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Spring freeze is reminder of nature's unpredictability and a farmer's resiliency

This was shaping up to be a banner year for blueberries at Brandywine Farm in Rolla, Mo. As spring unfolded, the bushes filled with blossoms while honeybees from rented hives buzzed around, taking care of their pollination duties.

After five years of renovation on the farm, Pat Marti was eagerly anticipating blueberry season. The U-pick operation had been closed to the public during the painstaking process of removing old, un­productive bushes and replanting new ones. Finally, the farm would be ready when the berries ripened in June.

Mother Nature had other plans. Winter returned with a vengeance the third week of April. Below-freezing tempera­tures settled across the farm for two nights in a row at the absolute worst time for berry development. The unseason­able weather took its toll. Within a couple of weeks, Pat could tell that many of the blooms had been damaged and dropped without forming fruit.

“We were really looking forward to being able to open this year,” Pat said. “I was heartbroken. I had been out to the patch and saw how good everything looked, and in two or three days, everything changed.”

It was another blow in an already devastating year for Pat and her family. Her husband, Larry, an orthopedic surgeon affectionately known as “Doc” to nearly everyone who knew him, died last August at age 82 after suffering two strokes. They were married for 61 years.

The Martis, stalwarts of the Rolla com­munity for more than 44 years, purchased Brandywine Farm in 2010 from previous owners, Dave and Mary Hinze. The Hinzes opened the farm in 1982, but after Dave’s death, Mary decided to retire from the venture.

“We just happened to see that the farm was for sale and hated the idea of it closing down,” Pat said. “It’s such a community tradition. I loved coming here with my kids and grandkids to pick blueberries long before we ever considered buying it. Larry had several cattle farms of his own, so we bought Brandywine for me. It’s always been considered my farm.”

While Pat—called “Nan” by family and friends alike—is ultimately in charge, the blueberry operation has always been a fami­ly affair. She and Larry have five children, 23 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Through the years, many of those family members have helped out on the farm, especially during the short-but-hectic blueberry season from mid-June to mid-July.

Even though Doc Marti worked long hours at Mercy Clinic in Rolla, he would usually be on hand for the busy pick-your-own Saturdays at Brandywine, his wife recalled fondly.

“He never met a stranger and always had a smile. He just genuinely loved people,” Pat said. “He liked to stand at the gate and talk to the customers. He even had a little dance for them as he waved them in.”

“But you didn’t want him picking berries,” she laughed. “You’re supposed to pick them one at a time. He’d pick a handful at a time, which meant he always had half a bucket of berries and a half bucket of other stuff. He was a better greeter than he was a picker.”

Neither one of them had any prior experience with blue­berries, so learning the intricacies of production has been a continual process. Pat said much of the family’s education on the subject comes from attending “Blueberry Schools” hosted regularly by the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield.

“I like working outside, and I like growing things, but blue­berries are a whole different story,” she said. “They’re the hard­est thing I’ve ever grown. I can do vegetables; I can do flowers. I was used to things that I could just put in the ground, add a little fertilizer, and they’d flourish. Blueberries are not that way.”

First of all, she said, blueberries need an acidic soil. The pH should remain between 4.8 and 5.2. They also need lots of wa­ter. Successful blueberry production requires the soil to remain moist but not saturated. Brandywine’s entire 10-acre blueberry patch is dripline irrigated.

Pat follows a labor-intensive fertilization schedule that in­volves applying necessary plant nutrients bush by bush.

“We fertilize three times a year—in the spring, after picking in the summer and then again in the fall,” she explained. “Every few years we’ll take soil samples to see what we need.”

The bushes must be pruned over the winter. And during berry season, there’s a constant battle to keep weeds, insects and birds at bay.

“I love it, but it’s a lot of work,” Pat said. “I’m 82 now, and I just can’t do as much as I used to.”

The customers, however, keep her going. Brandywine Farm has a loyal following, Pat said, many of them tracing back several generations to the era when the Hinzes owned the farm.

“People just love it,” she said. “They come and they sit and they visit. I make blueberry muffins and jam, and they all sell out fast. Families will come and walk through the patch, eating blueberries as they go. We don’t mind. We never weigh the customers when they leave. We only weigh what’s in their bucket.”

