Corn and soybeans make high yields for Andy Gill of McGehee, Ark. He farms productive flat bottomlands in the Arkansas Delta, close to where the Arkansas River flows into the Mississippi River.

Using furrow irrigation, Gill’s yields are impressive. Last year, he produced 220 bushels of corn per acre from 1,972 acres and 82 bushels of soybeans per acre from 1,228 acres. His overall farm operation consists of about 3,200 acres, of which 2,700 acres are rented and 500 acres are owned.

As a result of his success in row crop farming, Gill has been selected as the 2014 Arkansas state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Gill joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Gill has been a farmer for 34 years. He began farming as a youngster. He worked for his dad, and then farmed for his uncles while in high school. “Farming has always been a way of life for us,” says Gill. “I am an eighth generation farmer.” He says his family traces its history to James Gill who began farming in 1786 after emigrating from Ireland.

“I obtained financing through the Farmer’s Home Administration,” Gill recalls. “Working with limited funds in those days makes me appreciate where we are today.”

One of his uncles was instrumental in getting Gill into farming full time. The uncle helped Gill lease 265 acres to give him his start. The same uncle also encouraged Gill to invest in a cotton gin. Gill served for a time as president of the gin. He and fellow stockholders sold the ginning business for a profit several years ago when they transitioned away from cotton in favor of grain.

Gill looks back fondly on his involvement in cotton ginning. The gin showed him how a business should be professionally managed. It also allowed him to meet other farmers and landowners.

To market his corn and beans, he relies heavily on the advice of a marketing advisor. “We hedge our crops through the futures market, and we deliver them to the locations that give us the best basis,” says Gill. He delivers his crops in an area from 30 miles north of his farm to about 30 miles south of it. “We have three to four locations where we can deliver our crops,” he says.

When there were long lines at grain elevators, he has been able to use grain bags to hold harvested grain in the field until he could deliver the crop to market.

Planned for growth

In addition, he increased his on-farm grain storage by 150,000 bushels last year. “We put in a batch dryer and put in weight scales so we would know what is coming in and going out,” says Gill. This facility has also allowed harvesting to begin earlier and to run much smoother.

His goals include continuing to practice water conservation to improve soil drainage and soil health. “It is our hope to build a farm and business that will remain a part of our family’s lives for generations to come.”

He protects the environment with extensive land leveling and using drop pipes to reduce erosion. He has also planted trees on Conservation Reserve Program land. He has installed about eight miles of underground irrigation pipe and added four tailwater recovery systems. He recycles engine oil by reusing it to heat his shop. He uses a consultant to keep pesticide spraying to a minimum. In addition, he used no- till planting on about half of his corn this year.

“In 1987, we started buying land so that we would always have a place to farm,” says Gill. “To address storage issues and year-round work area problems, we built a 100-foot by 150-foot shop on our property in 2003.”

With more land, comes more and bigger equipment. “This prompted us to add a 50- by 150-foot shed to add to our existing 100- by 150-foot shop,” says Gill. “Our grain bins were built with the intention of adding another 150,000 bushels of storage as the farm grows.”

He encountered drainage problems on all the land he farmed, so he addressed these issues by using precision leveling and building ditches to remove the excess water from the land. “We added more wells to gradually make our irrigation more efficient,” he explains. He also says weed control has been a longstanding challenge, and he has been vigilant in trying to control new invasive weeds.

“We’ve used yield maps to identify low yielding areas,” says Gill. “When we identify these areas, we first check to see if drainage or irrigation problems may be the cause, and then we check on soil fertility as a possible reason for the low yields.”

Gill is a founding member of the McGehee Men’s Club which began in 1995, and served as its president from 2011 until this year. This nonprofit organization supports a number of organizations, including McGehee Boys and Girls Clubs, McGeehee Baseball League, Men’s Club Scholarship and the McGehee Community Food Pantry. The Men’s Club bought a large building that serves as a community center and raises funds through a wildly popular oyster supper each year.

He also has been a member of the McGehee Cemetery Board. He is a member of a watershed board for the counties of Chicot, Desha and Drew. He is a past member of the Desha County Farm Bureau board. He has also been an agricultural apprenticeship advisor for the University of Arkansas at Monticello College of Technology.

Wife works office, handles traffic

His wife Shannon handles office and computer work for the farm. She also manages traffic to and from the farm’s grain bins. Their plans call for building a new office for Shannon to use in managing the grain facility. Much of the land they farm is leased on crop-share agreements, and Shannon makes sure each landlord receives the correct share of the harvested crop.

Shannon is a director of the McGehee Community Food Pantry. She was also named McGehee Woman of the Year in 2013. She is a past member of the local hospital auxiliary. She served on the board of the Desha County Emergency Food and Shelter Program. She also served on a committee to welcome visitors to the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum. This site near McGehee was one of 10 incarceration sites for Japanese-Americans detained during World War II.

Shannon and Andy are active in First United Methodist Church of McGehee. He has helped the church by serving on its finance committee, and Shannon has chaired a staff and parish relations committee.

Andy and Shannon have two children, a son Andrew and a daughter Madeline.

Both children are University of Arkansas graduates. Madeline works for a public relations firm in Fayetteville, Ark. Andrew farms with his dad and also operates 1,800 acres of the farmland on his own. Andy relies on Andrew for assistance in using new technology such as tractor guidance and yield maps. Andy hopes to expand the farm as Andrew takes on more farming responsibilities.

Andy Guffey with Arkansas Farm Bureau is the state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award. Guffey admires the Gills for their attention to detail and doing a great job of minimizing the costs of farming. Gill was nominated for the award by Wes Kirkpatrick, county Extension coordinator in Desha County.

As Arkansas state winner, Gill 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, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize 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 and a Heritage gun safe from Southern States, the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 25th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $964,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous Arkansas winners include Michael Simon of Conway, 2007; Brian Kirksey of Amity, 2008; Orelan Johnson of England, 2009; Bill Haak of Gentry, 2010; Michael Oxner of Searcy, 2011; Heath Long of Tichnor, 2012; and Phillip DeSalvo of Center Ridge, 2013. 

Gill’s farm and the farms of the other nine state finalists will be visited by a distinguished panel of judges during the week of Aug. 4-8. The judges for this year include the aforementioned Brian Kirksey of Amity Ark., who was the overall winner in 2008; John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; and Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension agricultural economist from Maryville, Tenn.