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Q&A with MFA

This is a continuing series of interviews with MFA Incorporated’s board of directors to help members get to better know their cooperative’s leadership. In this edition, we feature Doyle Oehl, District 14 director from Jackson, Mo., where he and his son, John, farm 1,400 acres of row crops, produce 250 acres of hay and run a 120-head cow/calf operation.

When you look at MFA’s values statement, which one means the most to you and why?
Honesty and Integrity. I believe that it is important to promote high standards of integrity in conducting all affairs, honestly and ethically. You have to earn the trust of all the farmers. And if you can’t be trusted by the farmers, you’re not going to have a business.

DoyleOehlWe continue to live and work in unprecedented times, due to the ongoing pandemic and market disruptions it has caused. What can MFA do to help our members through these challenges?
MFA can provide almost all needs to farmers in one stop—feed, seed, fertilizer, chemical, custom spraying and fertilizer spreading, scouting, crop insurance, livestock supplies, fencing and more. By doing this, we can limit their exposure to the public and the coronavirus. When safety measures were put in place this spring, our MFA in Jackson was very cooperative. The employees met us at the door, we told them what we needed, and they would get it all together and load it up or bring it out to the farm. We were also able to do a lot of stuff with our KAM (key account manager) over the phone. We never had any interruptions. Times like this show the value of those relationships.

What are some of the most significant changes for agriculture and MFA since you were elected to the MFA Incorporated board in 2013?
MFA has just continued to grow and add services, such as scouting and crop insurance and Nutri-Track. MFA has demonstrated that it is very prepared to meet continuous changes in seed and chemicals and overcome challenges such as the problems we’ve had with dicamba.

October is Co-op Month, and as a diversified producer and MFA director, what do you think sets our cooperative apart in the marketplace? What keeps MFA relevant to farmers today?
MFA is a true co-op, and it continuously strives to provide all needs for all our members. We also have scholarships to promote our youth and our charitable foundation to help with the needs of our local communities. We not only want the farmers to succeed, but the whole community to succeed. As members of MFA, farmers have a chance to be part of something that gives back, not just to their operations, but to the places where they work and live.

MFA recently completed a challenging fiscal year and announced some retail restructuring to better position the business. As a director and farmer, what opportunities do you see that can allow MFA to better serve members and strengthen the company?
Our past tells us that when farmers struggle financially, so does MFA. As MFA and farmers bond and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, both will be stronger in the end. A big emphasis of our restructuring is to encourage MFA personnel to visit farms more frequently so they can better anticipate needs and assist our producers. MFA is also becoming more tech-savvy. Technology is changing the industry, and farmers can find the support they need at MFA.

What have you learned about MFA during your tenure as director that you might not have learned without the closer involvement?
I have been thoroughly impressed with the diversity and quality of the MFA board of directors. If I am fortunate enough to serve my full 12 years, I will have the honor to have worked with at least 26 outstanding farmer-directors who I am proud to call friends. After serving with the staff and officers of our great co-op, I have been impressed with their dedication and loyalty to MFA. At all levels of our cooperative, we have people who have devoted their lives to MFA, some serving 30 to 40 years or even more. That loyalty and longevity really set us apart.  -TF

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Pawpaw law comes to fruition

Pawpaw It’s pawpaw season across MFA territory, and now’s the time to seek out these tasty native fruits. They are usually found in rich soil, on steep slopes, in valleys and ravines and in the understory of larger groves of trees.Ozarks banana. Hillbilly mango. American custard apple.

It’s been called by many different names, but the tropical-like pawpaw is now officially known as Missouri’s state fruit tree, thanks to a successful lobbying campaign by a group of fourth-graders who learned a civics lesson in the process.

“This project started during the presidential election in 2016,” said Mary McDevitt, who teaches at New City School, a private elementary school in St. Louis. “We study government in fourth grade, and we decided hold our own vote to elect a new state symbol for Missouri. I brought in some pawpaws from my backyard for the kids to try, and they got so excited and wanted to put it on the ballot.”

“The irony is that the pawpaw didn’t win in the school election,” McDevitt added with a laugh. “The kids voted to name the Labrador retriever as the official state dog.”

