Just outside Altheimer, Ark, next to a small church is a beautiful field of cotton. It is remarkable because it is one of few cotton fields in the area and also because it is so clean.
As he steps into the first row, David Sites looks closely for any pigweed escapes. Satisfied there is no pending crisis to deal with, Sites smiles and says his love of cotton is inbred. “My father, Clyde, taught me cotton – he really knew the ins and outs. He’s 90 now and retired in 1995. Before that, he had his own gin and raised 4,000 to 5,000 acres of cotton.
“When I got out of college in 1984, I started farming with Dad and three of my brothers. At one point, we were working with my uncle and some cousins.
“Of course, work on the farm began long before I got out of college. I scouted cotton during summers.” Sites chuckles: “Daddy believed in making sure his boys had strong work ethics.”
Ray Dardenne, Sites’ consultant, has been in the business and the area for some 45 years. “David comes from a cotton-growing family, one of the best in Altheimer. He learned from his daddy, who was a great farmer.”
Dardenne has watched the area’s farming landscape change. “In the zone I work, there are only two cotton farmers left. One of them is David and he’s going against the flow. Last year, he grew a little over 350 acres of cotton and this year he’s at over 1,000.”
Has Sites grown cotton steadily through the years?
“I may have skipped a couple of years. I haven’t grown as much cotton as now but there’s always been cotton in the mix, usually around 650 acres.
“Honestly, a large reason I’ve persisted in cotton is the equipment. I love cotton, love the challenge. But without the pickers in the barn, I wouldn’t be able to keep growing it.”
Boll weevil eradication sent a lot of cotton farmers away from the crop, says Sites. “They balked at having to pay $35 a year for five years and then looking at a maintenance fee.”
That is sad, he says, because “the ground here is just perfect for growing cotton. Of course, corn does well on it but it’s cotton ground. Our best rotation on these sandy soils is corn/cotton. I picked up a few farms that had been in cotton for years and years. When I began a corn/cotton rotation, the yields for both crops bumped up every year. Those two crops seem to complement each other. Throw soybeans in there and the yield response isn’t as good.”
There are several reasons Sites is growing over 1,000 acres of cotton this year. “First, I’m a member of the gin in Gould and own stock in it. When cottonseed went to over $300 per ton it really helped the gin’s stockholders. The rebate is a real bonus. Add in the fact that I sold mine last year for 13 cent equity. So, you get the 54-cent for loan and add in everything else and you’re looking at close to 80 cents (per pound).”
In 2014, Sites averaged 1,500 pounds of cotton per acre. “Last year, the average yield was about 1,300 pounds. These varieties are something nowadays. If you can make over 1,000 pounds at 80 cents it’s better than $4 corn and surely a lot better than beans at $8 or $9. We increased our cotton acreage by taking soybeans out. However, I like to keep my crop mix diversified evenly between cotton, corn, rice and beans.”
Sites is careful to mention the “good people standing behind me. None is better than my wife and partner, Marcie. She keeps the wheels greased for the farm – book-keeping, runs the office and whatever needs to be done -- and does a super job. I’d never be able to any of this without Marcie; she’s a true partner.”
Dardenne, he says, provides “peace of mind. He’s very particular about things but that’s what I need. If he says something in the field needs to be taken care of, it’s legit. Sometimes he’ll offer to show me certain pests, or whatever. I say, ‘No, Ray, you say it’s there and I’m sure it is. I’m good to go with whatever you recommend.’”
And what Dardenne is recommending for Sites’ cotton this year is within the parameters of a tweaked “retro” system.
“All the older farmers know this but the younger farmers may not,” says Sites. In years past, “the only time we cranked up a high boy was to spray insects. Before the Roundup Ready era started, everyone plowed several times a year and doctored the crop. We always had two sets of tanks on the tractor. Daddy always said ‘if you’re applying three things, you’ve just saved two trips.’ So, we piggybacked a lot of product.”
Currently, Sites isn’t set up for that. “I do have tanks on the tractors and if I stay in cotton, we’ll start banding everything. We’re plowing anyway. It’s really silly to go out broadcast spray and then plow the middles.
“So, I’m just leaning back to what we did historically while taking advantage of the Roundup and Liberty systems.”
Herbicide-resistant pigweeds forced Sites’ hand.
“We took the warnings seriously and were very aggressive with pigweeds early on, five or six years ago. They never got out of hand but we had to really stay on top of them. I distinctly remember the day when we walked out and checked some pigweed that we’d hand-sprayed and didn’t die: ‘Oh, boy, we’re in for it now.’”
Sites overlaps residuals “very hard. We put Cotoran out behind the planter and come back with Liberty.” The week of June 20, “we’ll sidedress some fertilizer and plow again. Then, we’ll take hooded sprayers out and spray the middles. Hopefully, we’ll get a shower – if not, we’ll irrigate. Once the Dual is incorporated we’re hoping it’ll hold until layby.
“That isn’t all that many trips across the field compared to what we used to make.”
As his clients approach growing season, “we strategize on how to control (pigweeds),” says Dardenne. “Without a shadow of doubt, if it wasn’t for the pre-emergent herbicides we’d be in trouble very quickly.
“Ford Baldwin has preached about this for year and he’s exactly right. You have to start out clean and stay clean in order to get through the resistance issues. Fortunately for those of us in cotton, we have dual gene technology so we can use Liberty or Roundup. With just Roundup Ready cotton we’d have very little post-emergence spraying.”
Sites, says Dardenne “has taken an old-school approach and made it work with the new technologies. A couple of years ago, we came together and decided to start using cultivators. In this day and time, when he’s trying to save money, that’s the ticket.
“What brought the cultivator approach to the forefront this season is we were cold and wet early. Pigweeds will never be resistant to steel. The cotton field you saw was planted in late May – it’s less than a month in the ground. Between David and I, we don’t put Dual and Liberty over-the-top early on. We learned years ago that Dual isn’t really friendly to young cotton.
“David gives me an extra trip through the field just to put the Dual out and keep from having to blend it with Liberty. In my opinion, a lot of the damaged cotton you see early is due to that tank-mix. When you have cotton struggling, just coming out of the ground, and then add thrips to the equation it’s just insult to injury.”
This year, Sites also used Syngenta’s Avicta Elite. “There are three types of Avicta used as a seed treatment for things like seedling diseases and thrips,” says Dardenne. “Avicta Elite has imidacloprid in it and that’s what we wanted to keep the thrips off the cotton.”
Asked about being a cotton-farming holdout in an area once beholden to the crop, Sites laments that “people don’t understand what’s being lost. It’s sad to see cotton acreage shrinking. I understand our politicians don’t like subsidies and all that but if they let cotton go away – and it may be too far gone now to recover and be what it once was – it would be a shame.
“Somehow we have to make cotton more enticing to growers. It’s true cotton is a harder crop to grow and carries a lot more risk than, say, soybeans. But in my mind, cotton is more rewarding. Cotton uses less water and fertilizer than corn.
“Of course, seed at $600 a bag is a hard pill to swallow. Back in the good, old days, we’d load seed from the warehouse onto a trailer and take it up to Sikeston, Mo. They’d clean it, de-lint it and we’d bring it back in sacks that cost $6. Then, we’d replant that seed on thousands of acres.
“Every year, we’d plant about 40 acres of a new variety we wanted to try and potentially save. That’s all long-gone but even though it was always hard work, it sure made life fun.”