Quality Over Quantity
2022 Mississippi Farmer of the Year focused on family, food, and conservation
Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson
On paper, Mike Wagner seems like an ordinary, successful Mississippi producer, but, in person, he defies expectations.
He annually sets aside at least 80,000 pounds of rice to give away. And, if his generosity isn’t quite enough to set him apart, Wagner’s background and approach to farming are.
He was born into a farming family. Wagner’s ancestors landed in Boston in 1650 and started farming in the Shenandoah Valley in 1742. They have since lived and planted continuously in South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri. Now, the family works land in the Mississippi Delta.
“I’m the 10th consecutive generation of my family to farm in America,” he says. “I love these woods, I love this water, and I love the earth. I try to make it better.”
When he started rice production in the mid-1980s, he rented and farmed a few hundred acres; now, he owns and farms a few thousand acres in Tallahatchie and Leflore Counties. Named the 2022 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Ag Expo Farmer of the Year for Mississippi, Wagner has received top honors for his accomplishments at Two Brooks Farm.
When he began farming his own fields, he quickly learned that agents and specialists with the Mississippi State University Extension Service could help him access the latest research and show him how to apply it in his fields.
“I learned to trust the research from Mississippi State,” Wagner shares. “I’ve worked with myriads of Extension people over the years: James Smith, Ted Miller, and Tim Walker are just a few. Tim was one of the greatest researchers and specialists for rice in the whole nation.”
Wagner also credits his two adult children, Lawrence and Abby, who oversee wholesale and retail sales. With the whole family working in the farming operation, their focus is on preserving the land and growing as many food calories as possible, not on profits.
“Rice has more readily accessible calories than soybeans or corn, and I’m generating wholesome calories,” Wagner says. “I have varieties that are unique, healthier than what’s available in a lot of stores. We live in a food desert, and the clay soils on this land hold a lot of water. Therefore, it’s imperative we maximize our soil’s capabilities in our planet’s food production system.”
Maintaining production and preserving his land for future generations is one of Wagner’s top goals. Wagner has made major investments—both in time and capital—to develop his own irrigation system that decreases aquifer use and instead relies on green water sources, such as stormwater runoff, to flood his rice fields.
Wagner also uses the aigamo method of rice farming, a traditional Japanese method of using ducks in rice culture. Instead of tilling, Wagner allows ducks to descend on his fields during the winter. They control pests and weeds and increase soil fertility.
Wagner’s Extension agent, Laura Jane Giaccaglia, nominated Wagner for the Farmer of the Year honor. She says that Wagner is an inspiration to others, not just because of his farming and attention to preserving the land, but also because of his generosity.
“Anyone who knows Mike and is able to call him a friend is fortunate and blessed,” Giaccaglia says. “Even those who do not know Mike are being touched by his giving nature. People in need near and far are being fed because he donates more of his rice than he markets. Mike’s commitment to sharing his blessings of the earth is something we all could reflect upon and ask ourselves, ‘How can I make a difference?’
“By working together, we make a larger impact in our state. Mike is more than just a good farmer. He deserves to be the Farmer of the Year because of the impact that he has made on a local level, a state level, and a global level.”