A coyote saunters across a levee between two rice fields outside the small town of England in Lonoke County, Arkansas. It’s the first of March, seasonably windy and cool, the sky big and blue and hinting at spring to come.
A quarter mile away, Laudies (LAW-dis) Brantley, Jr., surveys fields that soon will sprout cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice.
The Brantleys preside over a third-generation farm on the Mississippi Delta’s western fringes, just over 10,000 acres lying twenty-five miles southeast of Little Rock. The Delta takes in a wide swath of Arkansas’s eastern third, ballooning through its east central counties to nestle against the capital city in the center of the state, before giving way to Ozark and Ouachita foothills in the west.
Despite decades of population decline, farming continues to permeate Delta culture. Post-World War II, automation and urbanization combined to siphon people out of the Delta, into cities and onto the payrolls of manufacturing plants. But family patriarch Laudies Brantley remembers a downtown England teeming with people on Saturday nights, when agriculture was the primary employer and farm workers became weekend townies: “It could get so crowded you couldn’t walk down the sidewalks … you had to walk in the street.”
Elbow room’s more plentiful downtown these days, but the landscape in southern Lonoke County continues to be dominated by agriculture, even if fewer people are required to make it run.
In season, roughly March through November, Brantley Farms employs about twenty-five to work those 10,000 acres. And the farm is beginning to bustle with activity as it begins taking deliveries of seed and herbicide in preparation for planting, signifying the end of “meeting season.”
Otherwise known as January and February, meeting season is the down time between harvest and planting when commodity and industry groups meet with farmers to talk new products, new services, and market outlooks for the coming season. Or, as Laudies says, it’s a period when “we’ll spend a lot of time getting things lined up.”
And now, it’s time to begin field prep.
Laudies expects to begin planting by the end of March, though planting season typically starts in early April and can extend into June depending on the crop.
The Brantley farm has grown into a healthy operation—1 million bushels of grain storage, 150 irrigation wells, twelve row tractors, eleven pick-ups, seven tractor-trailer haulers, four combines, four sprayers, and two cotton pickers.
Laudies considers himself as much “sharecropper” as farmer—the Brantley name is on forty to forty-five percent of the land they work—but he’s a businessman at heart. All farmers are businessmen, when you get right down to it. Businessmen, forecasters, traders, investors, and, certainly, salesmen.
And businessmen adapt to change. On the farm, that means everything from weather patterns to market fluctuations. Change has always been a part of farming; today it just happens at a faster pace, Laudies says. Farming’s fully automated these days, for one. And its practitioners have transitioned from what Laudies calls the “boots and shoes” of farming’s first generations to the “khakis and starched shirts” of the second.
He’s proud to have extended the Brantley farm into its third generation: his oldest son, Dow (Laudies III), officially manages the farm, running its day-to-day operations. All three Brantley boys studied agriculture on the hill in Fayetteville, where they earned degrees from the University of Arkansas. A picture of their names etched onto the U of A’s Senior Walk is framed above Laudies’s desk in the farm office. But the youngest two found career paths that led them off the farm. Laudies says making it beyond the second generation in farm families is increasingly rare.
“The third generation got it too good; very few farms survive the third generation,” he said. “It’s not for the fainthearted. It’s a very long cycle and most people today choose not to do that.”
He doesn’t begrudge them, though. Far from it. Farming’s third generation has options, and the “all-hands-on-deck” necessity of early farming—the need to raise homegrown farmhands—no longer exists. As for the fourth generation of Brantley farmers, well … Dow’s three daughters may choose other pursuits. The whole wide world awaits them, after all. For Laudies, his world remains the Delta.
“That world has changed,” he said. “But I’m willing to take the gamble that, yes, we will continue to want to farm.”
In the meantime, another planting season looms. Brantley Farms prepares to contribute again to Arkansas’s national top-ten yield of rice, cotton, and soybeans, and to the South’s ever-growing production of corn. Next month—or maybe before—the seeds go in the ground. The cycle is renewed.
“Farming is like being pregnant,” Laudies observes, surveying acreage under a mild noonday sun. “You gotta go forward.”
SEE MORE OF JONATHAN FUNK’S FANTASTIC PHOTOS OF BRANTLEY FARM HERE