Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TOP STORY>>Wet or dry, farm family of year sticks to the dirt

Leader senior staff writer

Ground zero for the Minton family farm is on Tar Bottom Road, about three miles from England and backing up to the Department of Correction farms in Jefferson County.

But the 5,000 acres upon which Brooks Minton Sr. and his family grow rice, corn and soybeans stretch 26 miles from Altheimer
to near Lonoke.

The Mintons are the 2010 Lonoke County Farm Family of the Year.

They will join 74 other county farm families in vying for district and state recognition as the Arkansas Farm Family of the Year.

The Arkansas Farm Family of the Year will be announced Dec. 10 at a banquet at the Wyndham Riverfront in North Little Rock.

Minton, his two sons—Brooks Jr. and Greg—and his grandson Bart, with the aid of six full-time hands, keep busy year round.

This year, they’ve planted 1,500 acres of rice, 1,100 acres of corn and 2,400 acres of soybeans.

Starting with Brooks Senior’s grandfather, the family moved its farming from Tennessee to Lonoke County just about the time of the Great Depression, meaning five generations have farmed in the county.

But Brooks Senior’s grandson Bart has two daughters, neither of whom is interested in carrying on in the family business, and Bart says he’s not having any more children, meaning 31-year-old Bart may be the last of the Mintons to farm the land.

“The thing about farming—you’ve got to like it and love the land to stay with it,” the senior Minton said. “There’s not much reward in it and there’s a lot of hard work. It’s a great lifestyle that helps keep families together, and as hard as it is, it supports four families, three of them with brick homes in the big city.”

Of course, like farm families across the country now, the wives have jobs in the city to help cover expenses.

And by the big city, the Mintons mean England.

Johnnie Minton, Brooks senior’s wife, had a city job and still took care of the house on her day off, cooked and cleaned. “I fed nine men every day for two years,” at the family table she remembers.

“Now I have help,” she added.

Greg Minton says he’d have rather been a baseball player, but like so many promising young ball players, “I couldn’t hit a curve ball.”

Brooks Junior’s son Bart was just the opposite. He was sent to college and had other options, but at the end of his first semester, he says he knew he only wanted to farm.

He did get educated on the John Deere computerized GPS automated-tractor navigation system, which is crucial to their farming operation today.

Greg Minton, Brooks Minton’s younger son, says he runs through a tank of diesel in his pickup truck about every day and a half, checking on the crops and the irrigation wells.

Right now, they are pumping from 42 wells, Greg Minton said, but that’s just a part of what they have drilled.

You can’t talk about farming in Lonoke County without talking about water and weather.

“This time last year, we had to pump water off these fields,” Books Junior said.

When Brooks Senior started farming on his own in 1945, an irrigation well might be 11 feet deep, he said. Today, the wells are usually 75 to 120 feet deep, and all their crops depend on irrigation—the rice especially.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln recently announced that she had obtained $37 million of stimulus funds through the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction on giant pumps to siphon water out of the Arkansas River and irrigate nearly 300,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Lonoke County.

The elder Minton said he looks forward to the day when they irrigate with the help of water pumped from the Arkansas River near Scott, the so-called Bayou Meto Water District project.

‘The water will come right through here,” Brooks Senior said. “Bart may see it, I won’t.”

Farming’s “a lot different than it used to be,” said Brooks Minton Jr. “The tractors are steered by satellite—John Deere and the GreenStar System.

“Set it up right and you could drive from here to Little Rock and stay within an inch of the straight line,” Greg Minton said.

With the satellite at the control and a human in the cab, the tractor will turn automatically and precisely at the end of each row, eliminating overlapping furrows and saving diesel, seed and chemicals.

Wrasslin’ a huge tractor into a turn is not an easy job, even with power steering, so the automatic satellite turns have taken most of the fatigue out of tractor operation, Greg Minton said.

I used to go through a dozen Tylenols a day,” he said.

The GPS-controlled tractors can also lay off perfect rows in the middle of the darkest night, he said.

“We used to grow cotton,” said Minton Senior, “but lately the price has been bad compared to the input.”

Minton says he’s seen great strides in the modernization of farming—not just irrigation, but herbicides and technical advances in equipment.

“I first irrigated in 1955 for cotton,” he said.

He started with a one-row combine. Now he has three 16-row combines. His first combine cost $6,500. The most recent one cost about $300,000—the cost of a west Little Rock home.

“We have gone to 350 acres of zero-grade rice fields,” said Greg Minton. That means water can be used more efficiently to keep weeds down. “We couldn’t farm the number of acres if not for Roundup technology,” he said.

When rice came here, it opened up a new life, he said: Rice and soybeans.

The family owns a share of a cotton gin in Gould, and they own cotton-farming equipment, which is of now used for other crops, so if the price-to-cost ratio gets better, the Mintons say they’ll be back in the business.

Meanwhile, they are building a 216,000-bushel grain dryer, which will give them a total storage and drying capacity of about 280,000 bushels, and a competitive edge.

“We can dry it cheaper than they can,” he said of the commercial storage places.

Including 81-year-old Brooks Senior, who says he can still drive a tractor or his D-6 bulldozer, three generations of Mintons get dust—or gumbo-like mud—on their boots on a daily basis, and his father and grandfather also farmed the same piece of land—well, a smaller piece—here in central Arkansas.

Tar Bottom Road is a dusty tan road—the unpaved portions—this time of year, so how was it named?

“You stick with the dirt when it’s dry, and it’ll darn sure stick with you when it’s wet,” Brooks says with relish.