The blueberry business flourished for the Martis until about five years ago when they noticed some of the bushes were dying. After soil-testing and talking with Extension specialists, they determined the most likely culprits were the age of the plants and a common fungal disease. The family decided tem­porarily close the farm to the public, allowing time to remove the old bushes, let the soil recover, add fresh topsoil and plant new bushes—nearly 1,000 of them. They have plans to add 600 to 800 more bushes in the next year or two.

“You should be able to get up to 30 years out of a blueberry bush, and some of these had been planted 40 years ago,” Pat said. “It was a long, difficult and expensive process to put all the new bushes in. We bought 2- to 3-year-old bushes, which can run anywhere from $6 to $8 each. You don’t want to start picking from them until they’re about 5 years old. This was going to be the year that they would have been ready.”

As a blueberry farmer, Pat said nothing has been as disap­pointing as watching all that hard work succumb to this spring’s freeze. But like her, the bushes are resilient. The Marti family expects this season to yield a limited number of blueberries, which they will likely harvest and sell at the farmers market in Rolla rather than opening for public picking.

“My dad always taught me to do the best you can do and work hard to make things happen,” Pat said. “So, we’re not going to give up. I don’t give up. And Larry wouldn’t want me to. He’d love to see us being able to pick again. It’s worth all the challenges.”

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MFA takes part in federally funded projects to address economic, environmental concerns on the far.

Production agriculture and conservation often seem to be at odds with each other, but their interdependence will be highlighted through two new projects funded by the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in Missouri. MFA Incorporated is a partnering organization in both initiatives.

Through the RCPP, an award of $930,377 was earmarked for a precision farm data and strategic buffer placement project, which will create and implement management strategies that target unprofitable cropland acres. Goals are to enhance water and soil health, provide essen­tial habitat for pollinators and grassland bird species on agricultural land, and help producers avoid the need for natural resource regulatory requirements.

The funding amount will be for five years and will be used to provide cost-share to landown­ers in support of applying eligible practices. Missouri counties included in the project area are Saline, Lafayette, Pettis, Macon, Randolph, Chariton and Linn.

“This project is a great example of how true collaboration among our Missouri conservation and agriculture partners can help us all better serve producers in ways that can address both economic and conservation concerns on their farms,” said Lisa Potter, Farm Bill Coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, the lead partner on this project.

Other contributing organizations are the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Mis­souri Corn Merchandising Council, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, Bayer, Missouri Rural Water Association, The Nature Conservancy, Missouri River Bird Observatory, Associated Electric Cooperative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Fertilizer Institute.

Adam Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation specialist, said MFA’s role in the project will be to capture and analyze farm imagery and row-crop yield data, and then make recommen­dations for converting unproductive areas to a diverse mix of native warm-season grasses and forbs. He said a website will be set up later this year to provide more information and a mechanism for producers to express interest in participating.

“Growers will be eligible for a special pool of RCPP conservation dollars to imple­ment the practices that we recommend,” Jones explained. “And all the data we use to make those plans will be housed with MFA, not with the government.”

That’s one of the main differences between other federal conservation programs and the RCPP, which was created under the 2014 Farm Bill. RCPP projects must be under-taken as public-private partnerships among a variety of stakeholders. Participating organizations are expected to provide significant matching funds for the project, including in-kind contributions such as monitoring, conservation planning and producer assistance—like the services MFA is providing. RCPP funding is awarded competitively based on proposals submitted by partnering organizations.

MFA is participating in another RCPP project proposed by the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks to support the protection of clean drinking water in Southwest Missouri. The RCPP funding for this project totaled $2.1 million, which will provide significant cost-share opportunities for producers and land­owners in the James River Watershed upstream of Lake Springfield for activities such as:

  • Planting trees along waterways
  • Fencing infrastructure for prescribed grazing systems
  • Improving wildlife cover and habitat
  • Forest and soil health improvements
  • Voluntary conservation easements and land rentals

The actions are estimated to impact more than 150,000 Missourians, improve the local farming economy, help Springfield and Greene Coun­ty meet federal water quality requirements and improve aquatic ecosystems along the James River headwaters.

