John Shepherd has made a name for himself in farming circles by taking pieces of mostly unwanted farmland in and around Blackstone, Va., and producing high yielding, high quality grain crops.
He is the winner of an annual Virginia Farm Bureau Conservation Award and the 2012 Bayer Crops Science Young Farmer Sustainability Award.
Shepherd has a story to tell for anyone interested in getting into farming without the benefit of inherited land or modern equipment.
Shepherd’s third crop of wheat placed second in the Virginia Wheat Yield Contest.
“Most people around here were very skeptical about my yield — they just didn’t think anyone could grow more than 100 bushels of wheat per acre on this land,” he says.
When Shepherd got started farming in 2007, his father worked on the Flue Cured Tobacco Stabilization Board and farmed a few acres of tobacco and grain.
With a little help from his father and with small, mostly antiquated equipment, Shepherd jumped into farming while working a full time job as a seed and fertilizer sales rep.
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“I graduated with a degree in agriculture from Virginia Tech in 2007, and I already had my first crop in the ground,” he says.
“I rented a 40 acre field that had grown tobacco for many years and was so eroded I had to rebuild the field before I could farm it.” This is the field that produced his award winning 121 bushel per acre wheat crop.
“I was able to get a FSA loan because I had grown watermelons on a small scale while I was in school. And, I was able to get some additional matching funds to help restore the land,” he adds.
Rough go on 40 acres
Making a living on 40 acres was rough, but he made it through the first year and began adding mostly run-down land and making it work for grain crops.
The second farm he picked up was a run-down 25 acres of good land that had been planted in pine trees in the summer of 2008. The drought and intense heat that year took out the pine trees and Shepherd added it to his farm.
“Virtually all of the land I farm is land that nobody else wanted. I haven’t taken any land from anybody who was taking care of the land and trying to make a living on it.
“Planting soybeans continuously for 25 years without adding lime or fertilization is not trying,” he adds.
When he started farming in 2007, Shepherd worked full time as a salesman for Meherrin Chemical Company and farmed at night. A nocturnal encounter with a power line convinced him he needed to either go full time or find time during the day to farm.
“It’s been an uphill battle, but I believe when you put everything you have into something and get good results, it means more to you,” Shepherd says.
“I like to take time to understand all that’s going on with a crop and do everything as timely as I can to produce the best crop I can, he adds.
Now, Shepherd grows about 1,000 acres, with half that double-cropped and all of it in continuous production of either grain crops or cover crops.
He says he has no-tilled every acre of land he has ever farmed and continues to do so.
“I had a great mentor, Mark Alley, when I was in school at Virginia Tech. Dr. Alley is a great example of how one teacher can have a profound impact on a student’s life,” Shepherd says.
“Some people think no-till is all about planting soybean seeds in wheat stubble, but Dr. Alley taught us that no-till farming is a system.
Cover crops part of system
“A part of that system is cover crops, and I try to keep something growing on the land I farm all year around,” the young Virginia farmer explains.
When most people think of high production grain land, few consider south side Virginia to be one of those prime places. The land has produced tobacco and not much else for a couple of centuries.
Shepherd says by applying what the land needs and paying attention to the details of growing a crop, this land can be productive.
Corn, he says, has been a particular challenge.
Going from optimum soil moisture and fertility can be negated with a 10-12 day stretch of hot, dry weather. Despite the challenges, Shepherd says he needs corn in his rotation, and he’s determined to make it pay off.
However, this year, he planted 350 acres of grain sorghum, which may prove to be a better match for his rough land than corn.
He planted sorghum because excessive and continuous rainfall delayed wheat harvest and thus double crop-soybean planting.
“I planted soybeans up until July 5, but still had some wheat in the ground. I think the double-crop sorghum will have a better chance to make a decent crop than soybeans planted in mid-July,” he says.
Adding the new crop will force the Virginia farmer to make some changes in his cover crop system. Typically, he flies on hairy vetch in front of his corn crop and on soybeans before the leaves drop. The aerial application, he says, has worked out really well.
“I treat my cover crops a little different than most people, he says.
“I leave them in the field as late as I can. I’ve even planted seed into green vetch, and that takes some extra care, but still works out well for me,” he adds.
After his grain sorghum crop is harvested this year, he says he will probably fly on rye for a winter cover crop. “I’ll probably plant soybeans in those fields, and I don’t need vetch on beans. Oats might be an option, but I think it will be a little too late to plant oats.”
Thick file of soil maps
Over the relatively brief period of farming six years, the young Virginian has compiled a thick file of soil maps, which are the basis for all his fertility decisions. Farming 1,000 acres with fields averaging 15-20 acres, requires some precise management.
“Grid sampling just isn’t feasible on our small fields. The soils vary greatly, even in small fields, and only by tracking exactly what has been put on each part of each field can I provide my crops with the fertility they need,” he says.
In large part due to his success with farming poorly managed and often poor soils, Shepherd is now in demand as a consultant, which he does on a limited basis.
“I’m surprised at how many farmers don’t really understand basic soil science. They know what fertilizer formulations they use on their land, but many don’t really understand what is included in one formulation versus another, or how one would work better on some crops under different soil conditions,” he says.
The Virginia farmer also has a precise system of marketing his crops. With 32,000 bushel on-farm storage capacity, he has some flexibility on how much he can forward contract and how much he can hold for better prices.
Long-time grain buyer and current Murphy-Brown buyer David Hull says Shepherd learned all he could learn about marketing grain sorghum before he made the decision to plant the crop this summer.
“He is a young guy, but he has a good plan for marketing his crops — one of the most progressive and aggressive marketers I’ve run across,” Hull says.
At 28 years of age, the best part of his farming career is likely ahead of him, but Shepherd says he plans to move forward cautiously.
“I’m at the point that I can do everything myself, but to get bigger I will have to add employees and land, and I want to be very selective on how I do that,” he says.