Joined in both matrimony and by the farm, Matthew and Kayla Poe together tend the soil of their Southern farm, always pushing productivity, always searching for the best use of their resource -- be it 200-bushel corn, packaged fresh beef or even fall decorations.
"Our strongest attribute is that we work as one unit. We are stronger as a couple," Matthew says. "We choose to learn from the challenges and be encouraged through the successes, and that has helped us to build our business into a successful family-operated farm."
It was 2018 when cotton was added to the rotation of Matthew's and Kayla's 2,000-acre Pontotoc, Mississippi, farm. Cotton brought agronomic benefits. But, Kayla, who encouraged it -- strongly, it seems -- was led by another purpose. She reminisces often about the white blooms dusting her grandmother's late-summer cotton fields. "It amazes me that she was such a strong farm woman. So, it is important and meaningful for me to pursue this life and be successful. I will always honor her memory by striving to do what is best for our farm, working hard and passing on our farm practices to our next generation."
Matthew recognizes Kayla's will to succeed. "Her desire to advocate for ag complements my passion for the land, making us a solid team. She pushed us into cotton. And, when I say pushed, she pushed. She wanted a cotton crop. I don't regret it one bit."
The Poes have been farming full-time since 2014, the same year they were married. They have a strong ethic for partnership and for their young family. Their son, Harrison, is 3. One-year-old Tindall Kay carries the name of her great-grandmother. "We are fortunate to raise our children on our farm, where we can teach them the value of hard work, an appreciation for the land and how to enjoy the rural way of life," Kayla says.
This year has been challenging for the Poes. Matthew points out one of his best corn fields last July grown tall over his head. He sets his hands about just below his waist. "This corn was waist-deep in water two weeks ago." Corn elsewhere was submerged above the tassel. Luckily for the financial health of the farm, the flash floods receded within hours. But, the water did take the corn for about 15 bushels to the acre. Matthew had been eyeing a very healthy 185- to 200-bushel corn.
The Poes this year planted 300 acres of corn and cotton, and 700 acres of beans. They do not irrigate this land. The farm runs 175 cows over the tops of several crop-unfriendly pastures (the best use of that hilly ground, Matthew notes). He generally sells feeders as 6-weights at auction. The Poes harvested timber this year.
With some irony, Kayla once wanted little to do with the farm. "That was his deal," says Kayla, who off the farm is a dental hygienist and part-time clinical instructor at Northeast Mississippi Community College. But, her involvement with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's young farmer and rancher program gave her a new perspective on her husband's profession. "I love being around people our age. They encouraged me to be involved," she says. In 2019, the Poe's were recognized as the Mississippi Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award recipients.
Matthew, who graduated from Mississippi State University with a surveying degree, began farming professionally more than 10 years ago with his father, Larry, and uncle, Mike Poe. It was a craft honed early. "My fondest early memory was riding in the tractor with my dad, him letting me drive even though I wasn't big enough to push the clutch. I remember putting up beans at 11 at night and up early the next morning. There are just lifelong lessons that you learn then."
CHALLENGE OF GENERATIONS
There are challenges farming with family that had a decadeslong head start on a young producer. "We worked well together, but with a 40-year divide, it is impossible not to see things from different perspectives," Matthew says. Larry and Mike were conventional farmers with no desire to expand.
"With some convincing, I was able to persuade them to let me lead the farm in a more progressive direction through expansion and the adoption of modern practices and technology," Matthew says. "I can never thank them enough for allowing me the opportunity to do what I love while embracing and supporting my new ideas."
The Poe production program targets soil fertility, improved drainage and test plots. Chicken litter builds better soils and cuts the fertilizer bill. Matthew is experimenting with cover crops. He is a budget-watcher. "I have learned that even if the alternative product is cheaper, we will often make more money at harvest with the higher-priced product."
He also finds growth in failure. "The thing about farming is there is next year. If you mess up this year, you get a chance to try again and fix the problem. If we get 150 bushels to the acre, we want 160 bushels. If we have an 85% calving rate, we want 90%. We want to get better every year. More bushels to the acre is a profitable way to farm."
Backed by his family's capable machine shop, Matthew is a flipper of used equipment -- machinery bought in the fall and rehabbed over the winter. Rather than pay for custom harvesting, the Poes purchased a line of cotton machinery for $20,000 to harvest that first crop. "Typically, we run it for two or three years and usually sell it for the same or more than we bought it for," he says.
Matthew and Kayla look for new income opportunities. Fresh beef is one in the wings.
"My wife has been researching and talking to other cattle farmers about selling packaged beef," Matthew says. Kayla adds, "This will be local but big enough to bring in extra income." The fresh-beef concept fits a pattern where the Poes diversify their income streams, in addition to conventional crops and livestock. "They also have given us an opportunity to engage with our community," she says.
This year, the Poes are supplying commodities to a decorating company and a farmers' market for decorations. Cattle are a one-day enterprise Kayla wants to explore. Then, perhaps agritourism.
Matthew smiles -- but not in mockery. He recalls Kayla's push for the cotton. "She wants to go into the cattle business. Her own herd, not even do it with me."
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