Finding Ease in Innovation: The Journey of a Mississippi Farmer

Read Time: 3 minutes
March 15, 2021
Fran DeVille
Climate Business Manager, Climate LLC

Like many of us in agriculture, Steve Skelton began working on the farm as soon as he was able. “It was just ingrained in me to farm,” he says. Now in his sixties, Steve has built a life-long career in agriculture, primarily growing corn, cotton and soy on his land in the Mississippi Delta. As I’ve worked with Steve over the years, it’s become increasingly clear that he is always looking for ways to improve his operation and his bottom line. And while his operation has had its ups and downs, two things have remained constant: Steve’s relentless passion and willingness to learn new things.

As an early adopter of FieldView, Steve has used it to learn the intricacies and opportunities of his operation.

But as he’ll tell you, learning better ways to farm wasn’t always easy. As both an early FieldView adopter and “the furthest thing from a computer guru,” Steve has experienced the benefits of field testing with — and without — the digital tools he now has at his disposal. What he’s learned has the capacity to help any farmer, anywhere. 

Innovation Through Communication

In many ways, Steve is a farmer’s farmer. When there’s work to do, he puts in long, hard hours. And when the pressure lifts a bit during the off season, you can find him spending time outdoors and with his family. “It’s a good life — and you can’t beat the hours,” he laughs.

Born and raised on the farm, Steve has built an intimate and lasting connection to his land. And as a farmer, that wields important opportunities. He explains, “the relationship I have with my crops really is a communication. Sometimes, when the plants tell you what they need, it may be too late to correct a situation. But there are other times when it’s not; you can see what’s going on and react to help the plants.” For Steve, that is where field tests come into play.

Steve uses FieldView to compare soil types with population following a field test.

Digital tools like FieldView provide an improved ability to understand what plants need — or don’t — with unprecedented insight and accuracy. Steve considers new technologies to be about more than just listening to the land; they’re also about conversing. By constantly testing factors that impact the plant — growth regulators, fertility, nitrogen applications, phosphorus levels … you name it — he has discovered some surprising ways to support his crops, while also saving time, energy and resources.

What We Think We Know

Innovation can be counterintuitive. Progress can challenge conventional wisdom. And it’s not always difficult to do something better. 

Steve has learned this firsthand — and many times over. Before adopting FieldView, he was already working to find better ways of doing things on his farm. So it was a natural progression when Steve partnered with the state corn specialist, Dr. Erick Larson, to find ways to improve his corn yields through different irrigation methods.

In the early vegetative stages of corn growth, dry weather can cause leaf roll. Seeing this in his fields, Steve decided to irrigate. But as he discovered, this impulse was counterproductive, causing the corn roots to stay shallow rather than digging deeper to get moisture the plant needed throughout the season. Looking at Larson’s unirrigated test plot, Steve recalls, “I thought he was letting the crops burn up, but he actually beat me in yield three years in a row with considerably less pumping costs.”

“I thought he was letting the crops burn up, but he actually beat me in yield three years in a row with considerably less pumping costs.”

— Steve Skelton
Steve uses FieldView to track inputs and selectively apply fertilizer.

Using the yield analysis tool in FieldView, Steve could see the data from the field tests to get a clear picture of how this new approach to irrigation benefitted his crops. The learnings from this single experiment enabled Steve to reduce his irrigations from 12 per season down to only two to four. “It’s been a tremendous savings on our groundwater, which is a resource we all need to conserve,” he adds. As his experience attests, this was only the beginning of an ongoing thirst for innovation. 

“I Don’t Like Puzzles”

Steve draws an important distinction: it’s not the challenge he likes nearly as much as finding the solution. He adds, “when you fit one or two puzzle pieces together, then three or four fall into place easier. And while this is true on the farm, it’s also true in other areas of my life.”

Granted, finding solutions on the farm has often been easier said than done. But today, technology has made it incredibly intuitive. Steve reflects, “I’m in my sixties, and when I discovered Climate FieldView™, what it could do, and how to use it, it put a spring back in my step about farming.” Real-time field data opens a whole new world for farmers to explore better ways of working. He elaborates, “FieldView is really a lot more convenient than it is a burden. It’s quite the opposite of what a lot of farmers might think. It makes your life easier rather than harder.” 

“FieldView is really a lot more convenient than it is a burden. It’s quite the opposite of what a lot of farmers might think. It makes your life easier rather than harder.”

— Steve Skelton

These insights are catching on. Steve gets calls from other farmers about the platform and what he’s able to do with it. “There’s a lot of curiosity out there,” he explains. “And I tell them that in my experience, there’s no reason not to use it. It can only help.”

A Better Farm for a Better World

Experimentation not only fulfills Steve’s personal appetite for learning, but also enables him to satisfy his lifelong interest of stewarding his land. Working in the Mississippi Delta, he is blessed with abundant freshwater resources. But that doesn’t offset the need for conservation. 

Speaking with farmers throughout the region, Steve emphasizes the need to focus on water quality — especially in preventing fertilizer run-off into local streams and rivers. And while there are many ways to go about it, it all begins by finding ways to use water more efficiently. He elaborates, “every farmer, no matter where they are, has an opportunity and the responsibility to care for the land and its resources thanks to the technologies we have available to us now.”

On and off the farm, Steve values spending time inspiring future generations of farmers.

In typical fashion, Steve is a passionate and supportive resource for other farmers looking to adopt more sustainable practices. And while much of this boils down to sharing his experiences, it also means exploring new opportunities. As such, Steve is currently learning a lot about soil health and carbon farming as potential ways to improve his farm while also giving back to the Earth. In fact, he is planning to use FieldView in the coming season to help test for microbial population and nutrient density in the soil across various cover-crop scenarios. He understands that, like all things, the insights will take time, but the knowledge is worth the wait. “Farming has taught me patience — and the need to be a good steward of the land and of the soil,” he reflects. “And hopefully this enables me to build an operation I can pass on to my descendants.”  

About the Author

Fran DeVille is a Climate Business Manager at Climate LLC. Born and raised on a grain and sugarcane farm in Louisiana, Fran has always immersed himself in agriculture. Over his 41 year-long career, he has gained invaluable experience working with and alongside growers around the country, particularly throughout the Mississippi Delta. Before taking his current role at Climate LLC, he was a Distinguished Field Scientist at Monsanto, building on his agronomic background and entomology degree from Louisiana State University.

About Steve

Steve Skelton was born and raised in the small town of Shaw in the Mississippi Delta. He and his wife, Janet, have been married 41 years. They have three beautiful daughters and four grandchildren, and Steve would love for his grandchildren to come back and farm with him one day. He still resides in Shaw, Miss., where he farms 2,800 acres of cotton, corn, and soybeans.