Something about exceptional farmers sets them apart. It's an attitude that's evident in a neat, well-maintained farmstead; a shop or equipment shed that's orderly, uncluttered and easy to work in.
Further evidence shows up in crops that are virtually weed free, tractors that run well past their amortization dates and employees who do a bit more than asked. And year in and year out, yields push well above county averages.
Neither aloof nor arrogant, exceptional farmers are non-assuming, quick to give credit to the hired help, the spouse, the good soil, a timely rain and a benevolent Creator.
Chuck Rowland, Gaines County, Texas, peanut, cotton and grain producer, is an exceptional farmer. His fields are neat, the yard of his comfortable home well kept; he credits much of his success to his wife, Vickie, and to divine intervention. He pays attention to production details. Even his pickup is clean. And he makes outstanding yields.
Rowland, with a 2001 average of 5,300 pounds of peanuts per acre, is the 2002 Southwest Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner. He'll receive the honor at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference later this month in Panama City, Fla.
He says his recipe for maintaining high yields includes three main ingredients: rotation, adequate water and proper soil mix.
By far, the most important is rotation, he says. “A three-year schedule is essential. Four years is better. I stayed on a four-year system for a long time,” he says, “but I had to increase peanut acreage the past few years to survive low cotton prices. The shorter interval has not hurt yet.”
A grain crop, wheat or rye, included in the rotation mix helps, he says. He likes rye in sandy soil because it provides a cover quicker than wheat will.
He usually harvests the grain but in dry years will not irrigate the cover crop. “I save water for peanuts and cotton.”
Rowland has been “learning about peanuts since the mid-1980s, when he began increasing acreage. “We have to rotate to keep diseases in check,” he says. “I once planted peanuts back to back, but on land I had just bought that had no peanut base. Since no one had planted peanuts there before, I got away with it.”
He's becoming concerned with water, as are many farmers who irrigate from the Ogallala aquifer in the Texas Southern Plains. “We don't have as much water as we did just a few years ago,” he says.
During the growing season, peanuts need one inch of moisture a week, and in most years that comes primarily from irrigation. “I'll pre-water some land before I plant,” Rowland explains — “two applications to get on one-and-one-fourth inch. Then I'll plant and water the crop up. I apply light irrigations early and, after the plants come up, apply about an inch and then switch to a one-inch per week schedule.”
He says without adequate subsoil moisture at bloom and pegging stages, peanut growth will lag. “If we get rainfall, we're OK, but if water is limited, the crop suffers. If it gets behind, it's hard to catch back up.”
Water quality, as well as quantity is important to peanuts. “We're fortunate that we don't have salt or boron problems,” Rowland says. “We do have questions about continued volume, however.”
He says the home place fields have the weakest water supplies but make the best yields because of the soil mix.
“The right combination of clay and sand makes a big difference. Too much clay and we can't get all the peanuts out of the ground. Too much sand and we lose yield because soil does not hold water or nutrients.”
Rowland has farmed on his own since 1974, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. “They always had some peanuts on the land,” he says, “but acreage was fairly insignificant, around eight. The allotment system prevented them from getting any more peanuts in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Changes in the peanut program allowed for acreage expansion in the late '70s and Rowland began picking up a few more.
“We went from eight acres to 50 and then to 100 and finally to 352, where we are now.” He plants similar cotton acreage to maintain his rotation schedule.
“Cotton does well in this rotation, and we plant Roundup Ready varieties to control volunteer peanuts. And the best peanut crop I ever made, 6,600 pounds, followed cotton.”
Rowland is trying some new production techniques he expects will improve efficiency and keep yields up. “I plant some of my peanuts into standing wheat stubble,” he says.
The wheat residue protects seedling peanuts from spring wind damage and puts organic matter back into the soil. He also plants cotton in wheat or rye stubble.
“I don't plant all my acreage in stubble because some land needs to be broken about every three years, but the stubble works quite well,” he says.
