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- PRODUCTION -

South Georgia Farming –
It’s A Way Of Life

 

By Tommy Horton
Editor

 
If you didn’t know any better, you’d say that southwest Georgia looks like your average agricultural region. Lots of fields, equipment dealerships and truck traffic dominate the two-lane highways.

The pace is much slower than what you’d encounter in Atlanta, Dallas or Los Angeles. Rush hour traffic is hardly in a rush.

Don’t be deceived by this tranquil setting. A closer look reveals something else – a vibrant agri-business community that is the economic backbone of the region.

Nowhere is that more evident than what you’ll find inside a modest red brick building located on West Crawford Street in the small town of Donalsonville. That’s where you’ll find the offices of Killarney Farms, a third-generation family operation that has deep roots in Georgia’s sandy soils.

Producer Mark Burkett, his wife Annette and their three children are all involved in the business. Granted, the children are still young. Son Ben is 15 and the twin daughters, Beth and Brittany, are 13. Their jobs are confined to painting modules and helping pack the finished bales.

Other persons also contribute to this farm that is comprised of peanuts, cotton, soybeans, corn and cattle. Farm manager Jeff Croom and long-time consultant Wes Briggs are on the turnrow every day dealing with key management decisions. And during the summer, you’ll find part-time workers everywhere doing various tasks.

Long, Hot Summer

Four months ago, Burkett wouldn’t have given you much hope that his farm would produce anything close to a good cotton crop. The heat and drought made for overwhelming conditions.

But Burkett had an effective irrigation system in place and was confident that his 3,500 cotton acres had a chance at good yields – even if they weren’t record-breaking.

“If you had good irrigation, your cotton somehow survived,” says Mark. “With some cotton still to gin, it looks like we’ll average around 1,400 pounds per acre. Considering how tough the weather was, we were pleased.”

Irrigating the cotton wasn’t a hit-or-miss proposition. It took intensive monitoring, because the region received no appreciable rainfall between April and September. The center pivots were running nearly non-stop during the day.

Like many Georgia producers, Burkett leans on one variety – DP 555 BG/RR. Even though the variety has delivered big yields since it was introduced in 2002, Burkett had his doubts about what would happen in the middle of a record-breaking drought.

“We did the best we could to take care of our irrigated cotton,” he says in reviewing the 2007 season. “We never stopped watering the crop, and the variety never quit. It definitely rewarded us. That’s all you can really say about it.”

The Burketts also are part owners of the local gin – Cloverleaf Cotton Gin & Warehouse. In 2007, the gin processed about 90,000 bales, which is only slightly less than the 100,000 bales ginned in 2006.

Optimistic Outlook

Even though the new Farm Bill hasn’t been signed into law, Mark and his family remain optimistic about 2008 despite the challenge of pigweed resistance, stinkbug outbreaks and the worsening water shortage problem.

“I think a lot of corn acres will come back to cotton in our area, so that makes me more optimistic,” he says. “And I think we can deal with these other problems. That just comes with the territory when you’re a cotton farmer.”

It was Burkett’s consultant Briggs who started advising him to spray for stinkbugs several years ago. That investment helped solidify high yields. Briggs and farm manager Croom also learned the intricacies of irrigation and managing DP 555 BG/RR. Knowing how much plant growth regulator to apply was the first lesson in managing a variety with such vigor.

Diverse Farm Operation

The diversity of the Burkett farm might be another key to its success. Besides the cotton acreage, there are 3,000 peanut acres, 2,100 soybean acres, 2,500 corn acres and 1,500 head of cattle.

Mark’s wife Annette says it takes a special commitment to be part of a family farm operation. But after 24 years of marriage, including eight years as a teacher, she feels at home being the office manager and signing all the checks.

“You need to have a passion about farming,” she says. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job. Mark and I are always talking about what we can do to improve the operation. It’s definitely a team effort, and a lot of folks contribute.”

Perhaps Briggs has the best explanation of how the Burkett farm operates so efficiently – even when conditions aren’t ideal.

“Mark has always tried to embrace technology, and it’s paid off in a good way,” he says. “Whether it’s rotating cotton with peanuts, planting a good variety or attacking a weed or insect problem, he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. When you make decisions like that, it’s nice to see a farmer rewarded with good yields and quality.”

Contact Tommy Horton at thorton@onegrower.com or (901) 767-4020 by phone.

 


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