State-Winning Farmers

Two peanut farmers, one from Virginia and another from Mississippi, were selected as state winners of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Swisher Sweets Farmer of the Year

Peanuts are an important part of the crop mix for two of the nine Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year state winners. Let’s take a closer look at the two peanut producers chosen for this honor.

Paul Rogers, Jr. — Virginia Farmer Of The Year

Paul Rogers Jr.
Paul Rogers Jr.’s Peanut Production:
• 159 acres of Virginia-type peanuts
• Yield of 5,136 pounds per acre

Paul Rogers, Jr., of Wakefield, Va., has had a long and successful farming career, and an equally extensive and rewarding avocation as a youth league and high school baseball coach.

As a result of his success as a crop farmer, Rogers has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Good Crop Mix

Rogers is a modest individual. “I’m just a humble man who tills the soil,” he says. Yet his farm encompasses 1,680 acres of open land. He rents 1,122 acres, owns 558 acres of open land and also owns 499 acres of timber.

Last year, his per-acre yields were 183 bushels of corn from 468 acres, 1,322 pounds of cotton lint from 549 acres and 5,136 pounds of peanuts from 159 acres. His soybeans yielded 53 bushels per acre for both full-season beans on 91 acres and double-cropped soybeans on 374 acres. His double-cropped beans followed wheat, yielding 76 bushels per acre. Only 5 percent of his cotton, 10 percent of his corn and 25 percent of his peanuts were irrigated.

In marketing, he works with his son using basis contracts, forward pricing, cash contracts, options and other contracts. They rely on a marketing firm for pricing advice and have used a consultant for managing and selling timber.

Rogers also provides custom cotton harvesting on 250 acres for a neighbor. This year, he’s growing double-cropped cotton after wheat. He increased cotton acreage this year due to stronger prices.

Making His Own Way

While he adopts new seed and equipment technology, he says his yields are due to crop rotation and conservation tillage planting.

Rogers grew up on a farm, but his father died when he was 15. The farm was rented out until he returned after graduating from a two-year agriculture program at North Carolina State University. After his father died, his mother sold most of the farm equipment, so he had to build up the equipment inventory. He relied on advice from other farmers, and bought a farm from one of his father’s lifelong friends.

Rogers has sold timber three times during his career. The first was to help settle his father’s estate with his sister who also inherited the farm. His other timber sales were timed to invest in capital such as purchasing additional farmland. Much of the lumber from his most recent pine timber sale was shipped to Italy and made into burial coffins.

Long Crop Rotation

He grows Virginia-type “ballpark” peanuts, and he receives premiums for jumbo and fancy peanut kernels. Rogers says the loss of the peanut quota program was a blessing because it allowed him to use longer rotations to increase yields. “I’m making more peanuts on less land,” he says. Some peanuts are on six-year rotations, and most are planted after four or five years out of peanuts.

Having coached baseball for more than 50 years, it’s appropriate that Rogers grows ballpark peanuts. A baseball coach at Tidewater Academy since 2005, his team won a state championship in 2013. He has long been active as a coach and director of youth baseball in Wakefield.

Recently, the town named its youth league baseball fields after Rogers, and in 2004, his former players placed a plaque in his honor at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York

“If you have a passion for something like coaching baseball, and if you have family support, you find time to do it,” says Rogers. “I’ve been fortunate to have good help on the farm. That has allowed me to spend time in coaching.”

A Passion For Coaching And Ag

He also spends time serving the agricultural community. Rogers has chaired an advisory board for the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center. He’s on an advisory board for Virginia Agricultural Leaders Obtaining Results (VALOR) and served on an advisory board for groundwater management in eastern Virginia. He served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors while president of the Virginia Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

He has been a director of the Peanut Growers Cooperative Marketing Association, the Virginia Crop Improvement Association, the Virginia Cotton Board, the Virginia Corn Board, the Virginia Corn Growers Association, the Colonial Agricultural Education Foundation and the Virginia Agribusiness Council. He also took part in leadership programs offered by the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute.

ogers is a member of the USDA Peanut Standards Board. He’s a board member and is a past chairman of Colonial Farm Credit. For 10 years, he chaired the AgFirst Farm Credit District Advisory Committee.

