Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
VICK – The Williams brothers farm in Avoyelles Parish is a long ways from anywhere, and you probably won’t pass by it on your way to another destination.
The state highway that leads to their place is as twisty as the story of how the Williams family came to the area on the north side of the Red River.
Scott and Alan’s father, Doyle Williams, originally farmed in northeast Arkansas, near Rector, Arkansas, located west of the Missouri boot-heel. “Cotton was the bread and butter back in the day,” said Alan, who is 18 years older than Scott.
He recalls picking cotton by hand in Arkansas, pulling a long sack through the rows alongside his mother. “I was 12 years old picking by hand, and my dad came and got me and put me in a picker. Dad bought a single-row picker in 1959.”
Back in those days, cotton harvest was a drawn-out endeavor, Alan explained. A field had to be harvested twice, because farmers didn’t have ripening chemicals to force bolls to mature all at once.
In comparison, corn – now the biggest crop on the Williams farm – is a much simpler crop than cotton, Alan said. “I haven’t shredded a corn crop yet.”
Their father grew cotton in Arkansas in the era of the boll weevil. High-boy spray rigs worked 7 days a week to spray methyl parathion. When the plants were at full height, the spray couldn’t penetrate through the foliage, leaving many weevils untouched, Alan said. “You’re not eliminating them, you’re just suppressing them.”
When the Williams family was in Arkansas, farmland in Arkansas and Missouri became scarce and expensive as soybeans became the No. 1 crop in the Midwest, and farmers were competing for land to grow the new commodity.
“When you’re poor, you don’t have cash to pay for land,” Alan explained.
To make ends meet, their father sold Ford vehicles in the off-season for a man with money to invest in land. The boss had heard about cheap land in Louisiana, and he sent Doyle down south to investigate around Jonesville, Louisiana.
Sure enough, there was land available but much of it was lush swampland that had to be cleared and drained.
A man with land for sale had a supper where he made a pitch to sell farmland, and Doyle was convinced that was the place to go.
Like pioneers, the family moved 452 miles south to hack out a living in a wild, untamed region.
A D-8 Caterpillar dozer was used to move felled trees, and Alan recalls it was possible to walk across a new field by stepping from stump to stump. Workers hired in Jonesville wrestled the roots by hand from the soil.
While the back-breaking work was tough, Alan recalled, making a homeplace in an isolated, strange land was even tougher.
“It was hardest on the wives,” Alan recalled. “It was hardest on the women.”
Alan recalls that their mother, Willodean, would wake them in the morning at 6 and breakfast would be ready, and often she would bring lunch to the fields, and then help pick cotton in Arkansas.
After the Williams migration to Louisiana, more Arkansas farmers followed them along with some farmers from Missouri. After moving to Louisiana, Soybeans was the main crop, and the Williams wouldn’t try cotton again there until 1974.
Alan and Scott, along with their sister, Beverly and Brenda, grew up on the farm. Both boys went away for school.
Scott pitched baseball for Louisiana College where he graduated in 1989 with a degree in mathematical computing. “I knew I was coming back to the farm.”
Alan also went to Louisiana College, playing basketball and graduated with a business degree.
At one time, the brothers farmed 3,800 acres of cotton, but eventually they had to make a tough decision and make corn their dominant crop. Nematodes in the sandy soil hurt the cotton crop so much that it became less profitable.
“We started raising corn as an alternative to cotton,” Scott said.
“Rita is the one that got us,” Alan said, referring to the 2005 hurricane that slammed Louisiana as the most powerful Gulf of Mexico storm. The 2,200-acre crop flooded from 22 inches of rain, and seeds were sprouting in the bolls and they had no choice but to shred the entire crop.
This year, they have 400 acres of cotton, and 3,000 acres of corn.
Last year’s corn crop average about 175 bushels an acre. “We’ll have some fields go over 200,” Scott said.
They expect to start harvest by the first week of August. “Usually around the second week of August is when we get into full swing,” Scott said.
