Progressive Farmer — FEBRUARY 2014
Bridge To Silent Shade
Dan Miller

Jeremy Jack is the accelerator. Stacie Jack- Koger is the brake. The brother and sister are building an operation geared for growth and productivity.

TO UNDERSTAND THE BUSINESS PRACTICES

Jeremy Jack and Stacie Jack-Koger follow as they build their Belzoni, Miss., Silent Shade Planting Company, consider the construction of a bridge. A bridge is erected in straightforward order. The beam spans the gap.Trusses, suspension cables and piers support the beam.The beam supports the deck. The deck conveys traffic across the gap.

Similar to the construction of a bridge has been the construction of the business that is Silent Shade.

Jeremy (married to Elizabeth) and Stacie (married to Trey) are brother and sister operators of the 8,500- acre corn, soybean, cotton, wheat and rice farm in the Mississippi Delta. Not to be confused with the Mississippi River Delta a couple of hundred miles south, the Mississippi Delta is actually the delta of the Yazoo River.It is remarkably flat, fertile, 60 miles across at its widest and hemmed in on the west by the Mississippi River.The Delta receives 50 inches of rain annually, about half during the growing season.

As a business, Silent Shade has existed for nearly 34 years. Situated in the heart of cotton country, the farm features corn. “We grew corn when corn wasn’t cool,” Jeremy recalls. It may soon grow peanuts. Jeremy and Stacie are looking at the legume as another good option to rotate with cotton.

OFF-FARM EXPERIENCE. Both left the family farm for college and off-farm work. Jeremy has degrees in agricultural economics and a Master’s of Agribusiness degree focusing on ag policy, both earned at Mississippi State University. He lettered in football there. As part of his master’s program, he worked during 2008 for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). Jeremy is the day-to-day manager of Silent Shade.

Stacie has a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and a master’s in taxation, both from Mississippi State. She worked seven years for a small CPA firm, Baird & Stallings, as a certified public accountant.She returned to Silent Shade in 2009 as the managing Partner with the responsibility for all things financial.

“It’s awesome building a farm that you hope your children will be able to join someday,” she says. “We trust the job each of us is doing.”

Stacie’s return was important to the business. She established standards and financial measurements that gave brother and sister a clear view of the farm’s standing.

“I was working the farm during the day and the books at night. I couldn’t handle that anymore,” Jeremy says.The Delta’s growing season lasts months and months, from Valentine’s Day in February and sometimes to the Southeastern Conference championship football game in early December. The books competed with field time.

CANADIAN ROOTS. Silent Shade’s beginnings were not typical. Jeremy’s and Stacie’s parents, Willard and Laura Lee, traveled to Belzoni and Silent Shade Plantation from Their home in Chatham, Ontario, Canada in search of new land. By 1979, their Canadian farm was landlocked within a highly industrialized area. Their search took them into the U.S., and they just kept going south. By 1980 they had bought 1,000 acres and tried, not with complete success over the following years, to weather the 1980’s farm crisis.

“We lost the farm and then rented it back from Metropolitan Life,” Jeremy recalls.

Silent Shade has grown away from those dark days, today more than eight times its original size. The farm’s productive soil, ranging from sandy ground to gumbo so thick that even a sprinkle of rain makes it impassible, is the beam in the bridge. This land supports everything.

In the Mississippi Delta, irrigation is a bridge truss.Nearly all of Silent Shade’s ground is irrigated. There are four pivots; the rest is flood and row irrigated. Deep wells pump 2,000 to 3,000 gallons per minute. The goal is to water 25 acres every 12 hours—enough to water the crops, but not enough to to damage them. Ground not irrigated today will be within a few years, Jeremy expects.

Irrigation water in the Delta is not a resource to be wasted. Water from the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer is easy to reach, often tapped 120 feet below ground. Soybeans and rice are the major consumers of water, with 1.2 million acres growing under irrigation. Estimates hold that irrigation withdraws 300,000 acre-feet more per year than is replaced naturally. An acre-foot covers one acre of ground with one foot of water.

WATER CONSERVATION. Silent Shade is at the forefront of work to conserve this water resource. Mississippi State’s REACH program, Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat, has set up shop on 800 acres of the farm. The project is incorporating various land-forming structures and pumps to reduce groundwater withdrawals by more than 75% over 10 years. The project will improve the area’s aquatic and waterfowl habitat. When the work is complete, the acreage is expected to operate within a closed system; that is, no irrigation water, nutrients or sediment will leave the site.

The investment in time and resources is a bottomline plus for the farm, Jeremy says. “We take care of the ground, and the ground takes care of us,” he concludes.

A STRONG SUPPORT. A pier to the bridge is Silent Shade’s infrastructure. The operation counts 35 grain bins with 500,000 bushels of storage. The multitude of bins allows Jeremy and Stacie to identity-preserve the rice, wheat, corn and soybeans if the market offers an incentive To do it.

The operation includes a large, full-service shop to maintain lines of farming and trucking equipment.The shop is capable of setting up new equipment and includes a full fabrication line.

With the farming operation is Willard Jack Trucking. An S corporation, it runs eight trucks separate from the farming operation. The farm is its biggest customer. When not hauling the harvest, the trucks deliver fertilizer, cottonseed and cotton bales, and gravel and dirt.

