The More Things Change
Delta farmer Travis Satterfield reflects on 40+ years in the fields
The price of rice hasn’t increased much since Travis Satterfield of Benoit began growing it in 1974, but nearly everything else in the world of production agriculture has changed.
Up until 1974, rice acres were under strict government control.
“Congress passed legislation allowing anyone to plant rice without penalty, but we wouldn’t be eligible for government support, and they couldn’t guarantee we could plant it beyond that year,” Satterfield remembers.
Changing crops felt like a gamble, but Satterfield risked it.
“We had no irrigation on our farm whatsoever. We had to put in a well, which was not a common practice then. But our land was ideal for rice because of the heavy soils—clay and buckshot,” he explains. “Rice has been our salvation.”
While rice seemed risky at first, Satterfield says he had support from a trusted neighbor: the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“Extension has always played a very important role in agriculture in the Delta,” he asserts.
Satterfield usually rotates rice and soybean but also has farmed catfish, corn, and wheat on his Bolivar County farm.
“We found that—particularly in the early days, when you are going to a new crop—Extension is instrumental in the learning curve,” he shares. “We were in catfish for a while, and we relied heavily on Extension support. Extension is a vital part of adapting to different crops and all the changes that have happened during my lifetime. Without Extension and research, there would have been some voids.”
He reviews company-generated information for the products he uses on his farm but relies on MSU for validation.
“I like to see what MSU says about varieties and products. I value their unbiased opinion,” he says. “When you’re evaluating products, you need that external validation, and you can get that from MSU.”
Don Respess, now the Coahoma County coordinator for the MSU Extension Service, worked in Bolivar County for more than a decade. He says his former client stays informed about all crops.
“Travis is always willing to make crop changes if he thinks it will benefit his business, and he works with folks at Stoneville and on campus to try to get the most yield,” Respess says. “He wants to get the most bang for his buck.”
Satterfield has always been very involved with Extension and other organizations dedicated to promoting agriculture, Respess observes, including serving as past president of the Delta Council and chairman of several committees for the group. Currently, Satterfield chairs the farm policy committee.
Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, reflects on Satterfield’s years of service to the agriculture community.
“He’s the face of the Delta Council when it comes to federal and state farm policy related to any area of agriculture, not just row crops,” Morgan explains. “He’s highly respected everywhere he goes because he has sound judgment and sage advice on things that have an economic impact on our region.
“He’s one of the most unselfish leaders I’ve ever worked for. At the end of the day, he just wants to move the ball down the field, and he’ll play any position. He wants the team to score.”
Morgan says that, when Satterfield speaks to legislators, he emphasizes the importance of research and education programs very effectively.
“In his quiet and soft way he’s had a great impact. He’s an American success story,” Morgan concludes.
His involvement with farm policy keeps Satterfield up-to-date with current issues and news. He believes people have some misconceptions about production agriculture, one of which is based on the abundant domestic food supply.
“In the U.S., we can buy most anything we want any time of year, but that doesn’t just happen without a lot of work,” he explains. “People think we can change our entire production system and maintain the same food supply, but that’s not possible.”
The improvements in crop yields have been the result of technological advancements and genetic developments, and Extension has been instrumental in helping producers learn about the tools needed to maintain a profitable, efficient farm, he says.
“We’re making full use of every bit of technology we have and every bit of the advances in breeding and genetics, and there are still people all over the world who are hungry. A safe, affordable, abundant food supply is possible if we can use all of the tools available to us,” he stresses.
While much has changed in production agriculture since Satterfield started in late 1968, one key to success remains the same: a strong support system at home.
“There’s nothing like a good, supportive partner,” he advises.
After graduating from Delta State with a business degree in 1965, Satterfield was working in Virginia for DuPont Construction.
“I had gone to college with no intention of farming because there was no economic incentive,” he says. “When my dad’s health forced him to decide to retire, get help, or leave the farm, I got the opportunity to move back and work for myself.”
He talked his Virginia sweetheart, Nancy, into marrying him and moving to Mississippi.
“She’s 100-percent adapted now, but she had to make a tremendous amount of sacrifice in the beginning, going from a steady income to farming,” he recalls.
Travis and Nancy have four sons, 11 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. Two of their sons and two grandsons work on the farm, and their granddaughter manages the office.
“We feel blessed to have a family farm with kids and grandkids working together,” he says.
The local agriculture community is also an encouragement to Satterfield.
“You read about how farmers are over-the- hill and still farming, but we have a great group of young people involved here, people who enjoy it. They are astute and could have worked in a lot of different careers but have chosen to work in production agriculture,” he says.
“As long as we can keep attracting people like that, we’re in good hands.”
By Keri Collins Lewis