But McDevitt and her fellow pawpaw proponents weren’t ready to accept defeat, con­vinced the idea was worth pursuing outside the classroom. They started writing letters regularly to their state legislators, calling for the pawpaw to be named Missouri’s state fruit tree.

Their persistence paid off. The cause was eventually endorsed by Karla May, who was then state representative for the St. Louis district that included New City School. May was elected to the state senate in 2018 and brought the pawpaw bill with her. As the leg­islation made its way through the system, some of the students even had an opportunity to testify before the Missouri House of Representatives and several committees in sup­port of their bill. McDevitt said it was an “incredible experience” for everyone involved.

pawpaw1Chuck Lay, retired MFA Incorporated communications director, points out pawpaws he found on his property outside Columbia. The trees usually don’t get much taller than 30 feet.After a two-year process—during which the fourth-graders turned into sixth-grad­ers—the bill was passed by the state senate and signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson in July 2019. McDevitt, May and several of the students were on hand for the signing ceremony.

“Our focus for social studies is ‘citizens making a difference,’ and we learn how we can advocate for ourselves and our communities,” McDevitt said. “This was a way to put those lessons into action. The students really saw how government works, what it takes to pass a bill and why it can take so long for us to see change in our society. That was a huge takeaway for all of us.”

Interestingly enough, the bill also designated the hellbender salamander as the state “endangered species,” to raise awareness about its alarming decline in numbers. The pawpaw and sala­mander joined the list of more than two dozen state symbols, including a state tree (flowering dogwood), state animal (Mis­souri mule), state dessert (ice cream) and state amphibian (American bullfrog).

The law gives the pawpaw much-deserved and long-overdue prominence, said Patrick Byers, University of Missouri Extension horticulture field specialist, who has extensively studied the fruit’s potential during his nearly 30-year career in advising Show-Me State farmers.

“The pawpaw is one of those hidden gems of Missouri,” Byers said. “There is a core group of aficionados who’ve known for decades what a wonderful fruit this is, but certainly the designa­tion last year really raised the consciousness in the public’s mind. People are looking for interest­ing, unique experiences and place-based foods. What could be a better example than pawpaws?”

Native to midwestern, southern and eastern areas of North America, the pawpaw is the only temperate member of the tropical Annonaceae family, which also includes the custard apple, soursop and cherimoya. Seldom reaching heights taller than 20 to 30 feet, the pawpaw tree grows in colonies and can often be found in creek and river bottoms, at the base of wooded bluffs, in ravines and valleys, or in the understory beneath larger trees.

“Pawpaw trees are widely found across Missouri, and when you start to look for them, you can defi­nitely find them,” Byers said. “They like rich soil and moist areas, so that’s why you frequently see them growing along streams and rivers.”

Pawpaw fruit is now in season, typically ripen­ing anywhere from August through October. The fruits can vary in size but typically are about 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. Their thin, greenish-yellow skin hides a soft, fragrant, yellow center with a creamy, custardy texture. The trop­ical taste is often likened to a banana, pineapple or mango. When fully ripe, pawpaw pulp can be scooped out of the skin with a spoon.

Because of the fruit’s highly perishable nature, pawpaws are usually not found in stores and only occasionally at farmers markets. Most of the time, the best way to enjoy them is straight from the tree. Pawpaws can only be kept two to three days at room temperature or about a week if refrigerated. The pulp can also be removed from the skin and frozen for use in recipes. Pawpaw is often substituted for banana in baked goods and desserts such as muffins, breads, cookies and pies, Byers said.

“It’s hard to describe the flavor, but pawpaws are just deli­cious, and it also has a somewhat unique texture that’s unlike other fruits,” he said. “You can also make some fabulous prod­ucts with it. For example, I worked with a restaurateur near Springfield to supply his restaurant with pawpaw, and he made this most amazing pawpaw ice cream. He said it was wildly popular.”

