Attention To Every Row: From Poor Soil to Verdant Fields

September 7, 2016 02:53 AM

Alabama transplant turns poor soils into a pioneering 10,000-acre enterprise

A 2,000-acre stretch of dark green foliage, possibly the largest contiguous soybean field east of the Mississippi Delta, shimmers under a painted blue sky at mid-afternoon. A skin of humidity hovers over the canopy as a searing late-June sun turns the horizon to a hazy anvil, but the fields are no mirage. Standing in the middle of this sea of green, watching warily over it all, is the captain of the ship: Annie Dee.

Tucked into the hills of east-central Alabama, Dee River Ranch is a 10,000-acre piece of heaven, with 4,000 crop acres split between corn and soybeans. It’s a model of soil fertility, precision technology and high yields, forged by the drive of a remarkable producer. Yet wipe away the gleam of crop success and you’ll expose the vein threaded beneath the entire operation: service that goes far beyond the fence line. For these reasons, Dee earned a spot as a 2016 Top Producer of the Year finalist.

In the late 1980s, Dee’s father, J. Roy Dee, farmed and raised cattle on 10,000 acres of sugar sand in central Florida. Amid looming shortages, their water district pegged the Dee property as vital to residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg. 

J. Roy didn’t wait on the iron hand of eminent domain. He went to the table and walked away with pockets full, ready to begin again anywhere in the southeast crop belt from South Carolina to Texas. Through circumstance, fortune or providence, he caught wind of land available 700 miles away. J. Roy signed the deed, didn’t look back and headed for Aliceville, Ala.

Go West, Young Woman. In lock-step with her father, Annie Dee packed and stacked a Florida farm and hit the road for Aliceville in 1989, going west with cattle and a caravan of equipment. But there was no green and gold waiting in Alabama, just depleted ground, weed pressure and a farm in disrepair. 

“We had no real plan because we didn’t even understand the soil,” Dee says. “Our first couple of years were necessary failures. You either complain or embrace failure and learn.”

Dee nursed the dirt, uncovered soil complexities and had the ground in genuine recovery within five years. Today, 27 years after the initial land purchase, the soil has been reborn. Tillage is out. Cover crops are in. 

She reaches between remarkably clean rows for a handful of blackland prairie soil and sifts the particles as they fall to the ground, a mix of rich dirt, cover-crop residue and poultry litter. Simply put, it’s an elixir of soil health. Dee follows a 2.5-acre grid soil sampling setup to measure cover crop benefits and manages resources and inputs with OptiGro precision ag mapping and farm history tools from Cleveland, Miss.-based Sanders, an inputs and tech provider.

“We’re no-till if we can,” she explains. “It’s naturally weak soil, and continuous tillage does lots of damage.” Dee started with wheat as a cover crop, switched to rye and settled on clover, winter peas, radishes, rapeseed, rye and turnips. Every year, she makes slight changes.

Saved By Water. Even after the penny dropped and Dee unlocked the soil-fertility code, she continued to fight a yield battle. Dryland corn yields of 150 bu. to 160 bu. per acre weren’t acceptable over the long term, and several agronomists told her the math was fixed. She could drop in a pivot and maybe boost yields to 180 bu. per acre, but it wouldn’t justify the payout.

Dee didn’t flinch. 

“I knew we could do it. Forget 180,” she recalls. “I knew we had the soil fertility for 300 bu. per acre under irrigation.” Yet Dee bled yields during years when crops burned. She struggled with whether to give the crops a drink or hold the line. 

In 2011, Dee River Ranch chose the first option. A 25-acre reservoir would irrigate 310 acres in tandem with a cattle pond to water 114 acres. The result? A 125-bu.-per-acre leap that, combined with $7 corn, almost paid for the system in a single season. It shook Dee to the core. 

“I was ready to go big,” she says.

The decision looked risky to some. Was it really a good idea to reach into the coffers and make a big financial commitment based on a single year of fantastic yields? Dee stepped on the gas anyway. 

“Sure, I had doubters,” she says. “Guess what? Everyone has doubters. Hit a wall and back up to find a way around, no matter what. That’s the personality I was born with.”

Solving The Puzzle. The next challenge Dee had to address: how to pull irrigation water, whether from a river, creek, wells or a reservoir. The magnitude of the project left no second chances. It had to be correct from the get-go. When Lindsay Corporation put pencil to paper and broke down the efficiency options, all numbers pointed toward building a reservoir. 

Lindsay designed a whole-farm irrigation system fed by a 110-acre reservoir built on idle land. Five Watertronics 150-hp pumps with variable frequency drive control technology now supply water to 2,850 acres. Lindsay touts the design as the most energy-efficient irrigation system in U.S. agriculture. 

The pumps feed 17 center pivots mounted with Growsmart Field Boss control panels. Lindsay’s FieldNET is used to control all pivots and pumps through the ezWireless broadband network and can be accessed by tablet or smartphone. 

