Fish Out Of Water: A Farm Turns From Catfish to Corn
For one innovative farm family, ponds that once raised catfish now grow corn.
By Brigid Galloway | Photos By Karim Shamsi-Basha
Deep in the heart of Mississippi’s Black Prairie, a bright red combine moves methodically through the fields. Inside the cab of the Massey Ferguson® 9560, the driver sings the classic gospel hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
“Singing is my way of worship,” says the singer/driver Glenn Mast, age 62. “We’ve been extremely blessed and I want God to get credit for it.”
Glenn and his family farm about 7,000 acres in the Black Belt. The crescent-shaped swath of land extends from northeast Mississippi through central Alabama. It’s believed it was once connected to the Great Plains and shares a number of characteristics, including rich, productive farmland.
Last fall, Glenn, who raised 3,100 acres of corn—in addition to soybeans, cotton and hogs—had a lot to sing about. He started up his combines in the corn fields at the end of August and ran them until mid-September, harvesting an average of 190 bushels per acre. On the heels of an extremely wet spring that delayed planting by about a month, this was an especially welcome development. “It’s the best corn crop we’ve ever had,” he says.
Glenn has weathered his share of up and down years in his past four decades farming here. A fifth-generation farmer, he’s called East Mississippi home ever since he moved from Indiana with his parents. Although he maintains a hint of his Midwestern accent, he easily slips into a Deep South drawl. After living here for just shy of 50 years, he’s deeply connected to his community and the land he cultivates.
New Take on Diversification
Although he honors the traditional farming practices of his father—at 85, Ottis Mast still hauls corn in a semi truck for the family business—Glenn always has an eye toward innovation. Part of his success may be attributed to his willingness to adopt new practices that mitigate overall risk. For example, a few years back, he and his son Rodney decided to add a livestock enterprise. Ottis raised dairy cattle, but the younger Masts opted for catfish.
As it turns out, the move into catfish was rewarding for a few years, but as markets changed it became more financially perilous than originally thought. “It was high-risk and took extensive management. Primarily we got out of it because we did not like the up and down cycles,” Glenn says of the operation’s swings in profitability.
The Masts began the operation at about the same time they were experimenting with irrigation to enhance the use of their land. As commodity prices increased and crop inputs rose, they soon discovered the water being used to raise their fish would be better served on their corn, soybeans and cotton.
“It worked out on paper,” explains Glenn, “that we could make more money using the water out of the ponds to irrigate corn and cotton. The increase in yields could make us more money than on the catfish.”
The penciled-out estimates proved true. “It reduced the risk on the row crops and completely took away the risk on the catfish,” Glenn adds.
Another Way to Grow
About 12 years ago, their willingness to find better solutions led the Masts to another smart business opportunity. Dissatisfied with the service of green equipment that was predominant in the region, Rodney and Glenn set out to find an alternative. After using AGCO equipment on their farm, they realized it added greater potential to their overall business plan and could do the same for their neighbors.
“We started with Sunflower,® and one thing just led to another,” says Rodney. “It was good equipment, and we felt like it was time to offer something better to the community.” The family set up shop in the farm office, and when demand increased, they built a separate store on the farm. In 2010, the Masts moved what had become their dealership, Black Prairie Tractor & Equipment, to its present location in Columbus.
Around this time, Glenn and Rodney decided to divide managerial duties, with Rodney becoming general manager of the dealership and Glenn running farm operations. “That has worked out very well,” Glenn says, letting his fatherly pride show. “Rodney has done an excellent job, but he consults with me from time to time—maybe out of courtesy,” he adds with a slight chuckle.
The farm and dealership, which is owned by Glenn, Rodney and three junior partners who also work at Black Prairie, have formed a symbiotic relationship, with one informing the practices of the other. “We’re pretty high-tech,” Glenn says. “The farm is the guinea pig, so we often try new equipment and farming ideas to see how they work. If it’s a success, we’ll promote it at the dealership.”
This hands-on approach proved successful in the previously “green” community. Neighbor Steve Swedenburg has known the Masts for 20 years. When they opened their dealership, he became one of their first customers. “They’re local people and local farmers,” he says. “They understand the issues I have as a farmer.”
Sharing Best Practices
Use of central pivot irrigation—a relatively new practice for many farmers in the Black Belt—is one of the successful practices the Masts have encouraged in their community. After seeing their own crop yields increase, Glenn was particularly excited about the effect water management could offer additional farms in the area. “I see thousands of acres that can be developed into highly productive land with irrigation,” he says. “That’s very exciting.”
Through the dealership, Rodney frequently brings in experts, such as Mississippi State Extension Irrigation Specialist Jason Krutz, to speak with his customers about the latest farming advances. “It’s a unique company,” says Krutz. “Rodney and [Black Prairie] is the only distributor who’s asked me to come talk about irrigation. It’s nice to have someone in the private sector who’s willing to bring in an Extension person to help the producers in that region.”
Although always looking for the next advancement in equipment or farming innovation, what is most distinct about the Masts is perhaps the humility that permeates all their farming and business endeavors. “We have been extremely blessed,” Glenn says. “We’ve done some things right and we are innovative, but it’s the blessing of God that makes it