A relative newcomer to the farm is Delta Air, Inc. Complete with a new 602 Air Tractor, the plane brings timely nutrient and pesticide applications to the farm. The plane has a state-of-the-art G4 controller and the capability to variably apply dry and liquid products. The technology allows for applied maps to be sent directly to customers from the aircraft. The plane also receives prescription maps while in the air.

“We can spray in two hours what we could spray in two days with the hi-boy,” Jeremy says.

Silent Shade also has an interest in a large cotton gin in nearby Holmes County. The facility has storage for cottonseed and cotton bales.

DIALED IN. Technology is another indispensable bridge pier. “We have a total systems approach to variable rate technology,” Stacie says.There is little technology that the farm hasn’t incorporated.

The farm deploys automated tractor and combine guidance, input controllers, yield monitors, grid soil sampling, GPS land leveling and variable-rate technologies.The farm dipped its toe into the variablerate technology by applying fertilizer on ground sampled in 2½-acre grids. Aerial photography monitors plant growth to help guide in-season nutrient and pesticide applications.

Next came variable seeding in corn and soybeans. On average, Jeremy says yields improved even as the amount of seed planted declined.

The next technological step for Silent Shade is variable-rate irrigation.

“The technology should allow us to better utilize our water resources,” Jeremy says. “Technology will take us up to the next step.”

The final bridge pier is the farm’s accounting practices. Stacie transitioned the farm from a cash accounting system to an accrual system. With it, she began charting key expenses and developing financial ratios That help the brother and sister team track costs of crops that may have a 24-month lifespan from planting to the sell date. The ratios help them make judgments on potential infrastructure and equipment investments.

“The ratios guide our buying decisions,” Stacie says.“We want the core to be stable. We want to know beforehand that we are okay.”

HIGH GROWTH. In the years since Stacie returned the farm has grown by 5,000 acres, the vast majority is leased.Renting makes more sense for both of them.

“It’s hard to take on more land (debt), while you’re building infrastructure,” Jeremy says. “We make our money growing bushels and pounds. We would not have had the working capital for the tractors, trucks, plane, shop and bins” if the farm had attempted to purchase all its land.

Guide wires hold the bridge in place. At Silent Shade, those guide wires are the people—employees, suppliers, landlords and advisers who provide capability, skill and knowledge to Silent Shade. For example, Stacie and Jeremy regularly quiz their financial advisers. They want to know the operation’s strengths and weaknesses.

The farm has need for 30 to 35 employees—it is a few short of that. The young staff, most are under 35 years old, includes a full-time agronomist, truck drivers, farm hands and office staff.

Jeremy and Stacie are challenged for time to recruit new employees and develop staff areas of expertise. The farm has a new employee handbook. Coming is a standard operating procedures manual and a safety manual.

SKILLS NEEDED. The two are pondering the addition of a bin manager and a parts and service manager. They rely on costs and benefits analysis when hiring. But they also operate by a rule of thumb. “When things aren’t getting done,” says Jeremy looking around his shop, several projects in various stages of completion, “that’s when we know it’s time to hire.”

South African hands supplement labor needs on Silent Shade. With H2A visas in hand, the temporary workers come to the U.S. highly educated (most have college education) and well skilled.

The farm’s close network of suppliers are partners— and, another source of skilled input important to the functioning of the farm, Stacie says. “We don’t see them as salesmen; they are an extension of our staff,” she says.

Jeremy remembers an incident that drove home the value of these partners. He was having trouble with a tractor-to-planter controller. When it was all said and done, seven people were called to resolve the problem.

“All of them were pointing their fingers at the other,” he says. “I was tired of working with all these people.”

“We weren’t saving anything by [price shopping],” Stacie adds. “The key is really the ability to gain information from one another. The more successful we are, the more successful they will be.”

Two important influencers on Silent Shade’s operating tactics are their peer groups. Financial information is shared within the group, members discuss plans and opportunities, and they all critique the important decisions of everyone in the group.

“They hold you accountable. It’s the strongest review You’ll ever get,” Stacie assures a visitor.

The groups bring diverse skills to the table. Jeremy’s includes a Texas cotton grower, a wine producer from Washington, a Minnesota swine, cattle and crop producer, and a vegetable producer from New Jersey. Stacie’s group, all women, are from Midwest grain operations.

IDEA GENERATOR. “It’s almost like a prayer revival,” Jeremy says of the peer group. “When you see what they are doing, you come back pretty excited. I’m getting six times the ideas I would have otherwise.”

With a large rented land base, Jeremy and Stacie know well the value of landlord relations. Most live in Mississippi, but not all. Communication is key. They publish a newsletter and are working to improve their website.

Jeremy and Stacie have an interesting angle on landlord relations. They communicate with the landlords, to be sure. But they also reach out to their children, or principal younger members of the extended family.

“We farm the land like it is our own. We want to [communicate] that to the next generation,” Stacie says.That means a growing reliance on Tweeting, Facebook, even Instagram, the photo and video sharing social network service.

As Stacie and Jeremy sit at two ends of the table, they appear comfortable with one another’s approach.

“We tend to be the peacemakers of the family,” Stacie says. “[But] we def nitely think in different extremes. I like to say, I am Jeremy’s brake and he is my accelerator. He has big thoughts and I bring them back to reality. But, we wouldn’t be where we are not without his big thoughts.”

Silent Shade also would not be where it’s at without someone’s close eye on the books.
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND