When out-of-state visitors arrive in Belzoni, Miss., Jeremy Jack likes to offer them a few quick history lessons about the Mississippi Delta. “There’s no place quite like this anywhere else in America,” he says.
His parents, Willard and Laura Lee Jack, moved here from Canada. The Jacks identified this unique area of northwest Mississippi as a land of opportunity, and they established the family’s farming operations under the name of Silent Shade Planting Company in 1979.
The Mississippi Delta is bordered by the Mississippi River to the West and the Yazoo River to the East; it extends North as far as Memphis, and South to Vicksburg, Miss. “This is not the Mississippi River Delta, where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico,” he points out. “That’s 300 miles south of here.”
To be technical, the Mississippi Delta isn’t really a delta; it’s an alluvial plain built up by thousands of years of flooding. Those floods left behind an area that is incredibly fertile and flat. “In the delta, topsoil is measured in feet.”
The Mississippi Delta also is known for its heat, humidity and rainfall. Belzoni receives an average of 56 in. of rainfall a year; that’s nearly double the amount that falls on a field in the Corn Belt.
Water on, water off
Combine those ingredients – flat fields, lots of rainfall and a need for irrigation to fight summer heat – and it becomes obvious that moisture management is critical. “In the Mississippi Delta, one of our biggest conservation efforts goes into water management,” Jack says. “Soil and nutrient management is set by the way we manage water.”
For example, the Jack family does a lot of GPS-guided land leveling, which reduces runoff velocity and prevents sediment from leaving fields. That boosts downstream water quality and protects the Gulf of Mexico.
“By grading some of our fields, we are able to do what we call ‘full irrigation,’” Jack says. “We run some pivot systems, but with our hot temperatures and dry summer weather, a pivot is more of a supplemental irrigation, as compared to the full volume of furrow irrigation.”
Wells pull groundwater out of the aquifer in large volumes. “We pump 2,000 to 3,000 gallons per minute, per well,” he says. “We try to water about 25 acres per 12 hours on each of our fields. This allows us to get the water on, and to get the water off, so we do not damage the crops while we are watering them.”
Furrow irrigation also allows Silent Shade to do a better job of drainage. “We consider drainage to be the most important part of irrigation,” Jack says. “We have to be able to get the water off the field. We have zero internal drainage here – it’s all surface drainage.”
Edge-of-field practices are tied in with the Jack family’s land leveling effort. When they grade a field, they incorporate a “pad,” also called elevated turn-rows, all the way around the field to capture irrigation tail-water. “This allows us to conserve the water, making sure that it goes from the top to the bottom of the field, and then it is directed to one area of the field where the drain is,” he continues. “We use a flashboard riser to slow the water, allowing us to capture nutrients and topsoil before they leave the field and enter the surface water.
“We reallocate the nutrient-rich soil from the ditch back to the field,” he adds. “Using dirt pans and finishing buckets, we are able to move the soil in a field to fill in low spots and maintain the elevated pad.”
Silent Shade also reuses the captured water, using a relift pump to irrigate another field or transferring it to a reservoir from which it can be pumped for irrigation later in the season. “Reclaiming water will allow us to maintain our aquifer for the long term,” Jack says.
Careful nutrient management
Further input management practices such as grid soil sampling and variable-rate fertilizer application also improve environmental stewardship at Silent Shade.
“In the Mississippi Delta, all the rainfall can cause us to lose nitrogen,” Jack says. That’s why he spoon-feeds nitrogen (N) to crops during the growing season.
“We variable-rate apply our nitrogen in three shots so we can accurately meet the needs of the crop,” he says. “We use a mid-season, variable-rate aerial application. The airplane applies only to the areas of the field that show a need for nitrogen, based on remote sensing.”
Silent Shade has received a number of awards throughout the years honoring the Jack family’s forward thinking and use of the most current technology. The farm employs agronomic scouts to help protect plant health and reduce insect and disease pressure. Silent Shade also was one of the first in the area to use twin-row soybean and corn seeding, variable-rate cotton seeding and variable-rate fertilizer application.
“This technology has allowed us to make every acre reach the top of its potential,” Jack says. The farm continues to expand, and is now managed by Jeremy and his sister Stacie Koger. Silent Shade operates approximately 7,500 acres, growing cotton, corn, soybeans, rice and wheat.
With that many acres to manage, efficiency is a must. Silent Shade is always looking to eliminate passes through the field, which isn’t easy to do in the delta.
“Tillage in the Mississippi Delta is different than in other parts of America,” Jack points out. “Due to our warm climate, high rainfall and weed pressures, we have to make ridges every year, and we need to deep till every year. We also have the pressures of weeds and crop residue from the year before.”
Silent Shade uses a minimum-till approach, making one pass with a combination tool. “One-trip plows allow us to make one trip after the harvesters, and then we can come right back and plant,” Jack says. “This allows us to lower our costs, reduce our passes through the field and reduce our erosion. We can reshape our rows, do sub-soiling and be able to grow large crops the next year, all with one pass.”
Silent Shade has an ambitious working-lands stewardship project underway. Its 800-acre Ducrest property is being set up as a demonstration farm under Mississippi’s REACH – Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat – an initiative developed by a coalition of farm and environmental groups.
Jack explains that former catfish ponds will be made into reservoirs and a tail-water recovery ditch will have automatic relift pumps to reclaim the water. The farm also will be fitted with flow meters and water quality monitors, allowing scientists to collect data from this closed system of irrigation, nutrients and sediment.
Not only is this system expected to significantly cut nutrient and sediment losses and reduce drawdown of the aquifer, it also will boost habitat for waterfowl and shore birds. “REACH will showcase how good a job agriculture is doing,” says Robert Kröger, assistant professor of wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture at Mississippi State University. “It will also further document that, by farming with a conservation mindset, you see improved production.”
He adds that REACH experts share scientifically researched best practices with producers and landowners. Over time, as farmers develop and implement landscape stewardship plans, REACH will collect a unique body of documentation that shows the benefits of conservation management.
That’s the goal at Silent Shade – to produce at a high level, but to do it sustainably. “We’re good stewards of the land,” Jack says. “The only thing we do not do as well as we should, as farmers, is to show the rest of the world what we do – and to follow that with hard data.”
Data from the REACH farm can provide those hard numbers. “Then we need to take it to the inner cities, take it to the schools and show the kids what we do,” Jack continues. “This is where we differ from most operations. We want to take it to the next level. We want to use this information that we collect every year, year after year, to prove that we are doing a good job.
“Most farmers believe they are doing a good job,” he observes. “Now we just need to tell our story to the rest of the world.”