Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
LAKE CHARLES – Brandon Vail, a fifth generation farmer, is only 31 years old, but he started farming 18 years ago.
“I grew my first crop of beans at 13,” he said. “It was good enough that I got hooked on it.”
At age 17, he made his first crop loan from his dad, Mark Vail, for a 140-acre crop of beans that made 47 bushels an acre and sold it for $8.50 a bushel.
He also had cattle starting with show cows, and every year his dad gave him a calf for a few years until he started buying calves.
Mark said his son still gets teased by neighbors who remember Brandon driving a farm truck as a young boy and barely being able to see over the steering wheel.
When he started McNeese State University, he grew beans and wheat, then grew rice after he graduated with a degree in animal science.
“I was going to be a vet,” Brandon said. “My mom didn’t want me to farm.”
One of his sisters, Allison, is studying to be a vet and she will start clinicals at Auburn this year. Another sister, Kristie, is a psychologist in Kentucky, and sister Alexis is a marketing major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Brandon said he has liked farming because there’s no such thing as a routine day. “You don’t do the same thing two days in a row.”
Mark said Brandon has a sharp, technical mind, and he has no doubt that Brandon could have been a vet. “He would have made it, and he had the grades for it. He’s smart and not lazy. When I was his age, I didn’t have what he has.”
He said when his son is a consummate auction enthusiast who enjoys monitoring the prices of farm and dirt moving equipment. “He watches auction sites on the internet constantly. ”They grow a wide variety, with rice, cattle, crawfish, beans and corn.
Jimmy Meaux, LSU AgCenter county agent in Calcasieu Parish, said Brandon is willing to experiment.
“He’s a good progressive farmer who wants to try different things.”
Growing corn in Calcasieu Parish and using raised beds for soybeans have worked well for him, Meaux said.
Brandon works with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to make improvements to his land, Meaux added, and he is active in the local Farm Bureau in addition to serving as treasurer for the area Rice Growers Association.
Brandon has 150 head of commercial cattle, and his dad has 250. They use Gelbvieh and Hereford bulls. They didn’t lose any cattle to the flooding in August, but they had to haul hay to cows stranded on high ground.
Brandon and his dad have been coping with a pipeline that is traversing some of the land where they farm. The right-of-way has become a muddy mess that has claimed one of Brandon’s cows. “I’ve got a neighbor that lost four cows.”
Farmland is becoming harder to find, or even hold in Calcasieu Parish. Brandon and his dad agree that most of the farmland decrease is because of mitigation banking. Developers who use wetlands must offset that by buying land that cannot be farmed or developed and planting trees.
A 200-acre tract near one of the Vails’ farms was planted in trees for mitigation banking, Brandon said, never to be farmed again.
Mark said he and his son try to maintain a base of 3,500 acres but that has required them to shift their operation to new land several times because they have been displaced by mitigation banking on 1,000 acres by the Sasol plant. Land that sells for farming fetches around $3,000, but mitigation banking pays $5,000, he said. “Mitigation has hurt us a lot more than development. And they take the best rice ground for mitigation.” They also have a dirt operation that does well with the booming construction business in the Lake Charles area, and that helps pay the bills during times of low commodity prices. There’s another benefit to having dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators, Brandon said. “One thing about having your own dirt equipment, you can haul dirt where you need it.”
Brandon even tried growing 40 acres of sesame last year after reading about a farmer growing it successfully in Mississippi. “I just wanted to see what it would do here.”
It didn’t do well, but that’s because of the August flood. “Where it was out of the water, it did well.”
Sesame is grown for the oil, and to make tahini, a condiment made from toasted ground hulled sesame seeds. Tahini is served as a dip on its own or as a major component of hummus, baba ghanoush, and halva.
Brandon is not growing sesame this year, but he said he may try it again eventually.
He grew wheat for several years, but low prices and bad yields as low as 4 bushels an acre caused by fusarium scab disease, forced him out of growing that commodity.
At one time, Brandon grew 200 acres of corn, but that’s been scaled back to 40 acres this year. Some of the crop will be sold as feed for cattle at McNeese, some of it for local cattle producers, and the rest for the Bails’ cattle.
“It’s fun to grow something different.”
He figures he’s likely to be growing the southernmost corn crop in southwest Louisiana unless someone he doesn’t know is growing it to the east.