“This was a very insightful plan for the long-range sustainability of the farming operation,” says Ed Boyd, regional president of Alabama Ag Credit, Dee’s lending partner since 2011. “A large part of the farming risk was reduced by having irrigation available during critical times in the growing season.” 

 The ranch’s 17-pivot irrigation system has  been dubbed by its designer, Lindsay  Corporation, as the most energy-efficient  anywhere in the U.S.

Old math has been trumped by new yields. Corn routinely explodes to over 300 bu. per acre. The yields forced Dee to double grain-handling capacity from 125,000 bu. to 250,000 bu. In wet years, the 17-pivot system pushes yields, and in dry years it is the difference-maker. Since 2011, per-acre corn profits on nonirrigated acres have ranged from $144 per acre to $1,093 per acre, Dee says. (Soybean incomes on nonirrigated acres have ranged from $115 per acre to $215 per acre.) The total return on irrigation investment has been 31% over that timeframe.

Success In Plain View. At first blush, Dee might appear to be removed from the daily grind. Yet spend a day watching her drive cattle, operate a combine and troubleshoot fields—all while calling the shots on commodity marketing—and the reality is plain. Dee belongs in the dirt, and the wheels at the ranch don’t turn without her. 

“It’s apparent to me that Miss Annie’s commitment to soil and water conservation, along with nutrition, is the key to her successful farming practices,” says Kenny Cordell, CEO of Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings. “In my 35 years in this industry, I’d have to look hard to find anything that has made a greater impression on me.”

Legislators laud her contributions.

“Through Annie’s leadership, the farm continues its tradition of being on the cutting edge of technology and environmental stewardship,” says U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. 

It’s high praise, but Dee is quick to shake off the accolades. She traces the operation’s success with a straight line back to the people who surround her. “I’m just part of a team,” she says. “Sure, I’m the face most often seen. But this success is because of our excellent team.” 

Younger brother Mike Dee shoulders irrigation, nitrogen and grain-handling responsibilities. Her son Jesse More handles spraying, while her son Seth More is the overall farm manager. Zack Powell, another vital link who has been with the operation for about 10 years, is a key machinery operator. Her husband, Ed, is an Extension plant pathologist with Auburn University.

Blood and Soil. Dee’s determination to shape circumstances paved the road to Aliceville—as did two pivotal figures. Fernell Alka, a family friend, ran a ham-and-egg ranch in Mt. Carmel, Ill. When her husband died in a farming accident, Alka took eggs to stores on her own and put her children through college. 

“She could have wallowed in misfortune, but instead Alka pressed on,” Dee recalls. J. Roy looms large as a man of vision in Dee’s life: A self-taught farmer, her father adopted irrigation and fertigation in Florida well ahead of his peers. 

Dee chose farming—or maybe the profession chose her. “I’ve been blessed and, in turn, I feel I have a moral responsibility to make sure people aren’t hungry,” she says.

Her words are backed by donations to food banks and involvement in a host of humanitarian and food security projects including the Rural Medical Scholars Program through the University of Alabama; the United Soybean Board; and Howard G. Buffett’s Invest an Acre program.

As pivots pump and sprayers roll in the distance, Dee looks across her 10,000-acre Eden and points toward a rolling corn field. 

“I farm because I know that’s what God intended me to do,” she says. “When the corn comes off each 
fall at harvest, it’s hard to describe how happy it makes me. It’s not complicated. This is the story I’m supposed to tell.”

Dee River Ranch At A Glance

 Ranch operations are managed (from left) by    Annie Dee’s brother, Mike, and her sons, Seth and  Jesse. They often push corn yields above 300 bu.  per acre.

Operation: Dee River Ranch covers 10,000 acres in western Alabama, with 4,000 acres of 
corn and soybeans.

Family: Annie Dee is CEO. Her sons, Jesse and Seth, handle spraying and management. Dee’s brother, Mike, shoulders irrigation and applies nitrogen. Her husband, Ed, is an Extension plant pathologist with Auburn University.

Community: Annie is involved in the Rural Medical Scholars Program through the University of Alabama; United Soybean Board; Howard G. Buffett’s Invest an Acre program; Harvesting the Potential; Alabama Pro Health grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focusing on obesity prevention; and frequent speaking engagements at universities on conservation and energy efficiency.

Technology: Dee is heavily invested in cutting-edge center-pivot irrigation and soil-health technology, agronomic product testing, university field trials and new crop trials.

Ranch Tests New Crops, Products

In addition to growing corn and soybeans, Annie Dee is focused on new crops that have the potential to be big business. She planted 20 acres of millet this year and has contracted with a malter to raise barley 
in the fall. 

She sees opportunity for bamboo, for example, and is preparing to plant acreage for Resource Fiber, operator of the top bamboo nursery in the U.S.

She is conducting the first U.S. corn trial of N-Fix, a nitrogen-fixation seed coating developed by England-based Azotic Technologies that could reduce nutrient loss in fields.



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