A fulltime farmer for 16 years, John Verell of Jackson, Tenn., takes a scientific approach to producing high yields on his successful 5,050-acre crop farm.
He grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 3,000 rented acres and 2,050 acres of owned land.
As a result of his success as a crop farmer, Verell has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
He irrigates about 30% of his crops. Last year, his per acre yields were 175 bushels of dryland corn from 1,300 acres, 250 bushels of irrigated corn from 750 acres, 65 bushels of full season soybeans from 800 acres, 95 bushels of wheat from 2,200 acres, 60 bushels of irrigated doublecropped soybeans from 750 acres, and 45 bushels of dryland doublecropped soybeans from 1,450 acres.
He makes efficient use of his time. For instance, he planted 1,900 acres of corn in three days. Verell has faced challenges—low yields when he started farming, transitioning from cotton to grain and recovering from severe tornado damage. He says cotton was a major crop on his farm until 2006. The tornado that destroyed a number of farm buildings occurred in 2008.
As he made his farm profitable, he invested in farm-related businesses that should pay off. One is Volunteer Ag Services, a firm licensed to sell Pioneer corn and soybean seed. He also invested in North Delta Soil Solutions, a soil sampling company that provides variable rate fertilizer recommendations. Verell also offers consulting services relating to soil fertility.
Verell learned about prescription applications as an agronomy student at Murray State University in Kentucky, and has used variable rate seeding and fertilizer since 2002.
He makes the most of marketing opportunities. He profits by selling large volumes of high quality crops, even when prices are low. He credits his broker for helping him obtain 10% higher prices. He also gets higher prices by storing 400,000 bushels, about 60% of the grain he grows. He notes that holding wheat in the bins for two to three weeks can result in improved prices by 30 cents per bushel. He uses forward contracts on about half of his anticipated production and sells less than five percent of his crops for cash at harvesttime.
He’s harvesting corn at 25% moisture and comparing it to harvesting at 15% moisture, to see if there are yield differences. He plans to conduct a similar test with soybeans. Verell generally favors harvesting grain at high moisture.
Verell has noticed that high-yield soybean growers use herbicides to desiccate or dry out the bean plants prior to harvesting, and plans on testing this as well.
His long-term relationships with landowners have paid off. He works with landlords to improve their land while he farms it. These relationships have led to irrigation investments on the land he rents. Verell also uses soil moisture sensors to help schedule irrigation.
He has been a state winner in yield contests of the National Corn Growers Association. He works with Pioneer agronomists to host August field days to show off the company’s corn hybrids and to showcase agronomic practices. He sets aside 50 acres to test new varieties and production practices.
This year’s field day will compare corn that received 230 pounds of nitrogen per acre at planting with other corn that received 40 pounds of nitrogen at planting followed by spoon-fed nitrogen during the growing season.
One test last year featured Y-drops for applying late season nitrogen to corn from high clearance sprayers. While Y-drops worked well in the Midwest, Verell said they didn’t pay off last year on his corn.
Soil conservation is important for his farm. Verell uses no-till planting on almost all of his crops. “We’ve also planted buffer strips, wildlife food plots, pollinator plants and cover crops,” says Verell. “We have something growing on most of our land throughout the year.” His cover crops include a blend of wheat, rye and clover. By increasing his cover crops, he hopes to further reduce his fertilizer costs.
He has also saved money on fertilization by buying and using a bulk spreader truck. This truck allowed him to cut the cost of lime application by $11 to $15 per ton. He recently bought seed treatment equipment and anticipates savings of 25% from what a retail dealer charges.
Verell is active in a number of organizations. He’s on the board of Madison County Farm Bureau and has been a member of Madison County Young Farmers and Ranchers. He was selected as an American Soybean Association/DuPont Young Leader. For the Leadership Jackson group, he talks to young professional workers about the importance of agriculture in the community. He serves as treasurer of the Tennesssee Soybean Promotion Board and secretary of the Tennessee Soybean Association. He was a regional winner of the American Soybean Association’s Conservation Legacy Award.
John says he is especially pleased that his dad, Allen Verell, and grandfather, John Verell, Sr., remain active on the farm. His grandfather started the farm in the 1960’s and is turning 94 years old this year. His father and grandfather have established trusts and have estate plans in place to make sure that the farming business will continue in future generations.
As the farm operates today, John basically runs the business side of the operation. He buys seed and is responsible for selling commodities, while Allen is essentially responsible for all of the equipment. Allen typically works in the shop while John often works in the farm office.
One of the farm’s key employees is Matt Chapman, a recent hire with experience as an electrician, plumber and carpenter. He has a knack for fixing broken equipment.
“We have room to expand,” says John. “If we buy land, we will do it without incurring tremendous debt. We can also expand without having to buy new equipment.”
His wife Crissy works with special needs children as an occupational therapist at West Tennessee Healthcare. John and Crissy support fundraisers for special needs children, including one that helps pay for their medical devices. They’ve supported St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They enjoy teaching students about farming during Ag in the Classroom presentations. And they are active in North Jackson Church of Christ.
John and Crissy have a five-year-old daughter, Emmi. Her pets—a donkey, rabbit, cow and goats—are the farm’s only livestock.
Michael Buschermohle, interim assistant dean with University of Tennessee Extension, is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award. Verell was nominated for the honor by Danny Morris, University of Tennessee Extension area farm management specialist.
Morris encouraged Verell to apply for the award. “John is a hard-working, innovative farmer. He’s taking this farm to the next level,” says Morris. “He looks at the bottom line and knows as much about agronomy as any consultant. He is from a fantastic family, and he is a great pick for Farmer of the Year.”
As the Tennessee state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Verell 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 Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that goes 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 Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 29th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Tennessee include: James R. Graham of Newport, 1990; Burl Ottinger of Parrottsville, 1991; Dwaine Peters of Madisonville, 1992; Edward Wilson of Cleveland, 1993; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 1994; Bobby W. Vannatta of Bell Buckle, 1995; George McDonald of Riddleton, 1996; Jimmy Gaylord of Sharon, 1997; Jimmy Tosh of Henry, 1998; Eugene Pugh, Jr. of Halls, 1999; Harris Armour of Somerville, 2000; Malcolm Burchfiel of Newbern, 2001; Ed Rollins of Pulaski, 2002; John Smith of Puryear, 2003; Austin Anderson of Manchester, 2004; John Litz of Morristown, 2005; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 2006; Grant Norwood of Paris, 2007; Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, 2008; Richard Atkinson of Belvidere, 2009; Brad Black of Vonore, 2010; Mac Pate of Maryville, 2011; Steve Dixon of Estill Springs, 2012; Richard Jameson of Brownsville, 2013; John Keller of Maryville, 2014; George Clay of Pelham, 2015; James Haskew of South Pittsburg, 2016; and Mike Robinson of Belvidere, 2017.
Tennessee has had two overall winners, Jimmy Tosh of Henry in 1998 and Bob Willis of Hillsboro in 2006.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Verell’s farm and the farms of the other nine state finalists during the week of Aug. 6-10. The judges this year include Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009; and John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia ag economist from Athens, Ga.