Always A Family Affair

Rogers says he has matured as a farmer and business owner by serving on many boards and organizations. He appreciates his family for keeping the farm running during his absences.

“My professional goals are more than the bottom line,” he says. He keeps his farm profitable, but says, “I am guided by my passion to be a role model as a father, coach and mentor, and to give back to the field of agriculture. My wife Pam and I have incorporated this passion into our lifestyles.”

Pam grew up in a military family. Paul and Pam are active in Rocky Hock United Methodist Church. Pam was a teacher when she met Paul. She left teaching for several years and worked beside him driving tractors, trucks and picking peanuts. In 1987, she went back and taught for 25 years before retiring.

She also served as Tidewater Academy’s business manager and cheerleading coach. Today, she essentially works as the farm’s chief financial officer. She has kept books for the farm since 1980.

Paul and Pam have two adult children. Their son Paul “Little Paul” Rogers, III returned to the farm in 1997 after graduating from Old Dominion University, and in 2005 became a partner in Rogers Farms. Paul, III handles crop marketing, serves on a number of agricultural organizations and has also been a baseball and basketball coach. His wife Dawn is a stay-at-home mom to their daughter and two sons.

Making the transition to include his son in management of the farm was not easy, according to Paul, Jr., mainly because he experienced no transition period after his father died, so it became more of a trial and error process with his son.

A Role Model For Others

Paul and Pam have a daughter, Sharon. An athletic training expert, Sharon patented a weight monitoring system for athletes and works as an associate professor in sports medicine and athletic training at East Carolina University. Her husband Brian is a special agent with the Virginia State Police, and they have one daughter.

Bobby Grisso, associate director of Virginia Cooperative Extension, coordinates the Farmer of the Year awards in Virginia. Rogers was nominated for the honor by Michael Parrish, a senior Extension agent in Dinwiddie, Virginia. Parrish admires Rogers for being a great role model for other farmers, and he appreciates how Rogers has included his son as a partner in running the farm.

As the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Rogers received a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida. a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.[divider]

Lonnie Fortner — Mississippi Farmer Of The Year

Lonnie Fortner
Lonnie Fortner’s Peanut Production:
• 400 acres of peanuts planted in twin rows
• Yield of 4,798 pounds per acre
• One of the first peanut farmers in west
central Mississippi
• Uses RTK to help with more precise digging

Lonnie Fortner of Port Gibson, Mississippi, left his career as a county executive director with the USDA Farm Service Agency to become a farmer. He started as a farm manager and later was made a partner in Rock Lake Planting Company. He recently branched out on his own as owner and operator of Bayou Pierre Farms. He’s now successfully growing peanuts, cotton, corn and soybeans.

Fortner farms about 3,600 acres of rented land. His per-acre yields last year were 1,078 pounds of cotton lint from 1,400 acres, 4,798 pounds of peanuts from 400 acres, 187 bushels of corn from 600 acres and 45 bushels of soybeans from 1,200 acres.
He grows cotton in 38-inch single rows, but plants peanuts, corn and soybeans on twin rows. “That allows us to farm with one set of planting equipment,” he says. “Cotton does better in wide rows, but peanuts and grain crops tend to do better in narrow rows.”

Fortner estimates that twin rows increase corn yields by 10-15 bushels per acre. Twin rows help soybeans reduce weed competition by shading row middles. He believes twin row peanuts produce 500 to 600 more pounds per acre.

First Peanuts For His Area

Among farmers in his part of west central Mississippi, Fortner is considered to be a longtime peanut grower. “We were one of the first peanut growers in this area,” he says.

Fortner sells peanuts on contract to the Golden Peanut and Tree Nuts company.

He markets cotton using the split pool of the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association. “I price half of my expected production and the remainder is priced by Staple,” he explains.

Feed mills and a local ethanol plant buy his corn. He prices a third of his expected production prior to planting. After planting, he prices another third, then prices the remainder as a clear picture of final production comes into focus. He stores corn on the farm and delivers it on January-February-March (JFM) contracts. Fortner says he hopes to upgrade his grain storage facilities and expand the overall grain storage capacity on his farm.

