Jungle to Farm

In a region with a famous past, the Berry family looks to sustain a long future.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Rory Doyle

Last April, Curtis Berry watched a fleet of tractors plant his rice. This would be a marquee crop—his twentieth—and he was happy that his father, Charles, was there to watch too. More than 50 years ago, Charles began to carve these fields from what he called just “jungle.”

It’s been a long process.

“I’ve reached the point where I think I can tell stories,” Charles says. “If Curtis looks off in the distance, I know he’s heard the story before. If he rolls his eyes, I know he’s heard it many times.”

Here in the Mississippi Delta, storytelling is a part of life; every town seems to have produced its own great poet or novelist. Many of those stories—including, famously, William Faulkner’s great novella “The Bear”—recount how in the early 20th century, a once-foreboding wilderness was converted into a wide network of cotton farms.

Though, in 1962, Charles still found a bit of wild. That year he bought 2,400 acres in Tunica County, Miss., only a quarter of which was cleared; none had been planted. The heavy clay soils were unsuitable for cotton.

Charles Berry had his eyes on a different crop: rice. At the time, he guesses there were only five rice farmers in Tunica County, in part because federal laws set specific, limited allotments for the crop on each farm. Charles was granted only a small such allotment, but traded for other crops until he was able to build a sizable operation.

The work was a family affair. Just three months into their marriage, Charles put his wife, Jimmie, to work. “The whole time I was pregnant with Curtis, I was surveying rice levees,” she recalls.

Charles and Curtis Berry

Charles and Curtis Berry

Now it’s Curtis who runs the show. When he graduated from Mississippi State University in 1996, he moved back home to join his father. “Dad, he never pressured anybody to come back and help,” Curtis says. “But [by] my junior year of high school I knew this was going to be my profession.”

The Delta—actually an alluvial floodplain stretching 200 miles south from Memphis, and, at its widest, 70 miles across—can be mistaken for an old-fashioned place. Indeed, a few years ago a film crew, working on the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” showed up just down the road, where on a neighbor’s land they recreated the Cash family’s hardscrabble 1940s Arkansas farm.

Most Delta communities hit peak population in that same era; in downtowns, 70-year-old storefronts still remain, and on back roads off Highway 61—the famous Blues Highway—old gas stations and tenant shacks settle back into the landscape.

But as Curtis’s quite modern fleet seeded his fields—4,500 acres now, spread in parcels across the county—they offered a reminder that in the Delta agriculture still booms. Indeed, farming has remained so intensive that the region’s future may depend on farmers embracing new techniques. Water, in particular—once a seemingly endless resource, or a hindrance even, in those early swamps—has become a concern.

“That’s a hot-button issue right now,” says Curtis, who sits on the board of directors for the Yazoo Mississippi Delta Joint Water Management District. “It’s going to be for the next 50 years.”

Recent data suggests that over the past four decades, local aquifers have dropped as much as 1.5 feet a year. Groundwater is notoriously hard to measure; no one in Mississippi is clear how long it will take until the aquifers become significantly depleted—if it happens at all—and pumping becomes prohibitively expensive here, though most estimates run into decades.

“It’s certainly very serious,” Curtis says, “but it’s not dire.” Still, he has joined a voluntary effort to track pumping, and for more than a decade has employed zero-grade rice production.

“That means these fields are flat,” he explains. “Every drop of rain that we get, I can use in my rice crop and not have to pump out of the ground.” Curtis estimates his rice fields use between half and a third of the water of a conventional field of the same size. “Any time we can use surface water as opposed to groundwater, I feel like we’re helping.”

There are discussions of pumping in water from other nearby sources, including dammed lakes just outside the Delta, as well as the Mississippi River itself. Local researchers also are developing technological conservation methods. One scientist at the nearby Delta Research and Extension Center has studied “alternate wetting and drying,” in which rice is covered only intermittently with water. Initial results suggest that rice fields can be left dry much longer than most conventional farmers now allow, with no effect on yield.

Curtis is watching and waiting. “My daddy always says, ‘Don’t be the first one to jump on the new technology,’” he says, “‘but don’t be the last.’”

Charles’ lessons and values remain central on this farm. He was a founder of Delta Wildlife Foundation, and the Berry family has long been aware that their farm sits in the Mississippi Flyway, a passage for 325 species of migrating birds in the U.S. and Canada. Each winter, when rainfall is plentiful, Curtis impounds 2,500 acres of water so ducks and other fowl can mate and feed—which, through hunting leases, also creates a nice second revenue stream. It also, of course, keeps a portion of the farm reminiscent of the jungle Charles Berry first bought.

Curtis is a father himself now—he has three daughters and one son, the eldest 14 years old—so he’s beginning to contemplate what he in turn will pass on. His son already has expressed an interest in doing what his daddy does.

“I told him, ‘God will work that out for you,’” says Curtis. Though by keeping an eye on his farmland, he too is doing his part.