Pawpaw MU ExtensionRipe pawpaws are best eaten immediately or within a few days of picking because they are highly perishable. When unripe, the fruit has an unpleasant taste. You’ll know they’re ready to eat when the fruit is slightly soft, similar to an avocado. The pulp has a custard-like texture and a sweet, tropical flavor that is described as a mix of banana, mango and pineapple.Pawpaw production may be an untapped enterprise for farm­ers, Byers said, and MU Extension has some long-term projects under way looking at possible uses and agronomic considerations for growing these native fruit trees on a commercial scale.

“We’re always looking for crops that might be profit centers for our farmers, and I think pawpaw is one of those crops,” Byers said. “We can certainly grow it in Missouri. In fact, we can grow it very well. But before a farmer jumps in and plants a pawpaw orchard, they need more information. We are working to an­swer some basic questions related to profitable pawpaw production.”

As for finding wild pawpaws, Missouri Department of Conserva­tion Naturalist Alex Holmes offered some advice and caution to would-be fruit foragers during a virtual presentation on Sept. 3. While pawpaws grow in many parks and conservation areas, regulations may prohibit picking fruit, he warned, so check before you collect. He also encouraged pawpaw pickers to only take what they plan to use.

“Pawpaws are enjoyed by Mis­souri wildlife, too,” Holmes said. “You don’t want to steal food from the bears and raccoons—they rely on this, too. We can go to the store and buy mangoes, but they can’t.”

Holmes also offered tips on how to tell whether pawpaws were ready for harvest. A ripe pawpaw will be soft, similar to an avocado. A paw­paw picked too early can be placed in a paper bag to ripen, he said.

“One thing that I like to do is walk through the woods like a go­rilla and shake the trees,” Holmes said. “When the pawpaws break off the branches and fall to the ground, you know they’re ripe. You’ll know right away when you open up a pawpaw and smell it. When they are unripe, there’s a dirty-dishwater sort of smell to them. Ripe paw­paws, on the other hand, have a wonderful, fruity smell.”

For those who have never tried pawpaw, now might just be the perfect time find out what all the fuss is about, Byers said.

“Pawpaw has a lot going for it. It really does,” he said. “We just need to further share the story of pawpaws, both with farmers and consumers. There are so many peo­ple excited about the pawpaw now, and it’s gratifying to finally see this unique, native, locally grown fruit gain so much attention.”

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In this Aug/Sept 2020 TF magazine


Taking flight
Skilled aerial applicators provide invaluable agricultural service
by Kerri Lotven

More than a degree
MFA partners with Missouri Colleges to help build the future, one student at a time
by Lillie Vincent

Amazing grazing
Intensive management allows Ron Locke to maximize forage production.
by Allison Jenkins

Brand Plans
MFA’s mix-and-match approach to seed gives growers complementary combinations
by Allison Jenkins

Widen the window with Fall Fertilization
After-harvest applications help producers avoid spring bottlenecks
by Scott Wilburn

Prep pastures for stockpiling forages
Proper planning can provide grazing into fall, winter
by Jim White

2020 MFA Foundation Scholarships
Click to view as published flipbook.


Country Corner
Back-to-school is anything but routine
by Allison Jenkins

Still time to be counted
Make room for data
Only youth livestock events are planned for 2020 Missouri State Fair

Corn: Large production may limit late-season prices
Soybeans: Lower acreage could mean tighter supplies
Cattle: COVID-19 disruptions drive beef prices
Wheat: Reduced global crops may boost U.S. exports

Slice of Summer - As printed via Flip Book

BUY, sell, trade - As printed via Flip Book

Support for students supports the future
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and CEO

Closing Thought for Aug/Sept TF 2020
Each month our photographer and poet team up for a unique last page for the magazine.

Click below to view the magazine as printed in a digital Flip book format.

Click to view the magazine as printed via a flip book

  • Learning the Trade

    Ricky Hubble, right, operations manager at La Belle MFA Agri Services, advises intern Bryant Gibbons about a field where he will spread fertilizer. Gibbons said he has valued Hubble’s guidance throughout his internship, which is part of his custom application program at State Tech in Linn.

