It’s early April and Laudies Brantley Jr., American farmer, stands in a field that will soon sprout stalks of corn stretching outreached leaves heavenward like converted sinners at a country revival.
Brantley, whose farm entails more than 10,000 acres of prime Mississippi Delta dirt in Lonoke County, Arkansas, tells his visitors they are standing in what once was a great forest that covered the area before the Europeans arrived and introduced agriculture as we know it today.
“This was a hardwood forest,” he said. “The first thing they did was cut the oak trees down.”
Not far from Brantley’s farm, which lies just twenty-five miles or so southeast of Little Rock in east central Arkansas, stands a majestic, 900-year-old cypress rooted to Bayou De View and the Cache River wetlands.
But fields of rice, corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat have replaced most of the oaks and now dominate the landscape, an acceptable price to pay for cultivating what’s become a vital component of the world’s breadbasket.
The third-generation Brantley Farming Co. works about 10,000 acres of rice, corn, cotton, and soybeans, spread out fairly evenly among the four but with a small plurality going to corn.
And although the South and cotton remained invariably woven together in the psyche of the American public, corn’s becoming more prominent below the Mason-Dixon Line. In many Southern states, corn is raised on acreage previously devoted to the plant that clothes the world. In fact, it’s the Brantley farm’s most profitable crop.
Brantley explains to his visitors that corn and rice are more amenable to the cooler temperatures of early spring and thus are the first to go in the ground.
Given its early start, corn’s also the first crop on the Brantley farm to be harvested, perhaps even by the end of July. And like cotton and soybeans, corn is seeded with row planters that distribute the seeds. (Rice, on the other hand, requires a grain drill.)
Each planter is a separate attachment that’s hooked on to the back of a row tractor—in Brantley’s case, always a John Deere—and brought out each spring to seed the fields.
Brantley’s corn fields receive about 34,000 seeds per acre, his cotton fields about 42,000. For the bean fields, seeds per acre varies by variety and soil, but generally, Brantley shoots for roughly 150,000 per acre.
Rice, on the other hand, is a different animal. It takes sixty pounds of seed per acre, which amounts to about 1.1 million seeds. Brantley buys all his seeds from local dealers and distributors.
Rice is planted on corn’s heels, and while much of the Brantley corn has emerged and is beginning its annual stretch skyward, the rice is in the ground and the beans will be by the end of April. Cotton is the last to plant, typically in May.
Corn and cotton are planted in lighter, sandier soil, and each year Brantley’s crops are rotated through those fields that offer it. The same can usually be said for rice and beans, which take the heavy clay fields that hold more water.
But each season, corn kicks it off. Brantley uses the conservation-friendly “no-till” approach in his cornfields, preferring to plant over the previous season’s stubble. Doing so helps the soil retain nutrients: The less the soil is disturbed, the more organic matter it retains, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“You try and get the plant to emerge and get ahead of the weeds, because if you don’t, the weeds will be dominant,” Brantley said.
This particular April morning, it takes Morris Landers about two and a half hours to run a tractor over a 45-acre Brantley field that’s being tilled for cotton after hosting corn last season. Landers grew up on a farm and has worked his entire adult life on one, about sixteen years now for Brantley.
Landers says GPS guides his tractor across the field one-quarter mile row after another, leaving less than an inch variance between rows.
“Technology has changed everything,” he says. “I just have to sit here and turn the wheel now.”
Indeed, it has. Brantley calls its impact the relief of lifetimes of human drudgery.
The drudgery of clearing the hardwood forest that once covered the Mississippi Delta, of hand-picking cotton in the blistering sun ’til fingers bled, of negotiating a plow through winter-hardened dirt behind a lumbering mule.
As Landers finishes up his field, Brantley checks in on the progress of what will soon be a new paved runway for the crop duster he annually contracts to treat his fields. Then there’s a visit with the crew performing maintenance on one of the 150 wells used to irrigate his fields.
But he’s drawn back to a recently seeded cornfield just across the road from the farm office, where future stalks resemble mere scrubs of grass from a distance. Walking between rows and inspecting individual plants, Brantley carries the look of a doting grandfather. These are, after all, his babies.
“That’s part of the attachment,” he said. “Planting a seed and getting it to emerge a healthy plant. It’s a very interesting time. There’s a lot of personal pleasure and enjoyment you get out of planting a seed and then seeing a plant grow. Watching that thing flower and produce—it’s a neat process.
“But make no mistake about it, it’s a business.”
A particular plant has just emerged in the last couple of days, its green leaves outstretched to soak up the rays of the spring sun. “That’s what makes this whole world work,” Brantley points out to his guests. “Sunlight on a green plant.”
A country preacher couldn’t have said it any better.
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