Flash of an Idea

Thanksgiving Storm Produces Ducks and New Streams of Income

Stewart Robinson (left) helped Cameron Dinkins transition Esperanza Outdoors from a hunting club to a waterfowl guiding service. (Progressive Farmer photo by Linden Plantation)

Cameron Dinkins was home from college during Thanksgiving break when a streak of lightning lit up the farmland surrounding his family home, Linden Plantation, in Glen Allan, Mississippi. It had been raining for most of the day, and in that brief glimpse outside, he saw vast expanses of water. The next morning, Cameron Dinkins rose early to investigate.

"Even though there was no water-control structure, there was still about a foot of water just sitting there, and there were ducks all over it. Just overnight. Just like that," Cameron said. "I knew right then that all we had to do was put a pipe in that ditch, and we'd have an amazing duck hole."

That was in 1998. Twenty years later, Cameron and his wife, Whitney, have taken 1,700 acres of land in and around Linden, and through various businesses, developed revenue streams that include row-crop farming, guided waterfowl hunts, honey production and lodging and event rentals.

Esperanza Outdoors is the recreational land-development and sporting-related arm of the business. These enterprises rose not only from their own resources but also by way of programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

BEST USES

Cameron's early goal was to learn how to best use the land to cash-flow the debt service it would take to buy more land. Before Cameron and Whitney lived at Linden full-time, they purchased smaller properties in other parts of Mississippi, where they were first exposed to the NRCS and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). While renting out the best of these properties for farming, the Dinkinses used conservation programs to help them plant trees and build wetlands.

Once the trees and wetlands were established, the wildlife came. Land that generated income from farming now produced income also from conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve and hunting leases.

Cameron found important resources in conservation organizations including the Delta Wildlife, Wildlife Mississippi, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. By way of the technical assistance and financial programs the organizations offered, water-control structures were built to improve the productivity of dryland fields and improve habitat and food sources for wildlife.

Cameron said the value of the technical guidance he and Whitney received from conservation organizations during the years would be difficult to calculate. But, he believes his efforts would not be as far along had he not been educated and advised by the experts employed in the various conservation programs.

The CRP allowed him to diversify the food and habitat resources available for ducks. It led to wetland and upland terrain improvements that created habitat and improved the biodiversity for foraging and resting waterfowl, and upland birds. In addition to planning and implementation guidance, Cameron has received more than $250,000 from the CRP for hydrology restoration, reforestation and water-control structures.

"Ducks want grain sometimes, and they want invertebrates sometimes and other times just natural grass seeds," Cameron explains. "When they are here, you want to have as much diversity of food and habitat as you can."

The Dinkinses began living full-time in the family home at Linden after Cameron's mother passed away in 2005. They currently lease to a single farmer a bit more than 1,100 acres for row-crop farming. The Dinkinses have 250 acres in timber and 350 acres in wetlands.

CLUB TO GUIDED

As Esperanza Outdoors began gaining traction, Cameron and Whitney soon realized guided hunts, as opposed to club hunting, might provide better opportunities for their customers. "One group of hunters would have a great hunt, while the others would only have a good hunt," Cameron said. "We wanted everyone to have a great hunt, so we decided to change from a hunting club to custom-guided hunts only."

For hunter-customers, the result was immediate. The number of hunters decreased, but the number of ducks increased. Last year, they averaged 25.55 birds per hunt and 4.76 birds per gun per hunt. The limit is six birds per hunter. The Dinkinses give credit to Stewart Robinson, who worked closely with hunt-club members. "Stewart helped during the transition of Esperanza Outdoors from a hunting club to a premiere waterfowl guiding service," Cameron explains. In 2015, Robinson became a full-fledged partner in Esperanza Outdoors.

The guide service offers three distinct wetland hunting strategies: shallow water, mid-depth (about 30 inches of water) and deep water (10 to 12 feet deep). Although it doesn't often happen, when the temperatures dip low enough to freeze the shallow ponds, the deep water stays open and can be hunted.

Small-acre tracts of sunflowers and the American lotus attract the birds. "The lotus is a very edible plant that grows in the mid-depth, or 30-inch water, like a lily pad," Cameron said. "It's a very fragrant wetland plant that looks like a magnolia and makes seedpods with 15 to 20 acorn-sized seeds in it. Ducks love them."

DRAW THEM IN

Cameron has learned strategies for planting duck holes that help control the ducks. "You can use a combination of decoys, the wind and calling to bring in the ducks. You can also plant cover and food for a duck hole in a manner that directs them," he said. "I like to use a combination of beans and corn."

The grain crops fill a variety of nutritional needs at different times in the season, and the differing heights of the plants offer opportunities to create points or swags of cover to conceal blinds and take advantage of varying wind directions.

"We started out with a little over 1,350 acres of row-crop land and identified 250 of those acres that were better suited for forest, grass and wetland restoration. The repurposing of this portion of land is what created the opportunity to develop new revenue streams," Cameron said. "The actual CRP rental payment is 30% less than the crop rent per acre. But, the diversity created by the CRP offerings, the value added by hunting, would be significantly less and would not support a commercial bird-hunting operation."

Cameron estimates the row-crop land rental revenue is about 44% of their total income. While the CRP rental payments represent only 7% of the total income, the businesses created by the CRP programs—the hunting, honey and lodging, and events represent an additional 49% toward their income. The Dinkinses are taking steps to strengthen their outdoor sports revenue. They have begun work on two 10-acre tracts that will support quail. Native grasses and shrubs such as bluestem, indiangrass, partridge pea, Chickasaw plum, elderberry and rough-leaf dogwood have been planted to give the quail habitat and protection. For more information, visit espoutdoors.com.

SWEET INCOME

Linden Plantation's sunflowers, American lotus, soybeans and cotton create an ideal apiary and the honey enterprise the Dinkins family began to develop seven years ago. Cameron Dinkins reconnected with Curtis Waites, a childhood friend who runs Sunrise Bee and Honey, outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Waites delivered 50 hives to the Dinkinses. He returned that first October to collect the bees and the rich Delta summer honey produced on Dinkinses property. Linden Plantation honey is raw and unfiltered, and the business sold its initial 60 cases in just weeks.

The business has grown dramatically. This year, Linden hosted 9 million bees pollinating up to 5 square miles of soybeans, cotton, sunflowers and all of the various wild plants on and around the property. Honey sales are projected to be $50,000.