Braggadocio Rice and Organic Farming in Missouri

Steve McKaskle has tried a variety of organic farming ventures, and now produces organic rice and popcorn from his farm in southeast Missouri.

  • Steve McKaskle kneels beside the gravestone of Kay's great-great-grandfather, Jefferson J. Long, who founded Braggadocio and the farm that is now in its 7th generation. The family cemetery is surrounded by the organic popcorn fields adjacent to the McKaskles' backyard.
    Photo by Brian Dunne
  • Growing rice in Missouri is relatively new but increasing in popularity in the Missouri Bootheel region of the Mississippi River delta. It fits well because of the irrigation already present in the area. Rice must be watered to germinate and sprout; then the fields must be drained for harvest.
    Photo by Brian Dunne
  • When the McKaskles began selling first popcorn and then rice under their own brand, they named it Braggadocio after the little town that Kay’s great-great-grandfather had settled several generations back. They now sell their rice in 200-, 50-, and 2-pound bags.
    Photo by Brian Dunne
  • The most difficult challenge to organic farming is weed control. McKaskle has a Mexican family of 8 that comes from Texas every year to hoe by hand 40 acres of soybeans.
    Photo by Brian Dunne

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.

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