He sells soybeans through Bunge, with a third of expected production priced at or before planting. “Soybeans are generally delivered at harvest, but if there is an advantage, I’ll store them and deliver them in January,” he says.

Precision And Conservation Methods

At times in the past, he has grown sesame, wheat and grain sorghum. He has used strip tillage and cover crops for many years.

He says his crop rotation improves soil health while conserving moisture. He also uses variable rate fertilizer application.
His cover crop of choice is cereal rye. Burrower bugs are a risk when using strip tillage and cover crops prior to planting peanuts; However Fortner has not yet had to contend with these pests.

Fortner has been using precision satellite navigation or RTK since the 2006 growing season. “This really pays off in planting and digging peanuts,” he says. “We learned after Hurricane Katrina that it can be hard to find the peanut rows after the wind blew the plants down, and RTK helps us to find those rows when we’re digging our peanuts.”

He has been using strip tillage since 2005. His primary strip tillage implement is a 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr (pronounced one tripper). It subsoils under each row and Fortner says it creates an ideal seedbed in a single pass. “We are better off using strip tillage on our silt loam soils that can get sticky when wet,” he adds.

Recently, he has tweaked his strip till planting system to cope with pigweeds. “We still plant a rye cover crop, but we sometimes till it up to allow us to incorporate a ‘yellow’ residual herbicide to help control the pigweeds,” he explains.

Primary Challenges

One of his biggest challenges has been crop damage from wild hogs and deer. He has invested in electric fencing to help protect some of his crops from these four-legged pests.

Soil conservation and environmental protection are important for Fortner. “Soil erosion is a constant threat, so we’re working on our conservation practices and moving to install grassed waterways,” he says. “For instance, we’ve developed our own system of using drop pipes and plastic culverts to help manage water on the land we farm.”

Fortner grew up on a family farm in Webster County, Mississippi. His father, Wallace Fortner, is now semi-retired, but he still does construction work on the side, and he helps Lonnie on the farm. “He likes to plant cotton and help with harvesting by running the combine,.”

The Benefit Of Good Mentors

Fortner credits his partners in Rock Lake Planting Company, James “Joc” Carpenter and Emile Guedon, for getting his start. He started farming for them in 1996, and in 2006 they made him a partner. Then, in 2009, he was named managing partner. “I was blessed to have them as mentors,” he says. “And I’ve been blessed to produce good crops during some tough years.”

When this partnership dissolved, Lonnie and his wife Karen formed Bayou Pierre Farms. Karen has been a kindergarten and first grade teacher. She became certified in special education and teaches special needs children at Warren Central Junior High School in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Since 2016, she has been a board member of Claiborne County Farm Bureau and has served as vice chair of its Women’s Committee.

Lonnie is active in Claiborne County Farm Bureau and serves as its vice president. He’s also a board member for a local farm cooperative. He’s vice president and serves on the board of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association. He chairs Mississippi’s Peanut Promotion Board.

He has been a member of the Mississippi Farm Bureau board and served on state Farm Bureau committees. He is Mississippi’s alternate member on the National Peanut Board and served as a voting delegate and on peanut advisory committees of American Farm Bureau.

“Karen is my biggest supporter,” says Lonnie. “She took care of our kids while I took care of the farm. Now she is a partner on our farm.”

Lonnie and Karen have two teenage children, daughter Beth and son Lee. Both have been active on mission trips, in a children’s ministry and a Farm Bureau-sponsored safety camp.

A Different Start

Steve Martin, associate director with Mississippi State University Extension, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Fortner was nominated by Sherry Surrette with the Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center. Surrette admires how Fortner entered farming by first working for a large farming company and then operating his own farm. “He has a diverse operation, uses new technology, and he works well with Extension,” says Surrette.

As the Mississippi winner, Fortner received $2,500 cash and a trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Tied For First

Both Virginia and Mississippi have had three overall winners of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Farmer of the Year award. The overall winner for 2018 was South Carolina beef cattle producer Kevin Yon. PG

Information courtesy Sunbelt Ag Expo.

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