Read more: In this Aug/Sept 2020 TF magazine

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Taking flight for farmers

Before dawn, Brian Jack hitches several tons of airplane fuel to his truck and heads out of town. His destination is the Omar N. Bradley Regional Airport, a rural airfield on the outskirts of Moberly, Mo., about three and a half hours away.

This is a typical day for Jack and the agricultural pilots who work for Lowry’s Flying Service based out of Grin­nell, Iowa. Now that corn is tall and soybeans are cano­pied, making ground rigs unsuitable for applying fertilizer or crop protectants, it’s the busy season for crop dusters, more formally known as aerial applicators. Ron Lowry started his agricultural flying service in 1980, two years after getting his pilot’s license at age 28.

“Someone gave me a flight lesson, and four months later, I got my pilot’s license,” Lowry said. “I flew for a couple of years after that, and I also farmed. I started watching others spray seed corn crops, and I wanted to do the same, so I got into a spray plane and started spraying. Farming was in my family. Flying wasn’t.”

Jack, on the other hand, has been around the aerial application business most of his life. His father, Randy, was a pilot for Lowry in the company’s early years and later operated heavy equipment and farmed in addition to flying. One of Jack’s earliest memories places him in the passenger seat of his dad’s plane.

“I was probably 4 or 5 when I went for my first plane ride,” he said. “Some kids would probably be scared or get sick, but as the story goes, I curled up in the back seat and went to sleep.”

Though Jack doesn’t fly himself, he has other responsi­bilities—from loading the planes with fuel, fertilizer and crop protectants to clearing snow from runways of the Grinnell airport. Lowry’s Flying Service took over manage­ment of the airport eight years ago, and Jack handles many of the airport management duties during the winter, when Lowry spends time in Arizona.

“I guess you could call me a jack of all trades,” Jack said.

On this morning in mid-June, Jack arrives early at the airport in Moberly to begin the process of transferring into his truck the cerulean granules of SUPERU nitrogen fertilizer from the already waiting MFA tender. Jack will then load the product into a waiting crop duster.

Shortly after 8 a.m., two distinctive yellow-and-blue planes materialize on the horizon—flying in tight forma­tion, conjuring the image of fighter pilots. The airstrip is surrounded by farmland. Nearby, red wing blackbirds squawk loudly, attempting to protect their ground nests as the aircraft descended.

Pilot Nathan Shaffer lands the first plane. Doug Cash’s wheels touch down mere seconds later.

Shaffer, now 30, began flying when he was just 18 years old.

“At that time, my dad told me I had to go to college,” Shaffer said. “The aviation college was the first to accept me, so that’s what I did.”

Shaffer recently arrived for the season from just outside Las Vegas, Nev., where he works in a welding shop during the off seasons. As spring approaches, he heads back to what are often called the flyover states—a term that takes on new meaning when you’re an agricultural pilot.

“Only experience can prepare you for the type of flying these guys do,” Lowry said. “Four out of our five pilots, we’ve started from scratch. They had their pilot’s license, but they didn’t spray. Not everyone makes it. They might fly one year. They might not make a season.”

It’s strenuous work that can also be dangerous. Pilots must swoop under power lines and dodge trees and towers as they fly low enough to make their applications, often at a height just 15 feet from the ground. Because aerial applicators fly by sightline, their only timeclock is the sun.

“During the busy season, our pilots often fly from dawn until dark,” said Lowry, who no longer flies crop dusters but does pilot other planes and helicopters recreationally. “Sometimes they eat lunch in the plane while they’re refueling. Other times they get a break and can go offsite, but it just depends on how many acres we have to spray or spread that day and how far behind we are.”

Cash began flying at age 30 after spending a few years as an aircraft mechanic. In the off season, he maintains his mechanic status and is a licensed flight instructor.

“I’ve always had an interest in aviation,” he said. “I had a friend who flew helicopters in the military but couldn’t drive a car with a manual transmission. I thought if he could fly heli­copters, I could fly planes.”

During application, the pilots fly between 140 and 160 mph across the crop canopy, but as they gain experience, speed becomes relative, Shaffer said.

“When you first start flying one of these planes, it seems like everything is happening so fast you can hardly keep up,” Shaffer said. “As time goes on, you become more acclimated to it, and the speed becomes normal.”

