Mike Sturdevant, Mississippi

After earning a prestigious Harvard University Master of Business Administration degree, Micajah “Mike” Sturdivant III could have entered real estate or most any other business, but decided instead to become a Mississippi Delta farmer.

Sturdivant comes from an accomplished family. His Due West farm near Glendora, Miss., consists of some 12,000 acres, mostly family owned land, where he grows cotton, corn and soybeans.

As a result of his success as a crop farmer, Sturdivant 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 43 years, he grows cotton on 3,300 acres, corn on 4,400 acres and soybeans on 3,600 acres. Almost all of these crops are irrigated. His five-year per acre average yields are impressive, 1,345 pounds for cotton, 195 bushels for corn and 63 bushels for soybeans.

The farm got its name many years ago. “During the 1850’s, this farm was part of Twilight Plantation,” says Sturdivant. “Our headquarters are due west of Twilight Plantation.”

His farm has increased furrow irrigation and cut back on center pivot irrigation. Sturdivant says older pivots were not designed to efficiently irrigate corn. Furrow irrigation is more practical as a result of better drainage, reduced runoff and precision land leveling.

One of his equipment innovations is a Deere cultivator modified with curved shovels between rows to apply liquid fertilizer.

A fifth generation farmer, Sturdivant runs the farm on a daily basis. “I farm with my brothers Walker and Sykes,” he adds.

Sykes manages the family’s Due West Grain elevators and Sturdivant Brothers Flying Service. The elevators handle the farm’s corn and soybean storage and market grain for others. The Flying Service handles aerial application for the family’s crops and for other customers.

Walker is a tax attorney who practiced on his own for nine years and came back to the farm. Walker has also worked on estate planning to pass on the farm and other assets to the next generation.

In addition, Walker runs the family’s Due West Gin, one of two cotton gins left in Tallahatchie County. “We gin all our cotton here, plus we gin cotton for other growers,” says Mike. “We plan to expand our volume and gin 30,000 bales in 2017.”

The gin helps the Sturdivants to receive full value for their cottonseed. They’re working with a Deere dealer to provide custom harvesting and bring more cotton to the gin.

As a young child, Mike remembers driving an old Ford tractor to bring water and ice to workers chopping cotton weeds. While still in Harvard’s graduate school, he started farming on his own near Cruger, Miss., and then sold that land to join in farming the family’s land near Glendora.

To market cotton, Sturdivant relies on the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association, better known as Staplcotn. His great grandfather was a Staplcotn founder in 1921. Sturdivant likes the cooperative’s pooling which allows growers to combine their cotton for sales to mills throughout the year.

Grain marketing is improved because the farm has storage capacity of 1.6 million bushels. “Before we started growing corn, we didn’t have grain storage, so we bought an existing elevator,” recalls Sturdivant. Local chicken companies buy most of the corn while soybeans are marketed through other local elevators.

He has worked recently on using spreadsheets and mapping software to track farming practices for individual tracts. This is data he can share with fertilizer suppliers, aerial applicators, farm managers, irrigation services, GPS providers and governmental agencies.

Sturdivant has worked to make the farm more efficient, for instance, by switching from eight- to twelve-row equipment, and adding precision farming technology.

He says vertical integration provided by the grain elevator, flying service and cotton gin help add profitability to the farming operation.

Conservation is important to Sturdivant. He uses conservation tillage on a small scale. He relies on precision land leveling and has installed tailwater recovery projects. “We are able to capture runoff and then to re-use the water in our fields,” he says. He uses the Pipe Planner program to make furrow irrigation more efficient, and has also built holding ponds benefitting wildlife.

He has established conservation easements with the Delta Wildlife organization. His farm is a member of Delta F.A.R.M. (Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management). He has also participated in a state game management program and a bee pollination project.

He depends on Martha Ann Clark, his office manager, and Larry Smith, his farm manager. Gary Dyksterhouse, his brother’s son in law, helps run the family’s grain elevators.

Sturdivant has been a strong supporter of the Pillow Academy college preparatory school. He is past president of the Greater Greenwood Foundation of the Arts and a past chairman of the Farmers Supply Cooperative of Greenwood. He is also a past chairman of Delta Purchasing.

He is the chairman of the Staple Cotton Cooperative and Staple Discount. He serves as an appointed member of the Greenwood-Leflore Airport Board. He is a past director of SF Service, Inc., of Little Rock, Ark. He is a past executive board member of the Chickasaw Council of the Boy Scouts. He is a graduate of Leadership Mississippi. He has presented information to the Mississippi State Short Course Conference, the Cotton & Rice Conference and the Southern Field Crop Alliance Conference.

Sturdivant is a past president and chairman of the Delta Council, an economic development organization for 18 counties in the Mississippi Delta. He is also a member of the board of trustees at Millsaps College.

Nationally, he was a board member of the Cotton Board, a past member of the National Cotton Council’s Cotton Leadership Program, past chairman and director of the Memphis Branch of the St. Louis District Federal Reserve Bank. He has been a cooperative delegate to the National Cotton Council. He also co-chairs a section of the annual fund for the Harvard Business School.

He and his wife Jan have been active in First Presbyterian Church of Greenwood. Jan is a co-founder, past treasurer and instructor for Yazoo Pony Club. She is a Certified Horsemanship Association instructor. She is a U.S. Pony Club district commissioner. She is a founder and for 13 years coordinated the Jon D. Williams Delta Cotillion that trains young people in social skills and dance education. Jan is also an equestrian helmet safety activist and has also worked with Mississippi Extension to educate 4-H members on helmet safety.

Mike and Jan have two adult children, a son, Micajah, and daughter, Lee. Micajah works in the family’s hotel and motel property management firm and Lee is a yoga instructor at her yoga studio.

Steve Martin with Mississippi Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Sturdivant was nominated for the honor by Jimbo Burkhalter, Extension agent in Tallahatchie County, Miss.

Burkhalter admires Sturdivant’s use of research information. Burkhalter says, “I see Mike at meetings that good farmers attend. He’s constantly learning and putting that knowledge to work.”

As the Mississippi state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Sturdivant 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 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; and Paul Good of Columbus, 2016.

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 Sturdivant farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, 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 specialist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.