Keep on Trucking: Mississippi Producer Sees Transportation Challenges as Opportunity

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Fall 2018 American Soybean Magazine

Willard Jack (far right, with his family) is chairman of Willard Jack Trucking in Belzoni, Miss. He is keen on efficient and competitive transportation for both his farming and his trucking enterprises. Photo courtesy of Willard Jack

There are two main reasons why Willard Jack advocates for the best soybean transportation possible. The first-generation farmer from Belzoni, Miss. and chairman of the family’s Silent Shade Planting Co. grows 12,000 acres of irrigated soybeans, cotton, rice, corn, wheat and peanuts that all need to find a home in local mills or nearby export channels.

Jack also is chairman of Willard Jack Trucking, which he owns with his wife Laura Lee. The business was founded to manage Silent Shade’s grain-hauling needs but has since expanded to service Mississippi Delta customers who require grain, fertilizer, dirt and gravel hauling.

“We are fortunate we can take our soybeans right to the elevator and right into the export channel because of our proximity to the river and to the Gulf,” Jack said. “We are one of the first to harvest, so we can truck our beans right away and be available for other transport needs.”

Jack moved from Canada to the United States in 1979 to begin farming. He and Laura Lee have three children; Stacie Koger, Gregory Jack and Jeremy Jack; and four grandchildren. Several family members are involved with one of the two enterprises today.

Willard Jack Trucking’s mission is, “To safely and efficiently provide hauling services in a timely manner and at competitive prices.” The company operates eight trucks, employs eight full-time drivers, and fills two to three part-time trucking positions with two rental trucks as needed during harvest.

“We store about 750,000 bushels of corn and rice on the farm so that it can be delivered during the winter to a rice mill about an hour away and to local chicken feed mills,” he said. “Since the rest of our crops are trucked out during harvest, we hire additional drivers.”

But timely, competitive trucking is easier said than done. According to the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), U.S. agriculture is a “21st century industry utilizing an early 20th century rural infrastructure,” noting an improved and well-maintained highway and bridge system that can accommodate 21st-century transport volumes is critical to future success. Generally, the first and the last 10 to 20 miles of soybean transportation from farm to customer occur via truck.

Willard Jack (far right, with his family) is chairman of Willard Jack Trucking in Belzoni, Miss. He is keen on efficient and competitive transportation for both his farming and his trucking enterprises. Photo courtesy of Willard Jack

Jack’s stance is to view infrastructure and other major transportation challenges as opportunities. Number one on his list is finding and keeping qualified truck drivers.

“There is a driver shortage here and across the nation,” he said, citing statistics of 9,000 current open truck driving positions in Mississippi and 100,000 openings nationwide. “Soybeans and other crops are not a comparatively high-dollar freight, so truckers usually are not paid as well as they might be for hauling other freight. We have to compete with those other industries.”

Willard Jack Trucking has raised wages to compete for drivers but still finds holding on to qualified people is tough. “There is a lot of turnover. My daughter-in-law is our human resources specialist. She works almost full time just trying to keep a file of current and potential hires,” said Jack. “She actively recruits truckers. We use a highway billboard to attract drivers.”

Domestic transportation policy is another challenge that trucking companies and soybean farmers face. Jack has spent decades advocating on policy issues. He has been an American Soybean Association (ASA) director since 2015. He also has been on the Mississippi Soybean Association (MSA) board for more than 20 years and, in the past, served on the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board, Rice Promotion Board, Rice Council, Farm Bureau and National Rice Promotion Board. Jack has been part of an advisory board appointed by the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and sat on county and state Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service committees.

Jack is adamant about the need for ongoing transportation maintenance. “Rural roads and bridges need to be maintained in top condition. As we increase yields and haul more grain in trucks, we need to prevent having to detour many miles because a road or bridge is out. That runs costs up significantly,” he said.

Jack said higher fuel taxes may be one solution. The STC lists, as one of its priorities, supporting a federal tax increase on gasoline and diesel fuel of 10 cents a gallon indexed to inflation. The group also wants to ensure rural areas receive proportionate, sufficient funding from the tax.

“The whole transportation infrastructure system needs to be evaluated,” Jack said. “Hauling further distances on trucks may be one way to move bulk commodities efficiently, but that decision needs to be coordinated with all of the other intermodal transportation methods.”

Recent international trade policy decisions also threaten soybean and transportation profitability. Trade wars and tariffs have resulted in lower soybean prices, along with a wider-than-usual harvest basis. Jack said their typical fall basis is 20 to 30 cents per bushel, however, this year it’s 70 to 80 cents per bushel.

“We have to be concerned this fall about where this record crop of soybeans is going to go,” he said. “Trucking it all would be a challenge, so we will have to rely more heavily on other modes of transportation. One positive for farmers is that there is less coal traveling on the river right now. There are plenty of barges and tows to absorb the surplus and hopefully firm up the basis.”

Steel and aluminum tariffs are another worry for Jack, as semi-trailer and farm equipment prices increase because of tariffs. “It is disconcerting to us,” he said, “but there is a sweet spot you can find between repair and replace. It is hard to justify buying new if you have to now.”

Jack is committed to doing what needs to be done to maintain an efficient truck fleet that will keep his farming and trucking costs competitive for the long term.

“Trucks are going to get more expensive. We will have to be more efficient, load in and out of bins more quickly, make the process smoother and respect a trucker’s time,” he said. “From an industry perspective, we need to eliminate territorial attitudes between trucks, barges and rail. We must work together so we can remain competitive with South America.”