Thursday, April 24, 2008

Transforming Western KY Agriculture


Rick Siemer who grew up two blocks from me has grown into a good friend and confidant, so I paid attention when he wrote to me, “One of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs I have ever met is Billy Joe Miles, whose company Miles Enterprises (ME) is located in Owensboro, KY. I consider Billy Joe personally responsible for the development of a successful wheat-growing culture in western Kentucky beginning in the late 1980s, when he (literally) imported intensive wheat cultivation techniques from England. We have partnered with ME our entire time in Kentucky to source wheat and develop relationships. Without ME’s initiative, we probably couldn’t have justified a mill, and farmers down there would be much less successful.”

With those words, I knew that I had to get to Owensboro to meet Billy Joe, so after my talk to the Kentucky Association for Economic Development in Henderson I headed east to meet him.

When I asked him why he got involved in transforming KY ag, he replied, “I did it to keep from going broke. We were only averaging 33 bushel/acre and wheat was selling for $2/bushel. I knew that we had to do something to change that because being able to double-crop wheat and soybeans held so much potential but without even a little profit in the wheat crop, we were sunk.”

His first thought was to go to the University of Kentucky, which told him that he was wasting his time. Kentucky didn’t have the right climate to properly grow wheat, according to the extension service of the University. He next turned to ICI Chemicals, an English company that had several no-till chemicals, which asked him to travel to Great Britain in the mid 80s to take part in an ag think tank which brought together two researchers/marketers from each country in the world.

“I agreed to go if they would get me an appointment with the best agronomist in the world and I met Derrick Hall who showed me some printouts of how he was growing 100+ bushels of wheat in Russia and other places. I hired him as a consultant and had him hire an agronomist who knew how to plant wheat. We then took 20 of our best customers along with 20 journalists and went back to Great Britain. We made a big deal about it which made the university mad, exactly what we wanted because they came out and said that they were going to do research to prove that what we were trying was impossible. We got them engaged which was a big help because prior to that they were the number one enemy of making wheat into a profitable crop.”

It didn’t take long for the results of that effort to have an impact, or as Billy Joe told me, “By the third year we had doubled the wheat yield in the entire state. Now we’ve got farmers growing over 100 bushels/acre virtually every year and with the prices like they are now of $5 to $10/bushel we’ll be up to over 150 bushels/acre quickly.”

Billy Joe who started ME in the car port of his house along with his Dad, who is still his partner at age 87, has now expanded to over 20 plants scattered in KY, TN, IN and IL. His daughter has taken over running the company, his two sons both farm on their own and his 25 year old grandson heads up Billy Joe’s farming operation. Billy Joe continues to travel the world looking for new ideas and recently started a farming operation in Santa Cruz de la Serra, Bolivia. He shut down farming operations that he used to have in Russia and Romania because of the work ethic of the locals which he attributed to the culture of the old Soviet Union, “All they ever had was what they could steal. No one looked upon that as being wrong because of what they saw going on in their country.”

I’m glad that Rick Siemer suggested that I go meet Billy Joe Miles. It was a great visit for me.

3 comments:

Al Cross said...

The story of Billy Joe Miles and Western Kentucky wheat is more complicated and interesting than presented above. It is told in a story in the magazine of the university's College of Agriculture by Laura Skillman, who was an ag reporter in Owensboro before coming to UK. The URL is:
http://www.ca.uky.edu/AGC/Magazine/2007/FALL-2007/Articles/htmlfiles/index.htm

The dean of the college, Scott Smith, tells me, "At least in the context of production agriculture it is one of the best examples of university and private sector collaboration that I know of anywhere. The Wheat Science Group featured in the article has one multiple national awards."

Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
School of Journalism, College of Communications
University of Kentucky
al.cross@uky.edu
www.RuralJournalism.org
Read The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com

BoomtownUSA said...

Thanks for sharing this link. I'm certain that my readers will want to read more about the transformation of KY wheat farming.

Private/public partnerships like this are a wave of the future and I hope that other states can learn from this example.

jack

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