“For our part, MFA will be providing extra out­reach on grazing conservation, perhaps by hosting some field days and generally encouraging prac­tices that meet the project goals,” Jones said. “Landry Jones, our conservation grazing specialist in that region, will have a key role in those efforts.”

Along with MFA, other contributing partners in this RCPP project are Missouri De­partment of Conservation, Missouri Rural Water Association, Ozark Greenways, James River Basin Partnership, Greene County Soil and Water Conservation District, Greene County and the city of Springfield.

This year, across the U.S., more than $330 million in RCPP funding was awarded to 85 locally driven projects, including four in Missouri and several others in surrounding states. For more information, visit the program’s website at mfa.ag/rcpp.

Landowners who may qualify to participate in the Missouri-based projects are en­couraged to contact their local MDC private land conservationist or MFA’s Adam Jones and Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details.

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In this May 2021 Issue

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Rice rewards

Five miles from the Mississippi River, almost to the southernmost tip of Missouri, Ryan Riley raises rice outside the little town of Marston. His rice may not appear much different from similar fields full of grain, but Riley began looking at the land a little differently about four years ago.

Though he had been raising rice since 1999, new herbicide technology allowed the grower to consider planting “row rice” as an alternative to conventional flooded rice production. In­stead of growing in water-logged paddies or pans, row rice is planted in fields similar to other row crops and receives inter­mittent furrow irrigation.

“This is kind of a new thing,” Riley said last fall as his combine made another pass through the field, the yield monitor ticking up­ward. “Row rice has made it easier and less expensive for me to get my ground back in shape.”

The Bootheel region is home to the rice industry in Missouri, ranked fourth among the six states where the crop is grown in the U.S. Around 228,000 acres were planted in the Show-Me State in 2020, and the USDA estimates that number to be up slightly in 2021 to 233,000 acres. Neighboring Arkansas is the leading rice producer. Nearly 85% of the rice eaten in America is grown domestically.

Farmers in this area grow medium-grain or long-grain rice using three production methods—row rice, levee rice and zero-grade rice. Deciding which method to use requires careful evaluation of several factors, including soil type and land history.

Aptly named for its planting style, row rice is gaining ground, largely due to the comparative ease of production when matched against the other techniques. While furrow irrigation is a long-held common practice for many producers in this area, applying the method to rice became popular relatively recently. According to the University of Missouri Extension, row rice first came on the scene around 1990, and about 30% of the state’s crop is currently produced this way. Row rice is managed similarly to other grass crops such as corn and wheat.

In prior years, Riley grew traditional levee rice on these same fields. In this more common practice, farmers grade fields to provide a uniform slope, then plant rice seeds in dry soil that is flooded when seedlings reach the first tiller growth stage. Le­vees are constructed and gates installed to maintain floodwater depths of 2 to 4 inches.

Because soybeans usually follow rice in crop rotation, build­ing levees also requires tearing them down before the next spring planting. Row rice, by contrast, results in less labor and dirt work.

“With this, we don’t have to deal with levees, which saves money on diesel for us,” Riley said.

Growing levee rice requires precise methods of managing land elevation, said Jason Greenfield, MFA district sales manager whose territory includes the Bootheel and some neighboring counties in Arkansas.

“Most of the ground around here is on what we call a 10th slope,” Greenfield said. “These fields are precision-graded to fall an inch in elevation every 100 feet.”

Rice is grown in the flat area between levees in what is called the pan or paddy. According to Greenfield, water is pumped from the top of the field, known as “the crown,” and flows down the gradual slope through a series of levee gates or spillways to “the tail” of the field. Once the rice pans fill with water, growers will keep them saturated from June until late August or Septem­ber. A few weeks before harvest, the water is drained to allow time for drying before harvest equipment enters the fields.

Rice loves water, weeds don’t

Weed management is one of the primary purposes for flood irrigation in rice, Greenfield explained.

“Pigweed can’t swim,” he joked. “Other than the fact that rice loves water, this type of irrigation serves as a natural weed management system. With row rice, growers have to increase herbicide usage.”

Riley raises roughly 1,500 acres of both zero-grade and row rice, neither of which require the use of levees. He acknowledg­es, however, that weed control is definitely a drawback to these practices. Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, in particular, is a per­petual problem, and its resistance to herbicides is on the rise.

