America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers

Along the River Divide

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Sam Sparks III produces irrigated cotton, sugarcane, corn and specialty crops on SRS Farms along the Rio Grande River. (Joel Reichenberger)

DTN/Progressive Farmer's America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program profiles Sam Sparks III, SRS Farms, Mercedes, Texas.

Minutes after driving up to a water-pumping station on the "river farm" feet from the edge of the Rio Grande River, a U.S. Border Patrol car rolls by. "He knows who I am and my truck. He probably doesn't know who your car belongs to. Just checking," says Sam Sparks III, looking toward the tower on the far side of his corn field, decked with cameras and other electronic equipment.

The 2,000-acre river farm -- officially the Galveston Ranch -- is one piece of the 10,000-acre SRS Farms row-crop and livestock business, headquartered at Mercedes, Texas. As the third farming generation here, Sparks steers one of the largest family-owned irrigated farms in the Rio Grande Valley, its roots first set down in the 1940s by his grandfather, Sam R. Sparks. Sam Sparks III is married to Shannon, who keeps the books. Sam and Shannon have three always-active children -- Eve, 11, Mae, 9, and Samuel IV, 7.

Access to the river farm requires maneuvering a lonely and winding dirt, at times deeply muddy, road off state Highway 281, just east of Santa Maria. Sparks is readying crews to harvest corn. Across the narrow Rio Grande in Mexico, fields of sorghum look to be already harvested.

The "wall" is here, too, at least a few hundred yards of it. Open on either end, the section stops at Sparks' property line. It is a rust-tinged, 30-foot barrier enforced with steel bollards, or beams, sunk into reinforced concrete and topped by panels of welded steel plate. A gravel service road runs along the front of it. The wall is planted not at river's edge -- the Rio Grande twists and turns so much that at one point, Sparks looks north into Mexico -- but along a more direct route, the toe of a levee a half-mile from the river.

CUT IN HALF

"If the [rest of the] wall is ever installed, our farm will essentially be cut in half. We'll have roughly 900 acres south of the wall," Sparks says. That day will come with a problem. "We're worried it is going to pose a problem with trying to find a labor force that will work south of the wall," he explains. It's a worry of safety and access already expressed by some of Sparks' farming associates. "My family is already concerned when I work down here," he says.

Land south of the wall remains privately owned. It is not Mexico. But, many refer to the land south of the contiguous wall as "no-man's-land." "The traffic we typically see coming across the river," Sparks says, "is mainly made up of people who are coming across looking for better lives for themselves and for their family back home in Mexico, just looking for a good-paying job. Unfortunately, mixed into that, you do have some people who are running drugs or caught up with the cartels in Mexico, and that's the traffic that we definitely need to be aware of, and it's alarming to us."

BUSINESS OVER POLITICS

Polarizing politics divide this place north from south. But, along this watery border, where batteries, diesel fuel and even irrigation pumps go missing in the night, SRS Farms benefits from a prosperous business with customers in Mexico.

"All of our grain crops are sold into Mexico," Sparks explains. "They buy all of our soybeans, all of our grain sorghum, all of our corn and even cottonseed." The commodities are all delivered to the numerous grain elevators at the Progreso Port of Entry, Progreso, Texas, for transport into Mexico.

SRS Farms is a diverse operation, tending cotton, corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and sugarcane. Sparks has found value in fall-planted cover crops to manage, for example, root rot in cotton. "There are some chemical treatments to help prevent or alleviate root rot in the soil. But, we found that rotational crops have benefit not necessarily from the production standpoint but in improving the soil and managing disease such as root rot." Fall cover crops include soybeans for seed production, canola and peas.

SRS Farms is 100% irrigated, much of the water coming upstream from the Rio Grande's Falcon International Reservoir. The water source waxes and wanes with the seasons. "Managing water is part of developing a crop plan every year. What are we going to plant? What water do we have available for what we intend to plant?"

DRIP FOR A CANE

Sugarcane is a special target for water conservation. Sparks and fellow members of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers cooperative are experimenting with drip irrigation. "It's not new to farming, but it will be new to cane production," he says. "We're trying to see if we can produce good cane tonnage with drip by trying to provide a constant amount of moisture, and how much water will we save in the process?"

Sparks sees promise in specialty crops: canola, sesame and black-eyed peas. He harvested pink-eyed peas this year. They will be processed in San Antonio and shipped to East Coast grocers. The peas give Sparks an alternative to grain crops and, perhaps, some breathing room from their tight margins. They are a good rotational crop and are not water thirsty. "Specialty markets present opportunities for farmers to really capitalize on the investment they're making in their land," he says.

SRS Farms also operates a registered Brahman business with international reach. Its Brahman genetics are sold to buyers in Australia, Bangladesh, Columbia, Mexico, Thailand and other locales. The herd consists of 150 registered Brahman cows and 300 recipient, or surrogate, cows that are implanted with the farm's best genetics.

Sparks buys top-quality recipient cows. "There are people who buy the cheapest cows they can get their hands on. I'm the exact opposite," he says. He doesn't want the cows to be nervous around handlers. "We need to always have access to calves in the pasture. It's important for us to have a sound cow, good milk producers, gentle and mother ability," he stresses. "Implanting embryos is a very expensive, tedious and long process. And, so we want to make sure that we have the best success rate we possibly can have."

BROKEN LEG FOR A TRACTOR

The story of SRS Farms includes one of a broken leg. In the early days, grandfather Sam R. Sparks rented a tractor to sell custom-farming services to local farmers. In the early 1950s (exact date unknown), he broke a leg in a motorcycle accident. With the insurance settlement, he chose not to set his leg but instead buy his first tractor.

From that broken leg, and with, as Sparks says, "determination, dedication, faith and hard work as driving forces," the SRS Farms has never stopped growing.

"My focus is on sustainability, improving the efficiencies of our water use, on building soil quality and suppressing weeds by way of practices such as cover crops -- and with all that, increase output," he explains. "Those efforts will leave this operation in the best way possible for the next generation."

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-- Watch the video about Sam Sparks III at https://www.dtnpf.com/…

-- See all the 2023 America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers Winners at https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/…

-- Follow Dan Miller on Twitter @DMillerPF

-- Follow Joel Reichenberger on Twitter @JReichPF

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