The Cropland 6640 variety of corn was planted March 4. He said it has a 113-day maturity and it gets 5.5-6 feet tall. He said the variety tolerates moisture extremes well. “I wish I would have had this variety planted last year.”
This year’s crop has been fertilized with 200 pounds of 0-18-36 and 50 pounds of urea, then top-dressed with 150 pounds of urea treated with Agrotain. He sprayed Roundup and Zidua for sedges.
After harvest, bermudagrass and broadleaf signalgrass will thrive among the stubble, making a good pasture for grazing cattle, he said.
He said he can sell the corn for about the same price that is paid on the Chicago Board of Trade. “You don’t make a lot of money but it’s no worse than beans.”
Last year’s corn crop wasn’t good, yielding only 20 bushels compared to his norm of 125.
This year, he’s going to try to irrigate by flushing the zero-grade field, but he won’t use poly pipe.
“I’m just curious to see what it will do like this without poly pipe."
All of their pumps are diesel-powered because electrical service is limited in the rural area south of Lake Charles. They use surface water when possible, and drought years can bring high salt levels.
In addition to the corn, Mark and Brandon will have 250 acres of beans and 583 acres of rice.
Between planting in late April, Brandon was moving truckloads of rice to Farmer’s Rice Mill. He said he prefers to have the crop sold by January, but they held back because of low prices. He said he has received help from Farm Bureau marketing expert Mark Tall. “It’s made a difference. It’s been 30-40 cents a barrel.”
Their rice crop, minus about 5,000 barrels, can be held in the three sets of bins they use.
“If the yields are similar to last year’s, we’ll have 30,000-31,000 barrels this year.”
They keep their harvested rice separated by variety.
Brandon said last year’s bean crop was a disaster, averaging 8 bushels, because of the August flood. “Charcoal rot killed it. It was a fair crop. I planted on June 29. It was late but I thought I’d made 25-30 bushels on it.”
He said he had most of his rice out of the fields when the flooding hit.
Planting last year was also complicated because of high water, he said. “Last year was tougher than normal, but I know I’m not the worst off.”
His father said he would rather face a drought than deal with flooding like last year. In 2016, rainfall exceeding 12 inches at a time hit their area, he said.
Most of this year’s rice crop is being drilled, he said. “I’d much rather drill plant it if I have the option. Here, if you plant wet, you’re going to cut wet.”
He explained that most of their fields are on pump-off land.
Brandon has a 19-acre field in the LSU AgCenter Verification Program. It was planted March 9, followed by Roundup and Command herbicides. It was fertilized, then sprayed with Newpath and Regiment and flooded by April 25.
Brandon said he’s taking some new steps with this field. “This was the first time I got to use a stale seedbed, and then drill.”
Brandon said he’s learning new approaches to growing rice, such as using split application of nitrogen, and new herbicides such as Regiment.
Keith Fontenot, who works with the Verification Program, visits the field of CL111 almost every week to check on its progress and to make recommendations.
Fontenot said Brandon has proven himself as a farmer. “He knows his business, and he takes care of his business.”
Taking care of business this year meant changing up variety selections. Last year, Brandon said, hybrid yields were lower than conventionals, with CL111 outyielding hybrids by 8 barrels. He also said he has shifted from Cheniere rice because its yields decreased.
His average yield was 37 barrels for the first crop and 15 barrels for the ratoon. “I thought that was excellent for over here.”
He said the second crop yield amounted to only 8 barrels on wet ground where the stubble couldn’t be mowed after first crop harvest.
Brandon said barnyardgrass and Southern watergrass have become resistant to propanil on one of their farms.
Brandon said he keeps track of what needs to be done without writing it down. “I told my dad if I ever get hit in the head, you all are in a bind.”
This year, Brandon hired two Mexicans to help with the crawfish crop and rice.
“I should have done it years ago,” he said. “It saves me a lot of time on labor.”
“I had three years of Spanish in high school, and it’s starting to come back to me.”
He said he’s also learning how to cook Mexican dishes from the workers who are fishermen back home.
Brandon said he likes to cook, especially wild game. He duck hunts and his wife, Danielle, is a deer hunter. She also keeps the books for the farms, and she works for the local soil and water conservation district, but she had no previous farm experience. “She’s learning what I’m dealing with.”