Steve McKaskle had never dreamed of being a farmer. Growing up the son of a physician, he went to college and studied political science at the University of Mississippi with the idea of going on to law school and becoming a lawyer. But life intervenes, lives change, and now Steve and his wife Kay have a successful and innovative rice and popcorn farm that is currently on its 7th generation of Kay’s family.
The McKaskle family farming story began in 1973 when Steve and Kay moved to the tiny town of Braggadocio in the southeast Missouri bootheel and Kay’s father talked Steve into trying his hand at helping on the farm that had been in that family for 5 generations. It happened that Steve’s first venture into farming on 300 acres turned out to be very profitable, as he was new to farming and had not pre-sold his crop. He was able to command a higher price for his cotton and soybeans than farmers who had already contracted to sell at a lower price. Anyone who farms for a career knows that farmers have good years and bad years. While the McKaskles may have had a good first year, profits were terrible to non-existent the second year. Throughout the next nearly 20 years, Steve and Kay continued to farm through more bad years than good, with Steve taking off-farm jobs and sometimes commuting as far as Memphis to pay the bills, and with Kay’s father helping the struggling farm family.
Farming took a new turn for the McKaskles in 1992 when Steve was at a local basketball game and a farmer friend asked if he knew anything about growing organic cotton. Steve replied that he had heard of organic foods but had not heard of organic cotton. The friend went on to explain that there would be a meeting about organic cotton that week in the nearby little town of Portageville. Steve decided to attend the meeting and has always since been glad that he did. What he learned that night was that cotton grown organically would bring a much more premium price on the market than cotton grown conventionally. Even though Kay’s father thought Steve was making a big mistake, Steve committed to growing 40 acres of organic cotton since the family already had a cotton gin. It was such a successful farming year for Steve that he decided to get bigger the next year and has continued to expand every year since.
Organic farming proved to be time-consuming and with the same challenges as conventional farming. The biggest obstacle was weed control. It was difficult to control weeds while growing organically. Still, the McKaskles continued to move forward with organic farming while some years were better than others, just as in conventional farming. Then a tornado changed everything. In April of 2006 a mile-wide, F-4 tornado came up out of Arkansas and struck the farm. It destroyed the farm headquarters, including the cotton gin, equipment shop with all planting and harvesting machinery, out-buildings, all the farm vehicles and most of the house, leaving only one room undamaged. Wondering how he could ever continue farming without equipment, a friend who also happened to be a John Deere dealer, found Steve a used corn planter so he could get his crop in. The corn was all planted and the crop had just come up when another tornado struck and hail destroyed all the corn. Not one to give up, Steve planted corn again, only to have another storm come along.
The tornado may have proved to be a good thing in the long run for the McKaskles. With the family cotton gin destroyed and no way to process their cotton, Steve turned to growing other crops. He planted rice for the first time in 2006 and grew a great crop. With need for another crop for rotation, he added popcorn in 2008. He sold his harvested rice and popcorn to companies that processed and marketed them. In 2010 he had loaded out a truck of popcorn and there was some left in the grain bin. Up to that point, Steve and Kay had not eaten any of the popcorn they grew. Kay suggested that Steve bring some of that leftover popcorn to the house so they could try it. After drying it for about a week, they popped some of their corn for the first time and were amazed at how good and fresh it tasted. They shared it with family and friends who also were highly complimentary of the finished product. Kay declared, “We need to be selling this under our own name.”
That added a new dimension to the McKaskle farm. They began selling their organic popcorn under the name of Braggadocio Popcorn, named after their small town that Kay’s great-great-grandfather had founded and settled several generations back. Shortly thereafter, they realized they could do the same thing with their rice. They were harvesting both rice and popcorn, shipping them off to be packaged and then returned for McKaskles to put their own labels on. Steve contends that what makes the popcorn so flavorful and fresh tasting is the fertile soil in which it is grown. Indicating that the health of the soil determines taste and quality, he gives credit to his location in the Mississippi River delta and his organic farming practices.
Steve was then and is now a one-man market team for his products. He began calling on stores. Braggadocio Rice and Braggadocio Popcorn are now sold in Hy-Vee, Schnucks, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and other chain stores, as well as mom-and-pop stores across the country. He is also a supplier of organic rice to Chipotle Mexican Grill. The restaurant chain made news when it recently announced its commitment to use non-GMO products in their restaurants. Chipotle officials visited the McKaskle farm, determined that he grew “rice with integrity” and said they would buy all that Steve could produce.
