Lonnie Fortner

Lonnie Fortner

Lonnie Fortner of Port Gibson, Miss., left his career as a county executive director with the USDA Farm Service Agency to become a farmer. He started as a farm manager and later was made a partner in Rock Lake Planting Company. He recently branched out on his own as owner and operator of Bayou Pierre Farms. He’s now successfully growing cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans.

As a result of his success as a crop farmer, Fortner 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.

Fortner farms about 3,600 acres of rented land. His per acre yields last year were 1,078 pounds of cotton lint from 1,400 acres, 4,798 pounds of peanuts from 400 acres, 187 bushels of corn from 600 acres and 45 bushels of soybeans from 1,200 acres.

He markets cotton using the split pool of the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association. “I price half of my expected production and the remainder is priced by Staple,” he explains.

Feed mills and a local ethanol plant buy his corn. He prices a third of his expected production prior to planting. After planting, he prices another third, then prices the remainder as a clear picture of final production comes into focus. He stores corn on the farm and delivers it on January-February-March (JFM) contracts. Fortner says he hopes to upgrade his grain storage facilities and expand the overall grain storage capacity on his farm.

He sells soybeans through Bunge, with a third of expected production priced at or before planting. “Soybeans are generally delivered at harvest, but if there is an advantage, I’ll store them and deliver them in January,” he says.

Fortner sells peanuts on contract to the Golden Peanut and Tree Nuts company.

He grows cotton in 38-inch single rows, but plants peanuts, corn and soybeans on twin rows. “That allows us to farm with one set of planting equipment,” he says. “Cotton does better in wide rows, but peanuts and grain crops tend to do better in narrow rows.”

Fortner estimates that twin rows increase corn yields by 10-15 bushels per acre. Twin rows help soybeans reduce weed competition by shading row middles. He believes twin row peanuts produce 500 to 600 more pounds per acre.

Among farmers in his part of west central Mississippi, Fortner is considered to be a longtime peanut grower. “We were one of the first peanut growers in this area,” he says.

At times in the past, he has grown sesame, wheat and grain sorghum. He has used strip tillage and cover crops for many years. He says his crop rotation improves soil health while conserving moisture. He also uses variable rate fertilizer application.

His cover crop of choice is cereal rye. Burrowing bugs are a chief risk when using strip tillage and cover crops prior to planting peanuts, however Fortner has not yet had to contend with these pests.

Fortner has been using precision satellite navigation or RTK since the 2006 growing season. “This really pays off in planting and digging peanuts,” he says. “We learned after Hurricane Katrina that it can be hard to find the peanut rows after the wind blew the plants down, and RTK helps us to find those rows when we’re digging our peanuts.”

He has been using strip tillage since 2005. His primary strip tillage implement is a 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr (pronounced one tripper). It subsoils under each row and Fortner says it creates an ideal seedbed in a single pass. “We are better off using strip tillage on our silt loam soils that can get sticky when wet,” he adds.

Recently, he has tweaked his strip till planting system to cope with pigweeds. “We still plant a rye cover crop, but we sometimes till it up to allow us to incorporate a ‘yellow’ residual herbicide to help control the pigweeds,” he explains.

One of his big challenges has been crop damage from wild hogs and deer. He has invested in electric fencing to help protect some of his crops from these four-legged pests.

Soil conservation and environmental protection are important for Fortner. “Soil erosion is a constant threat, so we’re working on our conservation practices and moving to install grassed waterways,” he says. “For instance, we’ve developed our own system of using drop pipes and plastic culverts to help manage water on the land we farm.”

Fortner grew up on a family farm in Webster County, Miss. His father, Wallace Fortner, is now semi-retired, but he still does construction work on the side, and he helps Lonnie on the farm. “He likes to plant cotton and help with harvesting by running the combine,” says Lonnie.

Fortner credits his partners in Rock Lake Planting Company, James “Joc” Carpenter and Emile Guedon, for getting his start. He started farming for them in 1996, and in 2006 they made him a partner. Then, in 2009, he was named managing partner. “I was blessed to have them as mentors,” he says. “And I’ve been blessed to produce good crops during some tough years.”

This partnership dissolved a year ago, so Lonnie and his wife Karen formed their own partnership, Bayou Pierre Farms. Karen also works off the farm. She has been a kindergarten and first grade teacher. She became certified in special education and has been hired to teach special needs children at Warren Central Junior High School in Vicksburg, Miss. Since 2016, she has been a board member of Claiborne County Farm Bureau and has served as vice chair of its Women’s Committee.

Lonnie is active in Claiborne County Farm Bureau and serves as its vice president. He’s also a board member for a local farm cooperative. He’s vice president and serves on the board of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association. He chairs Mississippi’s Peanut Promotion Board. He has been a member of the Mississippi Farm Bureau board and served on state Farm Bureau committees. He is Mississippi’s alternate member on the National Peanut Board and served as a voting delegate and on peanut advisory committees of American Farm Bureau.

“Karen is my biggest supporter,” says Lonnie. “She took care of our kids while I took care of the farm. She is now growing into her role as partner on our farm.”

Lonnie and Karen have two teenage children, daughter Beth and son Lee. Both have been active on mission trips, in a children’s ministry, at vacation Bible school and a Farm Bureau-sponsored safety camp.

Steve Martin, associate director with Mississippi State University Extension, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Fortner was nominated for the honor by Sherry Surrette with the Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center. Surrette admires how Fortner entered farming by first working for a large farming company, and then operating his own farm. “He has a diverse operation, uses new technology, and he works well with Extension,” says Surrette.

As the Mississippi state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Fortner 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 and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award 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 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 Mississippi include: Hugh Arant, Sr. of Ruleville, 1990; Bill Hawks of Hernando, 1991; Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, 1992; Tol Thomas of Cruger, 1993; Rick Parsons of Vance, 1994; Ed Hester of Benoit, 1995; Bill Harris of Benton, 1996; Robert Miller of Greenwood, 1997; Ted Kendall, III of Bolton, 1998; Wayne Bush of Schlater, 1999; William Tackett of Schlater, 2000; Willard Jack of Belzoni, 2001; Hugh Arant, Jr. of Ruleville, 2002; Rick Parsons of Vance, 2003; Sledge Taylor of Como, 2004; Laurance Carter of Rollins Fork, 2005; Brooks Aycock of Belzoni, 2006; Tom Robertson of Indianola, 2007; Gibb Steele III of Hollandale, 2008; Donald Gant of Merigold, 2009; Dan Batson of Perkinston, 2010; Scott Cannada of Edwards, 2011; Bill Spain of Booneville, 2012; Abbott Myers of Dundee, 2013; Danny Murphy of Canton, 2014; Allen Eubanks of Lucedale, 2015; Paul Good of Columbus, 2016; and Mike Sturdivant of Glendora, 2017.

Mississippi has had three overall winners, Kenneth Hood of Gunnison in 1993, Ed Hester of Benoit in 1995 and Willard Jack of Belzoni in 2001.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Fortner farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 6-10. The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed specialist 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.