Mark Morgan is a young farmer who specializes in bringing customers to his farm to pick his peaches. “If people to come here one time to buy peaches, they’re likely to come back,” says Morgan.
Morgan of Clarksville, Ark., produces pick-your-own peaches at his Peach Pickin’ Paradise. He farms in partnership with his dad, Steve Morgan. They also grow turkeys and beef cattle.
As a result of his success as a peach, beef and turkey farmer, Mark 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. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
A farmer for seven years, his operation includes 423 acres of which 300 acres are rented and 123 acres are owned. He operates additional farmland with his dad.
The family has a long tradition of growing peaches. Mark’s great grandfather grew peaches during the 1920’s and his grandfather established the pick-your-own and turkey operations.
Many of his peach customers come from nearby cities such as Fort Smith, Russellville, Conway and Little Rock, and some from out of state. He says, “Our customer retention rate is good because we make it a personal experience for them.”
The peach operation features 3,500 trees on 17 acres. His orchard also includes some nectarines. Pruning and hedging keep the trees small so customers don’t need ladders to pick fruit. He estimates his peach and nectarine yields at 170 to 220 bushels per acre.
Pick-your-own normally accounts for about 60% of the fruit harvested. With a large crop this year, he’s selling more to grocery stores and wholesale distributors. He also sells some to individual customers, from his roadside stand and through a local farmer’s market.
He’d like to increase peach production to meet anticipated demand from the Farm to School program. This past February he planted 260 new trees representing four promising new peach varieties. He would also like to explore the potential of strawberries, another crop to attract customers to his farm.
“We manage to maximize production for our long time customers,” says Mark. “Most commercial peach groves are planted on a 20- by 20-foot spacing. Our spacing is 18 feet apart down the rows and 11 feet between the rows.”
He selects varieties that ripen in sequence so that three or four varieties are ripe at any one time, starting from mid to late June until late August or early September. He sprays trees to control brown spot and pests such as peach tree borers, plum curculio and stinkbugs. He plants clover to help the soil and encourage beneficial pollinator insects. He sprays herbicides under trees and leaves the vegetation growing in row middles to support vehicle traffic. An eight-foot fence keeps deer from damaging his peaches.
Peaches reach maximum production during their seventh year, and any peach that lives longer than 15 years is a bonus. Underground irrigation helps keep the trees productive.
He grows varieties that are good for canning, but says few customers can peaches anymore. Most of his buyers like freestone varieties with easily removed pits.
Mark and Steve raise turkeys on contract with Butterball in nine houses, and move turkeys from house to house as the birds gain weight. They have about 85,000 birds per flock and raise three and a half flocks per year. They grow the hens you buy in grocery stores. Mark’s main role with the turkeys is to handle litter management and dead bird disposal.
“Turkey litter is vital to our cattle operation,” says Mark. “Litter keeps us in the cattle business. We use turkey litter on pasture and hay ground. We also sell litter locally to other operations. We apply the litter with our own trucks and keep records on how much litter is applied to each tract of land.”
For dead bird disposal, he relies on an Ecodrum, a rotating drum that composts the carcasses. Cost sharing from USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service helped pay for the Ecodrum. Dead bird composting also helps the farm comply with biosecurity requirements.
The beef herd includes more than 300 cattle, with 268 pair of cows and calves, 62 replacement heifers and 16 bulls. Mark’s University of Arkansas animal science education taught him the importance of collecting data on weaning weights, cow weights and reproductive efficiency. The number of calves weaned per cow exposed is one of the best measures he uses.
He’d like to expand his herd to 500 cows. “We primarily have a spring calving herd, along with a small fall calving herd,” he adds. He uses a 90-day calving season, and develops mature cows that weigh 1,100 pounds. He primarily uses Angus bulls, but occasionally uses Gelbvieh and Brangus bulls to improve hybrid vigor. “On our Gelbvieh and Charolais cows, we have used Hereford bulls,” he adds.
The calves are weaned at 205 days and are backgrounded for 60 to 90 days before selling them in tractor-trailer lots during January and February through the Oklahoma City Stockyards and the National Livestock Commission. He wants the calves to weigh about 750 pounds when he sells them so they will do well when going directly into feedlots.
The forage program includes bermudagrass hay from about 600 acres. Mark also grows ryegrass and white clover. He says ryegrass is good for grazing first calf heifers. Mark Payne is the farm manager who runs the hay harvesting crew. He’s also a great welder.
Morgan grew up on the farm and remembers picking up dead turkeys as his first farm job as a child. For another childhood chore, he remembers helping his dad keep track of numbers for cattle that were tagged.
Among his conservation practices, he’s proud of his water-conserving underground irrigation that relies on ponds as the water source. He also follows a nutrient management plan in applying composed litter and turkey carcasses. He also rotates pastures to allow forage roots time to recover before being grazed again.
Mark is active at First United Methodist Church. He’s a Johnson County Farm Bureau board member and chairs their Beef and Young Farmer and Ranchers committees. He’s a member of Johnson County Cattlemen’s Association, a member of the Johnson County Conservation District board and is on the board of the Johnson County Fair.
On the state level he is active in the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association and Arkansas Farm Bureau Young Farmer & Ranchers.
Mark’s wife Shay is present during the Saturday pick-your-own sales. Shay also works at Johnson Regional Medical Center hospital as a registered dietician in charge of food and nutrition services. Her knowledge of nutrition and food safety is important for the farm’s operation of tours, consumer education and community outreach. Shay also helps with social media to market the farm and its fruit.
Shay is also active at First United Methodist Church, Junior Auxiliary of Clarksville, Johnson County Fair, the Western Arkansas District of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Arkansas Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher State Committee.
They have a two-year-old daughter, Kate, who enjoys eating peaches. Mark and Shay are also expecting a new baby in early August of this year.
“This place gets crowded with customers on Saturday mornings during peach season,” says Andy Guffey with Arkansas Farm Bureau who coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Morgan was nominated for the honor by Blair Griffin, Extension agent in Johnson County, Ark.
“Mark has been a longtime Extension supporter,” says Griffin. “His grandfather and his family have been University of Arkansas graduates and strong supporters of Extension and research. They are great examples of agricultural diversity in Johnson County.”
As Arkansas state winner, Morgan 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 prize 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, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI and a Henry Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous Arkansas winners include Michael Simon of Conway, 2007; Brian Kirksey of Amity, 2008; Orelan Johnson of England, 2009; Bill Haak of Gentry, 2010; Michael Oxner of Searcy, 2011; Heath Long of Tichnor, 2012; Phillip DeSalvo of Center Ridge, 2013; Nathan Reed of Marianna, 2015; and David Wildy of Manila, 2016.
Arkansas has had two overall winners, Kirksey in 2008 and Wildy in 2016.
Morgan’s farm and the farms of the other nine state finalists will be visited by a distinguished panel of judges during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges for this year include farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., the overall winner in 2011; Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss., and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.