The most recent expansion to the McKaskle farm has been their rice processing plant, or rice mill. With the help of some monetary grants, Steve was able to build a mill that features state-of-the-art equipment from Taiwan and Japan. Begun in 2013, the mill was completed and began operating in November, 2014. Steve explained how a grain bin loop system that uses chains and paddles rather than the traditional augur moves rice from the storage bins and through the various parts of the building where it is cleaned, graded, and sorted by size and color. Solar energy that uses nine 15-feet by 10-feet solar panels provides part of the power to the mill. The addition of the rice mill allows the McKaskles to keep all elements of the rice operation there on their farm.
A visit to the McKaskle farm lets one see that Steve McKaskle is an innovator who is always experimenting and always on the cutting edge of technology. With weed control being the biggest challenge to rice farming, Steve has tried all of the traditional organic approaches to controlling weeds and has created some new methods of his own. He has used propane flaming, which is effective but dangerous, flooding, mowing, weed eating, and hand hoeing. He is currently working to develop a method of using hot water weeding. While hot water weeding has previously been done on railroad beds, Steve is using a grant to develop it for farming. He explains that technology is now available to have a continuous supply of 280-degree hot water instead of the previously used steam. He hopes to refine the method for no-till farming.
Steve makes an investment in some of the newest ground-breaking planting and cultivating machinery, as well as harvesting and processing equipment. The rice color-sorter in the processing mill is the manufactured in Japan and is currently the only one of its type in the United States. When he purchased it, someone came from Japan to set it up, and spend a week calibrating it and teaching him how to use it. He is getting ready to start biodynamic farming on 40 acres because he is seeing a demand for it.
Even with experimentation and trying the latest technology, sometimes the basic old ways still work the best. Steve says that, so far, the most effective procedure for weed control is crop rotation. He uses a 4-crop rotation of soybeans, rice, popcorn, and wheat. In the field, rice grains are hand-tested for maturity. Quality control is practiced in the rice mill with samples taken every hour. He encourages beekeepers to set up hives for pollination of crops.
He provides large areas of natural wildflowers to create habitat for beneficial insects. Nothing goes to waste from the processing plant. They sell everything, even the floor sweep and grain dust. Rice hulls are sold for chicken house bedding. Bran by-product is sold to mushroom farmers.
Steve McKaskle may have started his young adult life thinking that he wanted to pursue a law degree, but he is now convinced that farming was ultimately the right choice for him and his wife. The farm is special to them. With their daughter and oldest grandson now being part of the operation, the farm is in its 7th generation of family. Steve says the farm is special and gives them a sense of longevity in what they are doing. They can “feel” the presence of their ancestors. In fact, Kay’s great-grandfather is buried in the family cemetery surrounded by wildflowers in the middle of a popcorn field adjacent to the McKaskles’ back yard.
Growing rice in Missouri is somewhat of a new venture but is growing increasingly popular. Most of the rice grown in Missouri is long grain rice, with a very small percentage being medium grain rice.
What is the difference between brown rice and white rice? All rice is brown. All rice can be white. Brown rice becomes white when it has the outside hull removed from it. One cup of dry rice becomes three cups of cooked rice.
Rice is grown in naturally wet areas or where irrigation can be used extensively. Rice must be wet in order to germinate, so the newly planted fields are flooded. After the rice has germinated, it must be wet again to push it on up out of the soil. Once the rice is growing, the fields continue to be flooded for weed control, not for growth of the rice as most people believe.
Steve McKaskle says that the last 23 years — the number of years he has been farming organically — has seen the importance of non-GMO and organically grown food crops. He is convinced that it is the future for food production, and that before the too-distant future, people mostly will be eating organically grown, non-GMO foods.
Steve started growing organically more than 2 decades ago because his crops would bring a premium price. He says he does it now because “it is the right thing to do.” He encourages anyone interested in farming organically to contact him. He will be more than happy to give them advice or help them in any way that he can because organic farming is the way of the future. His hope is to inspire other farmers to diversify and get involved in organic practices.
Kathy McFarland is a former English teacher and life-long gardener who likes to travel, read, write, and do almost anything outdoors. She loves to relax on her front porch swing and enjoy the view of her farm in the Missouri Ozarks.