“Where we have weaker water supplies, we might clean-till to hold the subsoil moisture. We'll plant wheat or rye and then kill it in the spring before we plant (and before it pulls moisture from he soil.) The grain crop doesn't need to be very big to prevent soil loss.”
Rowland says stubble-planting saves trips work with a sand fighter in the spring and also protects the young peanut and cotton seedlings. “It's cut way back on tractor work. We do very little plowing, so this system shows a lot of promise for the area,” he says.
Reduced tillage systems depend on herbicides for weed control. “When Pursuit hit the market, we got a new option to help keep peanuts clean,” he says. “We've gotten away from yellow herbicides in the pegging zone. If we need them, we put them in the middle later.”
He uses mostly Prowl or Dual in the middles of clean-till fields and waters the material in. “In stubble, I band Pursuit, starting when peanut plants are about three inches across and weeds are less than two inches tall.”
Rowland grows Flavo-Runner seed peanuts for Birdsong for a $25 premium above market price, so he has to keep them free of weeds. Nutgrass control, he says, is especially important. “I don't have much, and Pursuit does a good job on it. If I get escapes, I spot treat with Tough or Dual.”
Rotation is his first line of defense for disease pressure, but he uses fungicides as needed. “I employ a crop consultant, Clyde Crumley, to check my fields. He scouts for everything but fertility and will suggest nutrient rates if I ask for it.
Rhizoctonia poses the biggest disease threat. “We may get some pythium late in the season if we have a heavy canopy and we may pick up a little leafspot. Folicur and Abound take care of disease problems.”
He bands the fungicides with a Red Ball sprayer and cuts the rate in half without losing control.
He's watching a potential schlerotinia problem in one small area. “I've isolated that spot and am careful about moving equipment in and out to prevent spreading the disease. Any kind of equipment can move it, so we have to be careful.”
He says insect damage is rare but he may apply an insecticide to the edge of fields this year to knock back grasshoppers.
Rowland says he took a chance last year with fertility. “Peanuts don't respond much to direct fertilization but pick up residual nutrients from the previous crop. Last year I cut way back on peanut fertility and still made a good crop. But I used up all the soil reserves, so I'll add a double rate to cotton this year. I've always maintained high nutrient levels and I want to catch back up.”
He likes 40-inch row spacings and says he'll stick with that until someone shows him that narrow rows will do better.
“My 40-inch rows lap adequately,” he says. “They come together and just barely touch, so I have fewer problems with canopies growing together when vine growth is excessive.”
Making a good crop is one thing, but getting it to market may be another, Rowland says. “After 150 days I start looking at maturity, usually around Oct. 5. If vines are healthy and a lot of peanuts are still immature, I let them go a little longer. But if the vines start going down or if a cold spell is predicted, I'll get started. And when I start I have to keep going.”
At that time of year, his biggest threat is freeze damage. “Harvest timing is critical,” he says. “I need three to four days to dry the peanuts in the field before they're safe from freeze damage.”
With seed peanuts, mechanical drying is not an option. Companies demand field drying.
“They need to stay in the field until they reach the proper moisture level,” Rowland says. “At 10 percent moisture, we go like crazy to get them up before they drop to 8 percent. If some are at 12 percent, we may blow some air on them to bring them down, but we don't use a dryer.”
Rowland says success on his farm depends on more than his own efforts, and he points to his wife, Vickie, who keeps the books and schedules up to date as a significant contributor. He says when he signed up for a government program the interviewer suggested that he list himself at 60 percent of the work force and his wife as 40 percent.
“I told him he'd better switch that around,” he says. “The work she does managing the business is too important to figure at a 40 percent contribution.”
His son Chase, 19, helps out and 18-year old daughter Jodie stays busy with show lambs. A grown daughter, Robbie, works for John Deere in North Carolina.
“I also have one excellent full-time employee, Jim, who's been with me a long time and contributes a lot to the operation.”
Peanuts have contributed substantially to his farm operation since the 1970s and helped him raise a family while he worked at what he loves.
“This is a way of life,” he says. “We work hard, often on weekends, but when we get through, at layby, we can take off and enjoy the down time.”