Most of the corn is fertilized with 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre, although some areas get 246 pounds. Scott said they run tissue samples on their fields to determine the nutrient demand.
They irrigate about 90 percent of their corn crop using almost 30 miles of poly pipe. Coyotes are a problem with poly pipe because they rip holes in the plastic, Scott said. Repairs are made using 12-inch corrugated black plastic pipe.
After a disastrous drought in 1998, they decided irrigation was essential if they wanted to continue farming. First, they leveled their fields. “We started with one tractor and one dirt buggy,” Alan said.
They started planting corn this year on March 15 and ended 5 days later.
Flooding has claimed about 100 acres of corn this year, but they know their flooding problem is minor compared to a neighbor who had 2,000 acres flooded near Larto Lake. And then there are their friends in the Morganza area who face the possibility of losing all their crops planted in the Atchafalaya Spillway.
“When the Mississippi backs up, it causes problems for everybody,” Alan explained.
They have managed to farm on a large scale by using local workers who have proven to be dependable. The brothers have eight full-time workers, and one has been with them for 33 years.
“Most of our guys could work anywhere,” Scott said. “We employ our labor 12 months a year. We don’t ever lay them off.”
Herbicide-resistant pigweed is their biggest weed problem. They use a pre-emerge herbicide for burndown, then follow the planter with glyphosate.
Wild pigs also have been a problem, although a hired gun shot enough of them that they have moved elsewhere.
The Williams’ 1,500-acre bean crop this year is all dicamba-resistant. A neighbor grew dicamba beans last year but the Williams didn’t and their soybeans experienced a minor dicamba drift. Scott said the damage was cosmetic but it was enough to convince them that they should go all dicamba in 2019.
In 2018, they managed to harvest almost all of their 4,000-acre bean crop and 5,000 acres of a neighbor’s before last fall’s heavy rain that damaged much of Louisiana’s soybeans in the field. “We had 80 acres to cut after the rain,” Alan recalled.
Scott is the fabricator who custom builds their equipment.
He made a 90-foot hooded spray boom to handle mile-long rows of soybeans.
It folds so it can be hauled around the farm easier, but it uses large amounts of liquid quickly. So larger tanks had to be used to increase the capacity but those tanks mounted with regular John Deere parts made it impossible to turn front dual wheels. So Scott made wing-like arms, using 7-inch, half-inch wall square pipe, that hold larger tanks above the wheels. “This way, we can leave the duals on year-round.”
Alan said they had no choice but to learn to weld when they were kids. “There weren’t any machine shops around here.”
Scott said when he was a boy their dad went to Sears and bought a welding machine and cutting torch and turned them loose with scrap metal.
They will fabricate their own designs, or copy a piece of equipment. “When we copy something, it’s usually heavier than the original because out here, it takes some abuse,” Scott said.
Their farm acreage is located in three parishes: Avoyelles, Concordia and Catahoula. Some of that land is 75 miles away by road, but 15 miles as the crow flies. So after years of driving the narrow, twisty road to the distant farm, they decided to use the crow’s route and they bought an ultralight airplane. Scott learned to fly the aircraft, the largest ultralight at that time with a 33-foot wingspan.
It made scouting fields easier, and cut the commute time to the remote farm considerably. “I could land that thing on a turnrow,” Scott said.
One day they took off and the engine missed. Then it quit.
“It don’t take long to fall 200 feet,” Alan said.
They were black and blue but suffered no lasting injuries, however Alan said that ended their aviation experience. “The board of directors met, and we quit flying.”
But Alan isn’t ready to quit farming.
“I’ve got to be doing something. I just love to plant a crop and watch it grow.”
Justin Dufour, LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish, said enjoys working with the Williams. Dufour has held sessions to train their employees in the new worker protection standards.
“They’re very active in staying up to date on new technology,” he said.
Dufour said they have been eager to try new approaches such as cover crops. “They’re very open-minded to discuss things.”