New Name, Same Approach

A couple stands among crop rows. The woman, left, has short brown hair, a pink shirt, and khaki pants, and  a taller man wears a white and tan baseball cap, a checkerboard-striped shirt, and blue jeans.
Lonnie Fortner and his wife, Karen, rely on the Mississippi State University Extension Service to help them improve the profitability of their farm, Bayou Pierre Farms.

Port Gibson row-crop producer earns regional acclaim

Story by Nathan Greogory • Photos by Kevin Hudson

Lonnie Fortner was the first row-crop producer in southwest Mississippi to use many of the same precision ag technologies that are now commonplace.

Fortner believes his willingness to try new production methods, crop varieties, and industrial equipment is why he is still in business. His progressive approach also helped him earn an unexpected recognition: Fortner is the Mississippi 2018 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

A silver truck with a brown dog peeking its head out of the bed is parked on a dirt lot with farms in the background. Two large, round, metal buildings are just past the truck, and an orange bulldozer is parked in front of one of the metal buildings
Lonnie Fortner’s dog takes a trip to the farm in the back of a pick up truck.

“If it’s something new, I want to be there,” says the owner of Bayou Pierre Farms near Port Gibson. “You’re going to invest in the technology whether you want it or not, because the industry will leave you behind if you don’t. You’ve got to take what you’ve bought and learn how to get it to help you make money. If not, it’s just a toy.”

Dr. Sherry Surrette, head of the Mississippi State University Central Research and Extension Center, says she nominated Fortner for the Sunbelt award because of his ability to adapt to industry change.

“Lonnie is one of the strongest advocates for agriculture we have in Mississippi. He has put in countless hours to achieve his success as a grower while carving out time to serve on several Mississippi Farm Bureau boards and committees for various commodity associations,” Surrette says.

Fortner grows cotton, corn, soybeans, and peanuts on 3,700 acres scattered across Claiborne County. Many of the programs he has recently implemented into his operations are based on the Global Positioning System (GPS). Variable rate technology, swath control, and real-time kinematics have become staples of a Fortner-run operation.

"His contributions to Mississippi agriculture make him a great representative for the state's row-crop producers."

These methods use GPS navigation and planting machines to control fertilizer application rates, reduce overlapping seeds or chemicals during planting, and improve drilling and planting accuracy. The programs are connected to smartphone apps that Fortner uses to monitor the equipment during operation.

He also sees the value in science-based advice when choosing which varieties to plant each year. Row-crop specialists with the MSU Extension Service serve that purpose, and these experts sometimes use a portion of Fortner’s land to plant variety demonstration plots.

“I like people doing research on my farm. Always have,” Fortner explains. “Whether a new cotton variety works or not, I get to find that out without losing money, just from seeing how it does on my land. You cannot trust data from large companies because their products are always going to win. I’m a big proponent of Extension because it can tell you the truth.”

Fortner established his production practices long before Bayou Pierre came into existence in 2017.

Bayou Pierre started out as Rock Lake Planting Company in 1996. The farm’s financial partners asked Fortner to join as manager, and he became a partner one decade later. After another decade, the founding partners stepped aside. Fortner and his wife, Karen, kept their share, and the transition to Bayou Pierre Farms began.

Fortner, who grew up on a small row-crop farm near Mathiston, earned a degree in agricultural economics from MSU and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. His first 2 years were spent on the road, and he personally visited with producers.

“I went to every county in the state two and three times and talked to a lot of farmers when I was with the FSA,” he says. “That gave me a different perspective on the state of the industry.”

Fortner was “honored and shocked at the same time” to learn he would be Mississippi’s representative at the Ag Expo, as he never seeks publicity or recognition for his work.“It’s starting to sink in a little more,” he says.

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