Story and photos by Derek Albert
COLFAX – If you find yourself driving through Central Louisiana’s Grant Parish, you will not find any fast-food restaurants, big box stores or even any traffic lights. What you will find along its bucolic winding highways are fields of corn, soybeans and milo.
Of the remaining commercial farmers in Grant Parish, Ryan and Danielle Yerby, proprietors of Tareau Farms, will be the first to tell you that farming in their region has not been easy. Tucked away among oxbows on the eastern bank of the Red River, the area is dominated by a diverse array of agricultural commodities. But according to the Yerbys, Mother Nature has not been extremely cooperative, in recent years, to a profitable agrarian lifestyle.
“We flooded in ’15 and ‘16. We froze in ’17. And froze again in ’20,” Ryan Yerby said about his previous attempts at growing winter wheat.”
This growing season, there may be no wheat on Tareau Farms, but there are about 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and now, milo. Yerby said he has added milo, also known as grain sorghum, to his crop rotation. He gave a number of reasons as to why he planted a crop that Grant Parish had not seen much of in a few years.
“You can actually get something for it, now. The market just opened up,” he quipped about the forage crop. “It’s drought tolerant. It’s a great rotational crop and it’s not a difficult crop to grow.”
It seems, this year, the drought-tolerant characteristic of milo is at the forefront. Rainfall has been scarce so far, this growing season. Yerby said the 600 acres of corn he planted this year have severely stunted by the area’s drought. And his soybeans are thirsty, too.
Yerby said Grant Parish elders speculate that the vicinity to the Red River triggers a meteorological anomaly that causes the coveted precipitation-carrying low-pressure systems to skirt around the fields where the Yerbys farm. It could be that…or just coincidence…that occasionally leaves the area arid during the summer months. But the Yerbys have faced the opposite, too—floods.
“Once your crop goes under, especially in those flood conditions, that part of the crop is wiped out,” he said. “So, you’ve got to start looking at maximizing yields. You’ve got to increase your margins without increasing inputs.”
Though it is either ‘feast or famine’ when it comes to precipitation, water below ground is just as spotty. In what Mother Nature has doled out as pure irony, “The closer you are to the river, the less water there is,” Yerby explained. He said he has begun exploring more irrigation options with property owners in recent months.
“Irrigation is a joint effort. Not only is it a landlord investment, but it is as tenant investment, too,” Yerby said. “Both landlord and tenant have to be on the same page and have to realize ’hey, we are going to have to be in a long-term relationship to pursue this.’”
In efforts to get a better grasp of shrinking margins, the Yerbys are focusing on precision agriculture technologies on their operation. Starting this year with Bayer’s Climate Fieldview technology, Ryan, along with Crop Production Services crop consultant, neighbor and friend, Tommy Crooks, can start collecting data on every acre of farmland during every step of the farming process.
“It helps us mange inputs with a fine-tooth comb,” Yerby said.
“We are in the infant stages of it, but I’m focused on making sure the planters are calibrated right so that we are putting out the right amount of seed and the right amount of fertilizer at planting.”
Danielle Yerby said both she and her husband have resorted to supplementing their family income stream with subsidiary businesses related to their farming operation. She described these side jobs as “parts of the business that have become the bottom line.” Ryan, who uses a sizeable amount of polypipe to irrigate fields--where the water table allows it--has begun to sell the vital irrigation material to neighboring farmers. And between his and his father’s farms, Yerby also tends a herd of 175 beef cattle. In addition, Danielle said rather than let the farm’s expensive earth-moving equipment sit idle while the crops are in the ground, they have started accepting jobs for land leveling and other dirt work.
“We have this equipment that we bought for ourselves. Why not make it pay for itself for the rest of the year?” Danielle explained.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Danielle, who dabbled in home gardening, also earned a nursery license from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to raise and sell bedding plants.
“Those couple of things, over the last couple of years, have become line items,” she said. “At the end of the year, when you’re afraid you’re gonna be in the red and not the black, those things add up.”
The Yerbys stay involved in their local rural community by being involved in a number of Ag organizations. Ryan and Danielle serve as district IV directors and Grant Parish chairs for the Louisiana Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee. Ryan serves as Grant Parish Farm Bureau president while Danielle serves on the Louisiana Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.
“We do what we can to preserve the land and preserve the community. We try to give back whenever we can,” Ryan said.
The Yerbys’ farming enterprise began when Ryan returned to Colfax after graduating from LSU in 2004 in agribusiness, but he did not just leave there with a degree-that is where he met Danielle--a native of Branch, La.--who graduated in 2006 with a degree in human resource education. After as stint working for Sunshine Equipment in Thibodaux, Ryan returned to the farm where his father, Charles has made a living tending crops since 1955. In January 2013, their daughter Reagan was born. Ryan Jr., now 5-years-old, rounded out the next generation of Yerbys.
“Dad was an innovator around here. He was the first one to start with irrigation here. He started with precision leveling, and the polypipe. And he was one of the leading ones to usher in corn to this area,” Ryan said.
One may wonder--with the annual threat of the Red River’s impeding floodwaters, yield-suppressing droughts, skyrocketing input costs, and volatile commodity prices—why would anyone want to endure such a challenging, if not, at times, tempestuous way of life? The surprisingly unprovoked answer came most astutely from the Yerbys’ 9-year-old gingham-clad daughter, Reagan.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she said.
Reagan’s parents corroborated.
“We live a good life. I couldn’t think of raising our family any other way,” Danielle said.
“I look at farming and agriculture as the last honest living there is” Ryan said pensively. “When you watch your kids grow up in the fields, on the farm, they are not facing urban sprawl. They are riding horses. They’re riding go-karts and dirt bikes. That’s the benefit.”