Quiet and unassuming describes how Joe Morgan initially comes across, but those in the peanut industry have come to know Morgan as an astute farmer who embraces new technologies, products, and processes that each year culminate into both a high-yielding and high-quality peanut harvest.
For this and many more reasons, Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s Joe Morgan has been named Farm Press’s 2019 Peanut Efficiency Award winner for the Mid-South.
Joe and his wife Patricia farm in partnership with their son, Joe Morgan, Jr., and his wife, Grace, on the very appropriately-named M&M Farms, located in Forrest County, Mississippi — a multi-generational operation on which Joe Morgan produced his first crop in 1965.
Early in his farming career Joe attended a lot of peanut short courses across Alabama and Georgia. He quickly discovered that living so close to the Gulf, combined with that region’s moderately-draining Prentiss soils, was a perfect mix for growing peanuts with a cotton rotation.
He stopped flat breaking his fields long ago after learning that below the topsoil was a layer of gummy clay. “If you turn up that clay, it’ll crust and clod up,” says Morgan. “It’s not good agronomically and does nothing to promote a healthy stand for any crop.”
Reducing his tillage has improved Morgan’s yields. Over the last five years, on average, he has dedicated 944 acres to peanut production. His five-year yield average is 5,976 pounds an acre. “We have had very little participation in our yield contest through the years, but I’ve always felt like it was beneficial to hear about the production practices of other farmers,” says Morgan. “You never know what you might learn about someone else’s production practices that could lead to an increase in your yields. It was all about showing the potential for peanuts as a crop.”
For several years, Morgan has been running a vertical tillage rig over the field, then a harrow to help smooth out the ground, and lastly a strip tiller before the planter rolls filled with his stalwart variety of choice — Georgia 06Gs with a Dynasty seed treatment cover. “Since we’ve been doing this, our ground has gotten much more mellow. The soil is noticeably healthier and replete with earthworms,” says Morgan. “I believe it’s the combination of less tillage and the chicken fertilizer we use on our cotton. The ground is so fertile, I don’t even have to fertilize my peanuts — which is obviously an input savings.”
He credits the chicken litter for his good pH level in the soil which hovers around 6.8 on average. “I rarely have to spread lime,” says Morgan.
Cotton acreage will decrease on his operation by 200 acres this year, but he will still have 1,600 acres of cotton. He bumped up his peanut plantings this season, and now has 1,125 acres of runners in the ground. “I like to plant peanuts once every three years,” says Morgan. “I’ll occasionally get off that rotation but most of the time, that rotation really seems to work for me agronomically and translates into solid yields.”
Planting the last week in April through most of May is his preferred planting window, but it is contingent on moisture availability. “We’ve had to stop planting before because it just got too dry,” says Morgan.
For many years prior to Mississippi getting a peanut Extension specialist, Morgan and other farmers in the area turned to crop consultant Trey Bullock for crop advice. “I’ve consulted with Joe for over 20 years, and he is one hardworking and down-to-earth farmer,” says Bullock. “He wants people around him to love farming and work as hard as he does. He stays on top of the latest farming news and current recommendations, and his operation has benefitted from his diligence.”
M&M Farms has been a research proving ground of sorts the last two years for Mississippi State University. “They’ve been conducting some test plots to measure the impact and benefits of plant growth regulators (PGR),” says Morgan.
“The work has been replicated at other locations, and we’ve been applying Apogee and have seen up to an 800-pound yield increase.”
The PGR is applied when 50 percent of the crop’s vines are touching in the middle. Morgan reviewed results from the various locations which showed reduced rates produced similar results. “We’re going with lower rates about a week apart and lowering our input costs,” says Morgan. “The vines take on a darker shade of green after an application, so you can clearly see if any parts of the rows were missed.”
Sequence and Valor herbicides are applied while planting and after 21 days, Morgan comes back with Cadre, Strongarm, and 2,4-DB to control weeds. “We wait around 45 days to start our fungicide program to hold off leaf spot and white mold,” says Morgan. “I like rotating our fungicides between Elatus, Miravis, and finally Bravo Weather Stik, if needed. Resistance is the last thing we need.”
To make sure his crop has plenty of calcium, Morgan will broadcast 1,200 pounds of gypsum per-acre when the crop starts pegging. “Peanuts absorb calcium through the shells rather than taking it up through the root system,” says Morgan. “Gypsum doesn’t affect my soil’s pH either.”
Morgan learned the hard way to accurately track his crop’s maturity and keep an eye on weather forecasts. “Two years back we kept getting rain, and we had to dig them when we could because our ground drains so slowly compared to peanut ground in Georgia,” says Morgan. “Some of my peanuts were pushed to 160 days and we had a ton to a ton-and-a-half that came off in the ground. Sometimes you just can’t do everything correctly. It was a tough lesson.”
Harvest season improved tremendously when M&M Farms got GPS on their equipment. “It was a game changer for harvesting peanuts because the vines got so big our drivers couldn’t tell where the middle of the rows were located,” says Morgan. “GPS significantly reduced our harvest loss.”
Industry leadership and issues
Morgan is the current president of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association and also the board member representing Mississippi on the National Peanut Board (NPB). “It’s important to me to be involved with our national association,” says Morgan. “It allows me to be part of issues that have a long-term impact on our industry. It also allows me to stay in communication with other peanut growers and share concerns we all have, whether those concerns are on the farm or in the boardroom.”
One problem with which all peanut farmers and their industry associations have been dealing for decades has been consumer’s allergic reactions to peanuts. The NPB and their state representative officers took a proactive effort and funded what became a groundbreaking study titled: Learning Early about Peanut Allergies.
The study confirmed that parents of children at risk of developing a peanut allergy could reduce that chance by up to 86 percent if they fed them small amounts of peanut foods as early as 4 to 6 months of age. “The study was released in January 2015 and was significant enough that the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Disease adjusted their guidelines related to peanuts,” says Morgan. “Supporting the team of board members that voted on this funding and seeing such positive results from it is very gratifying. These results and the new corresponding regulations could be life-changing for so many people.”
When Morgan started growing peanuts in 1991, peanut production was under a quota system. “We knew what we were going to get for our crop back then. Now, you don’t know what the contract will be,” says Morgan. “The quota days are over, but I remember one year we were busy planting and I was late in trying to secure a contract for some additional peanuts I had and couldn’t. I took a hit that year. It was a learning experience — and not an economically pleasant one.”
Morgan has seen many production and equipment changes and improvements in farming inputs since he started farming over 50 years ago, but when asked what’s the best farming decision he has ever made, he answered quickly. “The best farming decision I ever made was to start growing peanuts,” concludes Morgan.
With such a long-term dedication to farming and to the peanut industry, Joe Morgan was an easy choice to be selected as Farm Press’s 2019 Peanut Efficiency Award winner for the Mid-South.