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Lo-Hi: the family farm goes increasingly high-tech

Yazoo County — Lo-Hi Planting Company has been in operation for approximately 60 years now. No one is more familiar with the land located along the Yazoo River than Thomas Hines, son of the farm’s founder. But while the land has not changed, the way Lo-Hi works that land bears little or no resemblance to yesterday.

“Margins are so tight now, you have to do everything possible to cut costs, operate smarter,” said Hines, owner/operator of Lo-Hi. “Our use of GPS (global positioning system) technology and new technology in our cotton gin is an important part of our operation now.”

Hines literally grew up on Lo-Hi, which has operated under the names Hines Farm and Hi-Lo Planting Company. R. Desha Hines established the farm in the 1940s, and earned a reputation of being an expert in growing and ginning cotton before his death last December. (The Senatobia native was chosen by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum to help construct the on-site cotton gin due to his knowledge and expertise.)

Located approximately seven miles north of Yazoo City, the farm’s sandy loam is ideal for growing cotton, though it also grows and harvests other row crops such as grains, corn and soybeans. Today, Lo-Hi encompasses 4,000 acres, 80% of which is leased. The farm owns a fleet of 10 tractors and employs 10 full-time workers and 14 seasonal hands hired at planting and harvest times.

“Some of our drivers have been with us 25 or 30 years,” said Hines, who earned a degree in agricultural economics from Mississippi State University and came to Lo-Hi full time in 1979 after graduation. “They are dedicated and loyal to the farm. It’s a real plus for Lo-Hi.”

These employees are driving tractors that now contain special extras. Lo-Hi has utilized GPS technology in its crop-dusting planes for four or five years now. (The farm once operated its own fleet of planes, but now uses an outside service due to liability concerns.) However, the farm is now using GPS to guide its tractors and customize the application of chemicals and/or fertilizers.

Various Lo-Hi soil samples, taken from different fields on the farm, are evaluated in the laboratory to determine exactly what the soil requires for optimum growing. This information is then fed into the tractors’ GPS system, allowing customized applications that are computer controlled. The drivers do not have to be concerned about it. In fact, they do not even have to steer — the system does that, as well.

“We used to blanket fields with lime. We just covered all the fields,” Hines said. “Now, we can put, say, a ton on this field, and a ton-and-a-half on that field — exactly what is needed. It has cut my lime cost in half.”

Wide range of high-tech uses

The tractors are not the only things to see new technology. Lo-Hi has been in the cotton ginning business for decades. Many years ago, the farm merged two separate ginning operations into one and located it close to Lo-Hi in the Carter community. Though a significant amount of cotton acreage has been lost, the gin still spits out between 35,000-40,000 bales of cotton annually. It has the capability of processing a bale of cotton approximately every 90 seconds.

Lo-Hi has installed a computer-controlled system in its ginning operation. The system gauges the level of moisture in the cotton. If it is too dry, moisture is added — too wet, and the cotton is dried. This allows the gin to more efficiently and effectively remove the lint from the seed. And this is important because cottonseed sales figure heavily into Lo-Hi’s bottom line.

Anticipating a good 2005

Hines said the last few years have been kind to Lo-Hi. Hurricanes hurt the farm’s cotton production in 2004, costing Lo-Hi approximately a bale of cotton per acre. But Hines said weather has generally been an ally recently, and he is counting on 2005 to be another good year.

But challenges remain. “Commodities are simply not bringing what they’re worth,” he said. “We have to rely on government subsidies. I hate it, but we couldn’t make it without them.”
So, Lo-Hi will continue to look to work smarter, leaner.

“The key to the future is get bigger and cut costs,” he said. He continued, with a laugh, “With bigger farm equipment, we can do a lot more with less labor and equipment. Before my dad passed away, he used to get upset that we weren’t farming every day like he used to. He couldn’t understand how we could afford to take off on weekends. I explained to him that we were getting more work done in less time. On some Fridays, we’re having to look for something to do. But I don’t believe he ever understood it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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