When demand for their services is at its peak, an aerial appli­cator may take off and land 30 or more times a day. Both Shaffer and Cash fly AirTractor 502s, which hold somewhere between 2,300 and 2,800 pounds of dry fertilizer or cover crop seed or 500 gallons of fungicide. Depending on the application rate, the plane may need to be reloaded four times to cover an 85-acre field. That’s four takeoffs, four landings for one field.

For a new pilot, those maneuvers alone can be intimidating, not to mention the challenges of navigating around obstacles and accurately applying agricultural inputs. The risks evoke an old flying idiom: “Every takeoff is optional. Every landing is mandatory.”

“We thought we were going to lose Nathan the first day he started,” Lowry said wryly.

Shaffer nodded and explained, much to his chagrin.

“I lost control and almost ran off the runway in the morning and then clipped a powerline with the tail wing later that day,” Shaffer said. “I was a little nervous getting back in the plane the next day.”

When flying by sight, gauging distance is a lesson learned with time. Learning to fly 3 to 5 feet over the crop canopy takes practice, Cash said.

“You’re going to get too close sometime,” he added. “When you’re flying that low, you don’t have a lot of op­tions if you get in trouble.”

According to Lowry, there are a few qualities that make a good agricultural pilot. Love of aviation and dedication to fly a lot of hours are two such qualities. Fearlessness is not.

“There are no old bold pilots,” Shaffer added.

On this cloudless summer day, everything goes smoothly—albeit quickly. Jack moves perpetually between trucks and planes, loading, refueling and answering calls. While most of Lowry’s business is spraying fungicides this time of year, the season starts with dry fertilizer application in the spring and continues all the way into November with pilots flying on cover crop seed.

“When people start to see the planes flying over and know we’re here, we always get more acreage,” Jack said. “We have 700 acres to do today, but I’m willing to bet we’ll have more tomorrow.”

By the end of the day, he’s added 1,000 more acres to the total. The crew plans to stay overnight to finish those orders the next day. The following morning starts the same, with a pre-flight check and new GPS coordinates, which Jack hands to the pilots before each takeoff.

“We usually don’t know where we’re going until we come back and get the next set of maps,” Cash said. “There’s really not much to it—just look at what you’re doing, go do the job and come back and get another load.”

Onlookers seem to find the process entrancing. As Jack continues to load the plane, a man leans on the chain-link fence separating public and restricted areas of the Moberly airport. The sun sets slowly behind him.

Earlier in the day, a farmer commented that he’d stepped out on his porch to watch the vivid planes fly.

“Sometimes we have kids come out and watch, too,” Jack said.

Likewise, back at the airport in Grinnell, Lowry describes how he hosts a fly-in, drive-in breakfast once a year, usually in Septem­ber, and gives plane rides circling the town to anyone who wants to participate.

In this community, interest in flying isn’t surprising. Grinnell has a history in aviation. Memorabilia honoring Billy Robinson, an early American pilot, is displayed around the airport. Robinson founded the Grinnell Aeroplane Company and later set a record for non-stop flight in 1914 when he carried mail from Des Moines, Iowa, to Kentland, Ind. He died while attempting to set an altitude record in 1916 in his biplane. Robinson likely succumbed to hypoxia, an insufficient concentration of oxygen in the blood.

“At that time, I don’t think he realized there wasn’t oxygen above 12,500 feet,” Lowry said.

While he’s sharing this story, another call comes in. This time, it’s from MFA Agri Services in Lancaster, Mo. There’s talk of a grass runway. All the pilots in the room know what this means. Grass runways are generally half the length of a normal small-town runway and can be slick, depending on conditions. Lowry suggests Queen City, a nearby airport with short but adequate runways.

While Lowry finishes that conversation, Jack answers another call regarding a job later that day. The highway en route is flooded. Lowry references an alternate detour. That’s flooded, too. He suggests another. It’s almost as if he has maps printed on the inside of his eye­lids, but it’s just 40 years of experience and dedication to aviation.

“I’ve retired from spraying,” Lowry said. “But I probably won’t stop flying until they take my license.”

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