Weldon Shook has always wanted to farm. He grew up on a farm near Seagraves, Texas, and told his dad early on that he wanted to pursue that career.
His dad advised caution. “Get a degree first, he told me. Or I won’t help you,” Shook says.
He recalls that his dad remained a little skeptical even after Shook came home with an agricultural economics degree from Texas Tech. But he kept to his word and Shook has been farming on his own in Gaines County, Texas, for 11 years — cotton and peanuts mostly with a few alternative crops occasionally to spread risks and to break disease, weed, and insect cycles.
He likes a peanut and cotton rotation and his better than 5,000 pounds per acre average peanut yield last year helped Shook earn the 2009 Southwest Peanut Profitability Award. He’ll receive the award this month at the Southern Peanut Farmers’ Federation annual conference in Panama City, Fla.
His best yield last year, a 30-acre field of runner peanuts, made more than 6,000 pounds per acre. “That’s the best yield I’ve made in 11 years,” he says.
Shook cites rotation as the key to keeping peanuts profitable. He leaves fields out of peanuts at least four years and will plant cotton, and often a rye cover crop behind peanuts. He’s looking at milo as a possible new rotation.
“I like to lay land out sometimes or just plant a rye cover crop on it.” He typically terminates the rye and plants into the stubble. He’s trying a field of safflower this summer to “see if it can work into the mix. It takes very little water and I got a10 cents per pound contract. Typical yields run about 2,500 pounds per acre.”
Shook says a double rate of inoculant also improves peanut efficiency. “It gives the peanuts a boost,” he says. “I also add a little nitrogen, 120 to 150 units side-dressed.”
He usually adds calcium to Virginia peanuts “to strengthen the pegs. I did not use any last year.”
He cut back on a few other inputs in 2008 as well. “Fertilizer is down a good bit now,” he says. “I paid $315 to $325 per ton for 32 last year. Now it’s at $224. Potash is still high. It was $800 a ton last year and it’s still $750.” Before the run up it was $360 a ton.
“I like to use a lot of potash, but I did not use as much last year. It was just too expensive. I usually put out 200 pounds of 0-0-60. I used a lot less. I’m using K-Mag this year.” He says a lot of potassium in his soils is not available.
He’s fortunate to farm where he does. “Typically, we do not have much disease pressure, but it may get worse over the years. I sprayed one time last year with Abound.”
He says pod rot is his worst disease problem on Virginia peanuts. “I see some Southern blight on runners. Leaf spot is usually not a problem, but I watch it close toward the end of the season. I had some leaf spot infection on Spanish peanuts a few years ago. I just had runners and Virginias last year.”
He saw a few worms in peanuts but never a high enough population to justify treatment.
He makes the best yield on runners. “It was a hard year for peanuts in 2008,” he says. “We had a hot, dry summer and an early cold snap that caused freeze damage on some farms.” His crop suffered no cold damage.
Shook irrigates all his peanut acreage, 119 acres last year. The summer was so dry he says he kept the system running almost all season.
He uses Cadre, Roundup and Prowl herbicides. “As soon as peanuts begin cracking I apply Roundup and Prowl and I use Cadre for nutgrass.” He likes the peanut weed control as “something to offset what we do in cotton. We try to limit potential for weed resistance. We have a lot of pigweed in the area and that can be trouble.”
Shook took a break from peanuts in 2009. “Contract prices at planting time were not good enough,” he said. “A lot of peanut farmers are cutting back, and that should help us next year. This is only the second time in the 11 years I’ve been farming I have not had peanuts. In 2010, I hope to try some Spanish peanuts again. I like those better than Virginias because I don’t like to leave good peanuts in the field.”
He may try some double-row peanuts again, too. “I planted Spanish peanuts in double rows two years ago and I want to do that again. I planted them late, June 4, and still made 5,400 pounds per acre. I haven’t tried double rows with runners yet, but I will consider it.”
He says double rows are a little more difficult without a double-row planter. He turns and plants between the rows. “It’s more time-consuming. And we had to tweak digging equipment a little at harvest. We also need to build a little bed with double rows. That helps with digging.”
Shook likes peanuts in his crop mix. “Peanuts take a hail storm better than cotton and I can use different herbicides to clean up fields. And I love the way peanuts emerge from the ground.”
Global Positioning System technology also helps improve efficiency. “I bought a unit last year and use it all I can. I can run at night now if I want to.” He says big acreage farms paved the way for GPS use. “They made it possible for smaller farms to benefit from the technology.”
Technology makes it possible for him to manage his 1,100 acre farm without hiring labor. He also shares equipment with his father, Glen, and his father-in-law, Ronny Spence.
“They both have peanut equipment so I bargain with them to use it,” he says. “I trade labor for equipment. Eventually, I’d like to add equipment, but for now, we all work together to get things done.”
Shook says he’s blessed to farm where he does, not just because of the soils and the arid climate that limit disease pressure on peanuts, but also for the rich resource of knowledge available. “If I call for advice, other farmers are willing to help,” he says. “People here want to help others succeed.”
But Shook gives back, too. He serves on the water board, the Farm Bureau board and is a deacon in his church. He’s also devoted to his family, wife Angela (who teaches computer science at a college in nearby Hobbs, N.M.), son Blayne (4), and daughter Addison (2).
And he’s thankful that his dad encouraged him to get a degree. “There is a lot of business in farming, a lot of math involved. If it was just labor, it wouldn’t be as difficult.”
Blayne seems eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. He drives his electric motor-driven John Deere toy tractor around the yard and proudly climbs into the car seat in his dad’s pickup to check on crops. He can name every piece of equipment on the farm. He’s meticulous about how he puts his straw cowboy hat on the truck dashboard so as not to bend the brim and talks almost non-stop about farming, rodeos and Biscuit, his pony.
But Shook insists his son will follow his grandfather’s advice, too. “He needs to go college first,” he says. Blayne seems to agree.
“I’m doing what I want to do,” Shook says. “I think I’m doing what God wants me to do.”