The U.S. Soybean King: Can Celebrity Farmer Kip Cullers End World Hunger?

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Karen Ball

Kip Cullers, who holds the world record in soybean production, amid this year's test plots on his farm in Stark, City, Mo.

Kip Cullers barely made it through high school — his words — and never took biology or chemistry. But he's arguably the globe's leading authority on soybean genetics and the precise brew of fertilizer, fungicide, weed killer, water — and yes, a pinch of sugar — required to grow a knockout crop.

That makes Cullers a bona fide celebrity soybean farmer, who already holds multiple world records for soybean production and is going for the gold again this year. Last fall, he set a new bar by producing 160.6 bushels per acre — nearly four times the national average. Perhaps even more telling is that Cullers yields 100 bushels per acre on the 300 commercial acres that he doesn't baby and brood over as he does with his experimental plots.

"I never learn from my success — I learn from my failures," says the lanky, good-natured Cullers as he steers his ginormous Chevy Silverado 2500 pickup over the ruts and dirt roads of sprawling southwest Missouri. The soybeans are just one part of his spread. He also farms some 10,000 acres of corn and runs a poultry operation.

A Styrofoam cup is always nearby, since Copenhagen is tucked under his lip. ("It's wicked stuff — I've been doing it since I was about 2.") He blinks rapid-fire and talks just as fast. His left leg is always twitching.

The soybean king's No. 1 piece of advice, he says, is to try something new every year. Farmers, the world's second-oldest profession, need to innovate, even if it seems bizarre. "You've got to know where the edge of the cliff is, go over it and pull yourself up. Otherwise you won't know where the edge is."

This year Cullers is looking for the edge in several test plots. One features a "drip tape" buried about eight inches under the ground. Picture a child's Matchbox racetrack, flat and black, only this swells when filled with water, which escapes slowly through tiny holes. John Deere makes this particular tape, and Cullers is happy with it, noting that the plants are bigger and a lusher shade of green than the plants in the neighboring plot.

"I don't think there'll be any records this year — this is a learning year," he demurs, before cracking a sly grin about the plants on his drip tape plot. "But they are blooming their butts off."

Like any celebrity, Cullers get help from his corporate partners. John Deere has also installed a sophisticated "water logger" that measures moisture of Cullers' Newtonia red soil at varying depths. The device takes a reading every 30 minutes and beams the data to a satellite every two hours. Similarly, Pioneer—the feed company that collaborates with Cullers — has fancy weather meters tracking temperature, moisture and so on.

The companies work with Cullers because he is out there on the edge — and thriving. Experimental products like the buried drip tape might become standard agricultural practice, Cullers says, because it gets the same job done using just a third of the water of typical "pivot" irrigators, those multi-armed steel contraptions stalking America's farmlands like giant insects. If Cullers shows the commercial feasibility of the system, the long-term environmental benefit in terms of water conservation could be enormous.

The Missouri Soybean Association is so proud of Cullers it has plans to make a role model out of him. In coming months, the association will launch a program to challenge every Missouri soybean farmer to increase yield-per-acre by 10 bushels in 2012. They'll publish a sort of compendium of Kip's Tips, featuring Cullers's strategies for better irrigation and controlling weeds and disease.

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