William “Bill” Spain of Booneville, Miss., joined his family’s farm after he finished his education at Northeast Mississippi Community College and helped to build the farm into a modern, cohesive unit that carries on a strong family tradition.

As a result of his success as a row crop farmer, Spain has been selected as the 2012 Mississippi winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Spain now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo Farm Show in Moultrie, Ga.

A farmer for 37 years, Spain’s operation consists of about 3,900 acres, mostly rented land along with 830 acres of owned land.

Soybeans, cotton and wheat are his major crops. He grows soybeans on 2,856 acres, cotton on 1,050 acres and wheat on 517 acres. Though he doesn’t irrigate, his yields are impressive. Last year, he produced 35 bushels per acre for soybeans, 900 pounds of lint per acre for cotton and 60 bushels per acre for wheat.

The land he farms is part of a larger 6,400-acre family farming business. At one time, the family grew cotton on 4,600 acres, but their cotton acreage is now about 1,500 acres.

“Cotton is a profitable crop,” says Spain. “We put cotton on our highest yielding land. Because we grow cotton, we can justify keeping hired workers throughout the year. We don’t need to hire extra help during planting and harvesting.”

He farms in the hill country of northeastern Mississippi where fields vary in size from 10 to 100 acres. “It is necessary for us to work as a unit,” says Spain. “We consult daily with key family members and employees to make daily decisions that maintain a successful operation.”

His father, Billy Spain, started farming full time in 1968, and at age 76, Billy still has the energy and appearance of a much younger man.

Bill started helping him on the farm as soon as he was old enough. He hauled hay, showed cattle in 4-H and drove tractors. “My father allowed my brother and me to rent some land and to assume our own responsibilities,” he recalls. “The farm I now have has grown from that beginning.”

Spain’s mother, Marie, is active in the family farming business. She keeps meticulous financial records and is assisted in this and in cooking for the family and their employees by Spain’s sister, Laura Harber. Laura’s husband, Jerry, is another key employee who handles fertilizer applications and keeps records on grain hauling.

IPM, weevil eradication

Integrated pest management and boll weevil eradication helped Spain reduce pesticide applications. He uses no-till planting and has installed drainage along with other conservation practices. He also conducts crop variety trials for Mississippi Extension and private seed companies.

He uses precision farming practices to efficiently apply chemicals and fertilizers. In addition, he uses a smartphone to keep up with weather and crop market reports and to troubleshoot field problems.

Variety trials and improved fertility have reduced the incidence of iron chlorosis problems in soybeans.

Spain trusts cooperatives for marketing his cotton. In past years, he sold cotton through the Beltwide Cotton Cooperative. He now markets his cotton through the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association based in Greenwood, Miss.

“You can put your cotton into the Staplcotn pool or contract a certain number of bales at a time,” he explains. “Through the years, the cooperative has gotten us a better than average price, and this year, all of our family’s cotton will go into the Staplcotn pool.”

Spain uses forward contracts to market soybeans and wheat. He also sells wheat and soybeans through the Cargill AgHorizons network of grain elevators.

He receives e-mail and text messages several times daily from Cargill, advising him of changes in the grain markets. “I can even check on the moisture, foreign material and location of my grain when it is stored in Cargill elevators,” he says. “I can access the Cargill website and track my grain loads to make sure there are no mistakes.”

He also uses SST Summit software to record field data such as planting rates, fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide applications and yields for later analysis. He says, “We rent from 73 landlords, and this software helps us keep up with the 300 fields our family farms.”

In Prentiss County, he serves on the Farm Service Agency County Committee, on the Ag Advisory Board for the local Extension office and is a member of the Soil & Water Conservation District. He’s also a board member for a local bank. He serves on a producer advisory committee for Mississippi State University and is a past member of the Beltwide Cotton Cooperative board of directors.

He believes in introducing agriculture to new generations, and he hosts kindergarten students during visits to his farm.

Bill and his wife Teri are active in Gaston Baptist Church. Teri has an impressive off-farm medical career. She manages surgical and bariatric clinics in the nearby city of Tupelo, Miss. She has also been active in Booneville Junior Auxiliary, Lee County Habitat for Humanity, Lee County Live Well Health Fair and the Northeast Mississippi Zeta Tau Alpha Alumni Association.

Bill has two adult daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, from a previous marriage.  Both Jennifer and Jessica work as educators.

Tragedy struck his family during the mid 1990s when a hunting accident killed his brother David, and again in 2010 when his son William Guy Spain died in a car accident.

“I farmed with my brother,” says Spain. “And before his death, our son was an active and involved member of our farming operation. I could depend on Guy, whether he was planting or spraying cotton. He was a reliable farm worker and would have become a great farmer.”

After his son’s death, his son-in-law Justin Taylor stepped up to take over some of Guy’s responsibilities. “Justin is married to Jessica, and he was a successful landscape architect before he joined our farm,” says Spain. “Justin is responsible for spraying, planting and scouting our soybeans. We hire a consultant to scout our cotton.”

Joe Street, associate director of the Mississippi State University Extension Service, is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards.

Charlie Stokes, area agronomy agent with Mississippi Extension, nominated Spain for the award. Stokes works with growers in several counties and says he nominated Spain for the award because of the quality of his farming and his attention to detail. “Bill is a pleasure to work with,” says Stokes.

Good people

“He and his entire family are very supportive of Extension and research work at Mississippi State University. They have supplied land for our test plots. We depend on them, and they depend on us. They are just good people.”

As the Mississippi state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Spain will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a second $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 23rd consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $884,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Mississippi include:  Hugh Arant, Sr. of Ruleville, 1990; Bill Hawks of Hernando, 1991; Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, 1992; Tol Thomas of Cruger, 1993; Rick Parsons of Vance, 1994; Ed Hester of Benoit, 1995; Bill Harris of Benton, 1996; Robert Miller of Greenwood, 1997; Ted Kendall, III of Bolton, 1998; Wayne Bush of Schlater, 1999; William Tackett of Schlater, 2000; Willard Jack of Belzoni, 2001; Hugh Arant, Jr. of Ruleville, 2002; Rick Parsons of Vance, 2003; Sledge Taylor of Como, 2004; Laurance Carter of Rollins Fork, 2005;  Brooks Aycock of Belzoni, 2006;  Tom Robertson of Indianola, 2007; Gibb Steele III of Hollandale, 2008; Donald Gant of Merigold, 2009; Dan Batson of Perkinston, 2010; and Scott Cannada of Edwards, 2011.

Mississippi has had three overall winners with Kenneth Hood of Gunnison in 1993, Ed Hester of Benoit in 1995 and Willard Jack of Belzoni in 2001.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Spain farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-10.

The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, a retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist who is president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., from Greenville, Miss.; John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; and farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008.