“Weed control was very difficult in row rice this past year,” Riley said. “The weeds are different in zero-grade rice. With levee rice and zero-grade, you have to watch out for aquatic species of weeds.”

Zero-grade rice is also flood irrigated but doesn’t make use of levees to control water levels. Instead, the rice is grown on a 0-degree slope, meaning there is no rise in elevation. In this system, water is drained by a series of ditches across the field.

“If the ground is so heavy that it’s hard to work, that’s one of the big reasons guys will go zero-grade,” Greenfield said.

Many fields in eastern Missouri counties along the Missis­sippi River contain a type of soil known as Sharkey clay, also called “gumbo” by many farmers. This sticky clay soil creates a bowl-like condition that holds water in furrow-irrigated and zero-grade fields. It works well for rice but can be tough on the soybean crop that usually follows in rotation.

“I’ve seen farmers who could grow soybeans successfully on this ground, but it’s challenging,” Greenfield said. “You have to be able to flush the water on and off the fields fast, because you can kill beans quickly in standing water.”

Riley said he experienced that situation two seasons ago.

“We planted soybeans four times on some of our zero-grade fields,” he continued. “Every time I finished planting, a rain would come. This past year we got lucky. Even though it was as wet as it was, the soybeans got enough size early on to outgrow the big rains that came later.”

Long record of rice

It’s a trade-off, Greenfield said. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. And Nick Lepold, a fourth-generation rice farmer, endeavors to try all three types of production this year.

Rice has a rich history both in the Bootheel and on Lepold’s farm. The clay and silt soils in this region make Missouri a com­petitive place to grow rice. The Missouri Rice Council reports that the first rice field was planted in the state in 1910, and the crop had taken off by 1960. Lepold’s great-grandfather andgrandfather farmed rice together and were among the first in Missouri to be awarded an acreage allotment from Riceland Foods.

“My grandfather would walk the levees every day with a shovel,” Lepold said. “He would check the rice and also the levees to make sure they didn’t have any crawdad mounds or holes in them.”

Lepold farms 1,200 acres of rice, in addi­tion to corn and soybeans, with his father, Jim, in Ripley and Butler counties. The Lepolds grow levee rice and zero-grade rice and are experimenting with row rice this year. They assess soil type and field history to figure out what to plant where.

“Where we grow zero-grade rice, the ground is so low and heavy that it wasn’t efficient for levee rice,” Lepold said. “We’re trying row rice this year in some of our sandier soils.”

Lepold also evaluates fields for previous disease and weed history. He factors in the cost of seed, fertilizer, herbicide applica­tions and water.

“With row rice, a lot of farmers use their own equipment for spraying and applying fertilizer,” Greenfield said, “but in a flood irrigation situation, they may have applica­tions flown on.”

Aerial applications can be costly—some­times as much as $30 to $40 an acre or even more. Even in his flood-irrigated rice, Lepold uses ground application equipment to pretreat his fields as much as possible. He conserves water when he can for both the environment and his pocketbook.

“I try to be as efficient and use the min­imal amount of monetary resources that I can,” Lepold said. “You can always use that money somewhere else.”

Rice can be tough to grow, he admits. It takes considerable specialized knowledge and willingness to put in the time and labor to ensure the crop’s success.

“There are a lot of management tech­niques and styles, and sometimes you have to use a different one from one year to the next,” Lepold said. “Rice will typically make it in soils where corn and soybeans will not. If you’re able to get your rice out there and get a good stand, you’ve got it made.”

Adoption of new techniques often comes with generational change, Lepold added.

“Everything evolves and changes over time,” he said. “With the internet, we have so much more access to knowledge and research. Just because previous generations did it one way doesn’t always mean it’s correct.”

And, for Riley, that generational change is ex­actly what he has in mind.

“I have a son who wants to take over the farm,” Riley said. “In the last six years, we’ve gone from farming 3,000 acres to 10,000 acres because we were given the opportunity. That growth has also come with some pains, but sometimes you have to take those opportunities at the time, even if it’s hard or not convenient.”

MFA offers many services for rice growers, including fertilizer, weed control products and scouting services. For more information, contact your local MFA Agri Services location.

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