It's late September and Mike Wagner stands in his field of Group III soybeans, just ready to harvest after being delayed by heavy August rains. “This has been a strange soybean finish,” he says.
This native Missourian came to the Mississippi Delta 22 years ago and has been growing soybeans and rice ever since in Tallahatchie County near Sumner. This year, he planted 2,000 of his 5,000 acres to beans.
What makes Wagner's operation slightly unique is the decision he made years ago to continue planting conventional beans and remain as independent as possible from Roundup Ready technology, which he has tried several times.
Despite the fact he's in a small minority, his desire to continue to plant public and conventional seed stocks drove his decision.
Part philosopher, part visionary, Wagner has spent years learning about how to grow different varieties. “I moved to Group IIIs to lower the possibility of having to irrigate my heavy clay soil - most of which is rotated with rice - and to address the perceived demand in the soy market for conventional soybeans.”
He currently orders seed by the truckload from an Illinois supplier. He controls weeds with old shelf products like Valor, Sceptor and Select.
He began growing Group IIIs in 1998 and he says it took about three years of changing input practices until he found what worked and could grow them successfully.
“We had to learn when to plant, the best seeding rate and where to plant. I now get consistent yields ranging anywhere from 40 to 70 bu./acre,” Wagner says. In fact, he reports non-irrigated beans outperforming irrigated beans over a four-year average.
HE SEEDS AT a higher rate of 240,000-280,000 seeds/acre and estimates he spends about $50/acre, split equally between seed and herbicide costs.
When asked about his soil type, he smiles. “I have the most homogenous soil in the Mississippi Delta: all level alligator clay soil type.”
Wagner says that he can still produce a cheap crop that requires a minimum of herbicide and irrigation, and his whole philosophy revolves around low-input sustainable agriculture. With the advent of Roundup Ready technology, Wagner says agriculture has undergone an entire cultural shift.
“It's simple to grow Roundup Ready beans. People don't have any idea that we can still successfully grow conventional soybeans,” he says.
Wagner adds that no one in his area grows Group Vs generated from university seed. “I'd say that's been the case for about five years,” he says.
“In 2007, I grew Northrup King's 38T8. I got the best yield ever with 68 bu./acre. I just called my seed supplier, and now that seed isn't available,” he says.
While Wagner may have taken the road less traveled, he may simply have been ahead of the curve. As more and more producers express frustration over resistance, increasing technology fees and restrictive agreements, Wagner may not be alone in the pursuit of conventional seed.
From his perspective, he views producer freedom and the ability to source seed decreasing every day. “I lament the fact that our available gene pool of public and conventional soybean varieties is rapidly becoming limited,” he says.