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Rural Missouri Magazine

Soybean Celebrity
After setting back-to-back soybean yield world records, Kip Cullers is the ‘Bon Jovi of farming’

by Jason Jenkins

Whether he is growing corn or soybeans, Kip Cullers of Purdy knows how to maximize yields. Since 2005, he’s set back-to-back world records for soybean production and placed seven times in national corn yield contests.

At first glance, you wouldn’t guess Kip Cullers was a celebrity. In his Big Smith bib overalls, plain white T-shirt and Pioneer Hi-Bred seed cap, he looks like any hardworking farmer. His 6-foot-tall frame, thin and tanned from countless hours in the field, is inconspicuous at any local coffee shop.

But mention Kip’s name in certain ag circles, and the reaction you’ll receive is quite different.

As the reigning world champion soybean grower, the farmer from Purdy has become a household name in agriculture. At farm shows across the Midwest, Kip packs auditoriums with those eager to learn his secrets. It’s not unusual for him to sign autographs or to even pose for pictures.

Photos with fans aren’t the only ones Kip poses for these days. You could fill a bushel basket with print advertisements showing Kip riding triumphantly on a combine, standing proudly atop a mound of harvested beans or even dead-lifting a barbell consisting of two buckets of soybeans.

“They’ve started calling me the Bon Jovi of farming,” the 43-year-old says, shaking his head in visible embarrassment over a rock star persona that doesn’t seem to fit.

Kip’s agronomic accomplishments, however, are nothing to be embarrassed about. In 2006, the Ozark Electric Cooperative member won the Missouri Soybean Association’s yield contest, setting a new world record yield for soybeans at 139 bushels per acre. Last year, he topped his own record, growing 154 bushels per acre.

Numbers alone don’t provide perspective to the accomplishment. Whereas the average commercial soybean yield from one acre could be hauled away in the bed of any mid-size pick-up truck, Kip would need four such trucks to carry the world record yield from one of his acres.

Kip’s soybean exploits have received the most attention, but he is no slouch when it comes to growing corn, either. In the past three years, he’s placed seven times in the National Corn Growers Association’s yield contest, including back-to-back first-place finishes in the irrigated class.

Though he’s a relative newcomer to the world of corn and soybean yield contests, Kip has been getting the most from his crops for years.

“We used to have 5,000 acres of vegetables, and we always had to have a project to see what we could push the yields on,” Kip says. “But pretty well there’s nothing else I can do on pushing yields on any vegetables. You don’t want to buy a green bean a foot long and 2 inches wide.”

At an agronomist’s suggestion, Kip decided to raise corn for the 2005 national yield contest.

“With corn, you can have a kernel the size of a football, and soybeans, you can have one the size of a basketball, it doesn’t matter. Bigger’s better.”

Despite being a rookie, Kip’s irrigated corn yielded 345 bushels per acre — more than twice the average commercial corn yield — earning him second place honors nationwide.

Kip Cullers' advice for growing bin-busting crops: Plant the right genetics for your farm and protect your crop from undue stresses using a fungicide.

When the 2006 growing season began, raising record-breaking soybeans wasn’t on Kip’s radar; he was looking for a corn yield record.

In preparation for growing what he hoped would become 500-bushel corn, he planted soybeans extra thick in a contest plot. As a legume, soybeans convert nitrogen gas from the air into a form that plants can use as food. By planting soybeans, then plowing them into the soil, Kip sought to increase the ground’s fertility.

“We really hadn’t been taking care of them, just kept them watered,” Kip recalls. “Scott Dickey, an agronomist with Pioneer, was down to the farm to look at the corn, and he asked how the beans looked. We walked out there, and he said, ‘Wow, we better start taking care of these!’

“They had a little trouble talking me into not plowing them under because I was wanting to grow 500-bushel corn on that ground.”

After making headlines with those record-setting beans in 2006, Kip went to work last year on setting a new record, upping his soybean yield by more than 10 percent.

Since setting the world record, Kip’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Requests for farm visits are constant. To help curb some of the desire for information, Kip embarked on a 20-plus-state tour last winter, sponsored by his seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, and his agrochemical supplier, BASF.

“There’ll be 250 to 1,000 come hear me talk,” he says. “I don’t really say anything, just what they should already be doing. Soybeans, they’re treated like dirty, redheaded stepchildren on everybody’s farm.”

Kip’s advice is simple: Plant the right genetics for your farm and protect your crop from undue stresses using a fungicide.

“It doesn’t matter what company it is, just make sure you’ve got the right stuff for your ground,” he says. “You may have to adjust some things, but at the end of the day, how many bushels did you put in the bin? That’s what it comes down to.”

While his contest acres do receive extra attention, Kip takes what he learns in the contest and applies it to his commercial acres. Last year, his commercial soybeans averaged 73 bushels per acre, almost twice the national average.

In August, nearly 2,000 farmers, agronomists and Fortune 500 executives from across North America converged on Kip’s farm for what was billed as the largest field day ever held in Missouri. For three days, they toured the farm and listened to Kip’s approach to growing bin-busting crops.

Some parts of Kip’s routine haven’t changed much with all the notoriety. He’s still up by 4 a.m. most mornings, but now he spends much of his day on his cell phone, answering questions from agronomists and journalists alike.

Walking his test plots, a pinch of Copenhagen snuff tucked in his lip, he debates the merits of different corn and soybean varieties he identifies by sight alone. Like many farmers, he’s self-taught in the basics of plant genetics, meteorology and world economic policy.

He may be poised to become a legend among legume growers, but Kip is first and foremost a corn farmer. Though he lives in Barry County with his wife, Michele, and his sons, Noah and Naaman, Kip has 11,000 acres of corn planted in seven southwest Missouri counties.

“Corn’s my passion; soybeans are kind of boring,” he says. “Soybeans are easy because the yield potential is just unlimited. Corn is a challenge.

“Now I guess we need to hurry up and make 200-bushel beans so we can get back to concentrating on corn.”

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