|Jeff Welch is standing by Don L. Kitler’s zero-grade rice field adjacent to the Lonoke County Extension Service on Hwy. 70. The rice has been harvested and Kitler hasn’t released the recent rainwater on the field.|
Leader senior staff writer
He grew up in Havana (Yell County), and his family had a farm nearby, but Jeff Welch didn’t want to farm for a living. Neither did he set out to be chairman and agricultural agent for the University of Arkansas Extension Service.
Now he’s drawing to the end of a 30-year career helping Lonoke County farmers know what to plant, what new varieties might be good for them, telling them when pesticides might be appropriate and helping introduce them to new technology and new ways of doing things.
To some farmers in financial trouble, his advice can save as much as $150 an acre, which would be $150,000 on a 1,000-acre farm, which in Arkansas is a common size.
The equation for profit in any manufacturing enterprise is yield times price, minus cost of production, he said, and crop production is no different.
A farmer’s “factory” is his farm, Welch said. He’s the manager of that factory, and each crop is its own subsidiary factory. Whether in the air-conditioned cab of his tractor, computers at his side or in his farm office or shop, he’s managing his factory.
If you lower yield with a cheaper seed and less expensive herbicides and pesticides, the lower cost of production can make it a profitable year, he said, assuming weather doesn’t intervene. And crop insurance has bailed out many Lonoke County farmers after floods lowered their yields or hail beat down a crop.
That’s among the advantages that Lonoke County’s rice, soybean, corn, wheat, milo and cotton farmers have over the handful of farmers—mostly in the Cabot area—who raise fruit and vegetables, he said. A bad year or two in that business, without a safety net, can send a farmer to town for a job.
But with the beans and grains, “We’ve always had to go to the bank to put in a crop,” he said. Even with a couple bad years, “You may lose some money but you won’t lose the farm.” That’s the result of crop insurance.
Welch worked on his father and uncle’s commercial Angus farm as a boy and a young man.
After graduation from Havana High School, Welch graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a Bachelors Degree in zoology and a Master’s Degree in entomology.
After that, he worked as a salesman for DuPont for six years and Burst Agricultural for two or three years selling plant growth regulator in sales regions as large as six states.
He was dating my wife in Fort Smith but I was on the road, he said.
So when a job as an agricultural agent at the Pine Bluff Extension Service opened up in 1986, he says he jumped on it.
By 1987, he transferred to the Lonoke Extension Service, and just settled in.
“I wanted my kids to grow up in one place,” he said. Lonoke had “continuity from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Grown now, his son Jeff in an engineer and his daughter Olivia works in advertising and promotion.
“We’ve enjoyed the people here,” he said, and “I’ve learned a lot. I got my first experience in politics.”
That was when he was appointed grounds chairman at the First United Methodist Church of Lonoke. When he got ready to put in flower beds, he discovered two distinct groups of women had competing ideas.”
“I put a woman from one group in charge who had ideas similar to the women in the other group.” It was a lesson well learned.
THE FARMERS’ FRIEND
“Jeff is so good with our farmers in Lonoke County and beyond,” said Rick Bransford whose family farms about 2,100 acres around Pettus.
“He’s knowledgeable in the practical and economic aspects of farming.”
Lonoke used to have about 19 farmers planting as much as 22,000 acres of a year, Bransford said, and Welch arrived about 1987 as a cotton specialist.
Bransfords have grown cotton since the 1800s, so the late Dick Bransford and his son Rick found Welch pretty quickly, he said.
“As he got more rooted in the county, he spread into soy, rice, wheat and corn,” said Bransford, “and if you needed him he would come hot and dry or cold and wet.”
Welch and the extension service was a nonbiased entity—a conduit for new varieties and technologies and other information, according to Bransford.
“He kept on top of farm bills and programs,” he said.
Bransford, said he hates to see Welch go.
“We are friends.”
LAY OF THE LAND
Agriculturally speaking, “We have three counties in one,” Welch said.
The southern part of Lonoke County is steeped in southern agriculture, growing cotton, soybeans, wheat and corn. The middle part of the county is mostly rice, you beans and corn and in the north part, they are independent thinkers who have branched out into fruits and vegetables, cattle and what remains of the county’s dairy industry. Kind of landlocked by towns and subdivisions, those farms tend to be small and smaller, without much opportunity for expansion.
NOW AND THEN
“When I first came, there were 38 dairies in the county,” he said. “Now there are four.”
The University of Arkansas developed most of the soybean varieties. Today, 99 percent of the beans are developed by the private sector—genetically modified varieties. The companies patent their beans and the farmer can’t even save his beans to plan. He has to buy new beans every year, Welch said.
The new beans yield higher, but they are more expensive, Welch said. It takes about 58-bu. per acre to break even with the patented varieties, but only 30 to 35 bu. per acre for the conventional beans, because they are cheaper.
An eight-row combine was the standard in the mid-‘80s, and cost about $30,000. Today, farms are bigger and the standard is a 16-row combine costing about $600,000.
“The debt load has required farmers to increase acreage,” Welch said.
“We have had to expand acres to get the economies of scale,” he added.
Cotton was a major crop when Welch first came to Lonoke County, but when the bottom fell out of prices several years ago, it fell to as low as 500 acres and this year producers planted maybe 4,000 acres. Where once there were several cotton gins in the county, today there are none.
When I first came, there was lots of dry land farming--soybeans, cotton, corn and rice, Welch said, while today that’s the exception, with farmers irrigating from ground water pumps. The cost of fuel and electricity and to maintain pumps and irrigation pipe is a major production cost in years without much—or any—timely rainfall, he said.
At the 20th Century, about two thirds of people in this country farmed or worked in agriculture.
Today, less than 3 percent of the people farm, growing a large percentage of the food and fiber needed to feed and clothe the rest.
When Welch started as an extension agent, farmers laid out and measured their fields with a wheel. Measurements then got more accurate from the air and today, with GPS devices, measurements are not only more accurate, but with yield monitors in combines, farmers to determine what areas of a fielded produced well and which poorly. Using GPS, they could try to improve production holes, he said.
For water handling and drainage, farmers would contour plow a field. Today, many use laser levels, which can guide a grader blade to get zero grade leveling.
Water use is more efficient and fields can be flooded and drained faster.
That results in less pumping and less cost.
We have to know biology and agronomy, Welch said, and about pests.
“If we don’t know, we can contact extension specialist. “It takes three to four years to become a good county agent.”
Extension agents also are versed on food and nutrition, safely preserving food, community development, and farm financing.
In 2008, the Lonoke County Quorum Court and County Judge came to Welch and asked for a data driven assessment of a proposal to raise a one-year, penny sales tax increase. Without taking sides on the issue, the extension service worked up a fact sheet that is credited with helping pass the increase and today the new Lonoke County Detention Center has operated for about five years.
The extension service also sponsors the 4-H to teach life skills and leadership development that helps participants later in life, he said.
The extension agent also is responsibility to teach biosecurity—making sure that farmers don’t spread pests and disease from one field to another or to another farm.
“Don’t spread your trouble,” Welch said. “Make sure you’re a good steward.”
Welch said that extension agents Diana Bowen and Keith Perkins were both highly competent and qualified to take his place as Lonoke’s chief extension agent, but that the decision would be made in Little Rock.
Welch said after Jan. 31 retirement, “I’m going to travel for a couple months.” He said he hadn’t had a vacation in 20 years. He may work as a farm profitability consultant and get involved with the family’s farm over near Havana. It might surprise county farmers, but Welch has an ambitious outline for an historical novel including Lyndon Baines Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and some Arkansans. A quick glance revealed an able hand and a way with words.