clean, the grass is clipped, there are no piles of containers or irrigation pipe lying around. If you were to ever want to take somebody to see one of the best farming operations, Ray’s would be one you’d want them to see.”

“He runs one of the cleanest operations of almost anyone I know,” says Jerry Singleton, area Extension agent for Leflore County, Miss. “From the shop floor to his equipment, everything is always clean.”

“My shop, my equipment, my tractors, represent all the money that I’ve banked through the years,” Makamson explains. “I’m invested in these things, and the people who work for me take pride in them, too. We take good care of things — I like things neat and orderly.”

His conservation efforts mesh perfectly with his forward-looking style.

As a member of Delta Wildlife, he participated in the Monsanto Mississippi River Partnership Project, created to determine the effectiveness of conservation measures on improving wildlife habitat and water quality. He installed numerous water control structures to reduce nutrient and sediment loss from his cropland and to benefit water quality in adjacent streams, lakes, and rivers.

Drop pipes and other water control structures dot the farm. Most of the water is directed to run off into the Yazoo River or Roebuck Lake. He has helped transform the lake into fishing spot for his children and grandchildren, and he also manages intensely for wildlife, deer and waterfowl.

Ray started land forming in the late 1970s, primarily to improve drainage on the farm. He started irrigating in 1988 and today the farm is 90 percent irrigated, mostly down the furrow.

“Furrow irrigation is so much more efficient, and you get a better return,” he says. “We try to manage our water the best we can so we don’t overwater or waste water.”

Rollout pipe “has been a good tool for us, but it creates another problem if you leave it out there too long. When we’re done with it and we know we’re done with it, we collect it for recycling.”

He has also worked hard to eliminate open ditches on the farm. Instead, water is moved to fields through underground pipes to minimize evaporation and erosion. “It’s just so much more efficient; we have a riser every 1,300 feet.”

Ray uses GPS on all tractors for more efficient field operations. He is starting some variable-rate applications of mixed fertilizer as well, through Jimmy Sanders. “We had a lot of areas in fields that didn’t need any fertilizer; it was cheaper to do variable-rate applications, plus we could do a better job.”

Managing costs

He says his cotton crop “can show a profit at 85 cents, provided input costs remain reasonable. But managing those costs is a constant struggle. You get prices to a level that you always wanted to reach, then you look at the bottom line, and it’s not enough. Fertilizer prices are already $100 a ton higher. But the Good Lord always takes care of us — He knows we can’t stand a lot of prosperity.”

A commitment from input and equipment companies to lower costs of production would help, Makamson says. “Otherwise, they’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. That’s the mindset of a lot of people who are going to grain — that they can’t afford to keep spending the money it takes for cotton. And that’s the big concern with cotton. Sometimes I wonder if we ought to go back to doing things the old-fashioned way, being happy with a bale and a half. But, it’s all relative.”

Ray plants primarily Deltapine cottons, along with some PhytoGen and Stoneville varieties. This season, a little over half his acreage was planted in DP 0912 B2RF.

He markets his cotton with Cargill, Staplcotn and Hal Williams at Mississippi Delta Cotton. He is on the board of directors for First Farm South Credit and Delta Oil Mill, is a managing partner in Greenwood Gin, a partner in a flying service, Ag Concepts at Morgan City, Miss., and a partner in a local NAPA store.

His father, Lamar, recently retired from farming and Ray’s son-in-law, Justin Jeffcoat, has taken over the reins of that operation. “Justin worked for me for five or six years, and we helped him go off on his own. He’s really doing a good job, and I’m proud of him.”

While Ray depends on his forward-looking management style to stay a step ahead of potential problems on the farm, he says he doesn’t deserve all the praise for his success.

“I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways — a lot of times I feel like I need to give back more. To be able to do something I enjoy so much is a blessing. I have to give God all the credit.”

erobinson@farmpress.com