American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Bobby (Bo) Norris Jr.'s fondest memories were born on the farm. A 30-year-old photograph hanging on a wall in Bo's living room tells the story of one youthful day on the farm outside Society Hill, in Darlington County, S.C. It was 1986, and the South was suffering a bad drought. At the time, South Carolina would record it as its worst. A wire service reporter told the story of a Suwanee, Ga., dairy farmer, who said, "The weeds used to grow anywhere, anytime, and when they go to dying, you know you've got trouble."
Bo was 7 years old that summer. USDA had paid to move hay from the Midwest to feed Southern livestock. "Someone took a picture of me when I was up in the trailer helping unload square bales of hay onto farmers' trucks," recalls Bo, who is now 36. "I look at that photo now (at left) and see how enthusiastic I was back then about agriculture. I'm just as enthusiastic now," he says.
Truth be told, Bo did toy with the idea of becoming a medical doctor. He had been accepted to a four-year university as his high school graduation approached. But before graduation day, his grandmother, Lucy Tucker, died of cancer. Circumstances around her death soured him on the medical field.
But he also felt the farm tugging him home. In 1998, one year after high school, Bo struck out on his own, a teenage farmer putting down roots. While farming, he would earn a degree in accounting and business management from Chesterfield Marlboro Technical College.
Some of the acres Norris farms have been in the family since the Civil War. The geology of the soils are challenging. There are several types, but all contain a generous supply of sand. "We have some rolling hills, flatlands, a lot of different soil types," he says. "Every field is different. We can't use just one management practice." Darlington County's top crops are soybeans, cotton and corn. It's a large producer of broilers and turkeys, too.
Bo and his brother and farming partner, Patrick, have been eager adapters of technology. "We are steadily adopting precision agricultural practices to help maximize yield while cutting our expenses," he says. The farm does all its own grid sampling and variable-rate (VR) spreading. Bo has purchased RTK steering options for the planting tractors. He has auto-boom section controls on the sprayers. And the farm is moving toward deploying VR seeding and row-command controls for the planters.
"We try to weigh out all technology by its cost. If we believe the payback will offset the cost in three years or less, we try to implement it into our operation," he says.
If there is a word to describe Norris Farms, it's change. "We changed our planting practices quite a few times to suit the land we have and the land conditions we have," Bo explains. "In the long run, even though we might burn a little more diesel fuel, we get more out of that high-priced seed, to where it can make us money."
When Bo came into the operation it was a grain enterprise of 600 acres. He brought to it corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, grain sorghum and peanuts. The farm is 2,100 acres today. Bo also tends to oats and canola, sells hardwood and pine from 300 acres of scattered timber stands and cuts Coastal bermudagrass hay. He owns a couple of turkey houses, runs 70 Simmental brood heifers and their Angus-mix calves, and has a custom farming arm.
"Our goal is to build a diversified operation that can weather the ups and downs of normal agricultural production," Bo says. "The only way to survive with changing markets, changing weather and a changing world is to diversify. We have to diversify."
Because of his ability to successfully diversify crop production in varying soils, find new efficiencies, markets and income streams, and adapt to changing Southern weather, DTN/The Progressive Farmer named Bobby (Bo) Norris Jr., an America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers honoree for 2016.
His work earns the approval of Jason Creamer, vice president, relationship manager with ArborOne Farm Credit in Florence, S.C. "There are many farm generations that inherit a large operation already on a firm footing," Creamer says. "Early, that was not the case for Bo. The existing farm was small and had an older equipment line when he took over. It lacked efficiency and diversification, Creamer says. "Mr. Norris has changed that in a big way."
Bo found value in change. "Time makes you wiser, and now we try to work smarter and work more efficiently," he says. Turkeys are one result. He operates a pair of brooder houses and has permits for new construction. He sells the birds to Prestage Farms, out of Camden, S.C. Poults come into the buildings at one-day-old and leave five weeks later. "We like what the poultry houses have brought to the table," he says. "No matter how wet or dry the crops are, the turkeys still bring cash onto the farm."
Pee Dee Fuel Inc., a gasoline, diesel and propane business, is an even newer piece of the diversification pie. Bo and Patrick bought the business of a local vendor more than a year ago. "With crop prices falling in front of our eyes, it made it even more easy to make the decision to buy the company," Bo says. It has been a good match for the operation. The busy time for the fuel business is the winter months, when the crop side of the farm is in hibernation. Bo handles the business part of the fuel enterprise. His brother, Patrick, oversees the day-to-day operations.
"It's way in left field from what we would normally do. It was different and scary all at the same time," he says. "So far, it's turned out to be a positive addition to the farm. It's not dependent on rain or grain prices."
While crops and livestock diversify Norris Farms' income streams, two agronomic practices–conservation tillage and irrigation–help assure the success of the farm's crop choices.
Bo began strip-tilling and no-tilling some of the farm's land in 2002. It quickly proved to be a yield-winning practice. Improved organic levels have increased the soil's moisture-holding capacity. The residue shades the crops' root systems. That has been especially beneficial to cotton, a crop that needs more time to shade its rows than corn or soybeans.
"We are trying to get into a rotation where we will only do some tillage in front of peanuts," Bo explains. Peanuts don't produce well in no-till. His work has been recognized in the community. In 2008, the farm was given the Chesterfield County, S.C., Outstanding Conservation Award. It was presented to Bo by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for his conservation and wildlife management practices.
Irrigation has been, simply, a farm saver. "I used to be told we couldn't afford irrigation. Now, I'm seeing we can't afford not to have irrigation," Bo says.
Norris Farms' first irrigation unit was installed in 2010. Today, four pivots and two drip-irrigation systems irrigate 220 acres. The systems can be controlled by smartphones and wireless Internet. Bo has plans to expand irrigation to 800 acres in a few years.
"Every day the crop suffers means we are losing yield," Bo says. He is experimenting with soil moisture probes to fine-tune his irrigation schedules. Irrigation also gives him the confidence to invest in higher-priced seed with improved yield and crop protection technologies. "Our goal is to make more bushels on less land," he says.
Bo is deeply involved in off-farm service work. He and wife, Patti, and 7-year-old daughter, Sunny, are members of the Wallace First Church of the Nazarene. Bo is vice president of the Chesterfield County Farm Bureau. He did work on the Chesterfield County Farm Service Agency board. In 2005, he was named the Outstanding Young Farmer by the South Carolina Young Farmer Agribusiness Association. In 2009, he and Patti were named the South Carolina Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award winners.
His grandfather, Buddy Tucker, was an early influence in Bo's life. But Bo also credits Sonny Linton for his success and important life lessons. Linton was Bo's grandfather's cousin and became a close adviser.
"I remember as a kid when he would come home from running bulldozers all day in the summer. The only spot on him not covered in dust was where his glasses were. Sonny was about like my daddy," Bo recalls. "He was real wise. You could always get a good answer from him."
Linton never asked for anything in return, except to see Bo's and Patti's first child. When Patti became pregnant, Linton was the first person they told. "We told him we were going to name her Sunny, after him," Bo says. Sonny and Sunny were able to enjoy each other for a full year before he died. "He taught me about character," Bo says of Linton. "I was taught that your word should mean something, and I still believe that."