The view from Larry McClendon’s office can be breathtaking in early October — even for someone who’s not a cotton farmer. When he or his employees or guests step onto the front porch of his farm’s headquarters building near Marianna, Ark., they see nearly a mile of white stretching almost to the horizon.
What’s even more amazing in this era of declining cotton acres in the Mississippi Delta is that the sweeping view doesn’t encompass all the cotton McClendon is growing — all told, his operation had nearly 6,000 acres of cotton in 2015.
Those acres are part of a highly diversified cotton, corn, soybean, grain sorghum, and rice operation that McClendon manages, along with two gins and a cotton warehouse. While he doesn’t like to talk about size, it’s generally acknowledged he has more than 20,000 acres under cultivation.
You don’t have to spend much time on his farm to realize that, despite its size, he is a very “hands-on” manager, which includes making extensive use of minimum tillage, cover crops, and other conservation practices to protect soil and water.
His stewardship of the environment, his conservation ethic, and his years of service to the cotton industry have earned him the 2016 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Delta region.
AWARDS BREAKFAST AT MEMPHIS
He and winners from the three other regions of the cotton belt will be honored at the High Cotton awards breakfast Friday, Feb. 26. The event will be held for the first time at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis. The awards program is sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation.
To understand McClendon’s attention to detail and his love of the land and farming, you have to consider where he started.
“My family members were working class,” he told a group of growers from Texas and Oklahoma who toured his farm during a stop on the National Cotton council’s Producer Information Exchange program last August.
“I started farming in 1975 with about 200 acres of rented land. We were able to add more acres over time, and then to buy some land. I survived the 1980s — a horrible time here. We muddled through, but a lot of people went broke. I was probably broke and just didn’t realize it.”
In the 1990s in the Delta, he says, “Cotton really took off. I rented this Soudan Farms (where his headquarters are located) in 1987, and in 1990 I got my first gin. By 2006, there were 5 million acres of cotton in the Delta. This year, there are probably less than a million. It’s been a wild ride up for cotton — and a wild ride down.”
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, McClendon continued to buy land around Marianna in Lee County in eastern Arkansas. He now owns about a third of the land he farms.
WORKING WITH LANDLORDS
“I have a number of absentee landlords,” he says. “Many of the families who owned large plantations no longer live in the area, and they rent out their land to farmers like me” he says. “We try to keep them apprised of what’s happening on their land and to take care of it like we do our own.
“Soudan Farms had 5,000 acres under cultivation back in the 1920s. At one time, back in the 1940s and 1950s, there were 700 people living and working on this farm.”
During the PIE tour, McClendon showed visitors a map of his farming operation, located between where the St. Francis River, which runs from Missouri down through northeast Arkansas, drains into the Mississippi River opposite Tunica, Miss.
Being in a flood plain for two rivers has its pluses and minuses, he says. Much of the land he farms is a Commerce silt loam, which was deposited during centuries of overflows from the two rivers. There are also some sandier and clay soils. In years like 2011, when the Mississippi reached its highest level in decades, being in a flood plain also meant McClendon and his workers had difficulty getting across the farm because of flood waters.
A positive is an ample supply of groundwater, which allows McClendon to irrigate almost all of his crops. He also has installed water control structures that allow him to recycle runoff from furrow irrigation back onto his fields.
“We irrigate out of this bayou behind us,” he says, describing the operation of a furrow system that irrigates a cotton field near Soudan Farms headquarters. “Basically, most of the water is coming off my farm.
30 CENTER PIVOTS
“We’re fortunate that we have good rainfall and good groundwater,” says McClendon, who has 30 center pivots on his farms. Wells typically produce about 2,000 gallons per minute, which drew some head-shaking among the visitors. “Some of my wells produce about 300 gallons per minute,” said one. “We’d have to tie three or four wells together to get that much water.”
Many of his fields are on land that is rolling, rather than flat like other parts of the Delta — a product of how soil particles settled out during river flooding. The center pivots provide most of the water for the fields, but where possible he levels the corners so he can furrow irrigate with polypipe.
Working in tandem with his neighbors, McClendon is leveling 700 to 800 acres a year to improve drainage and allow the use of more furrow irrigation. Because of the high calcium content in his groundwater, he plants most newly-leveled ground in rice to improve the soil pH.
He grew three cotton varieties in 2015: Phytogen 333 WRF, Stoneville 4946GLB2, and Deltapine DP 1522 B2XF. The latter, a dicamba-tolerant variety that was planted on 1,800 to 2,000 acres, was being grown for seed increase under contract with Monsanto.
“We planted DP 1522 and another dicamba-tolerant variety in 2014, and this was the one we settled on to grow in 2015,” he says. “Monsanto believes they could have 700,000 acres of this variety in 2016.
NEW TRAITS NEEDED
“This looks like decent cotton,” says McClendon. “It has a good boll load. I think we will see more growers relying on Xtend and Enlist trait cotton in the future because of the problems we have with pigweed.”
When the PIE growers visited at mid-August last year, McClendon has just completed his final irrigation on the field of DP 1522 B2XF. The 500-acre block is irrigated with a single center pivot. Because of timely rains, he made only four circles on the cotton in 2015. In other years, he has made between six and 10, delivering up to 8 inches of water.
“We think we’re through watering cotton this year,” he said. “We probably will irrigate soybeans one more time. We typically apply 6 to 10 inches on cotton and beans, 15 inches on corn, and more than 20 inches on rice.”
In addition to land-leveling to reduce erosion, he is also shifting to less tillage. “Basically, we’re just trying to rehip over the old rows for corn, grain sorghum, and cotton,” he says. “We do have to re-hip to provide furrows for irrigation. But everything we do, we do in the fall — the first trip you make across the field in the spring should be with the planter.”
On lighter, sandy soils, he’s planting cover crops such as turnip greens and cereal rye, to help hold the soil in place and keep beds from eroding during the winter. He has become an advocate for cereal rye as a cover crop.
“This move to minimum tillage is compounded by the fact we have glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed,” he says. “It came into our area five or six years ago, and it was worse than Sherman’s march across Georgia.
‘TERRIBLE THING TO HAVE’
“Resistant pigweed has been beyond anything I could have imagined,” he says. “It has run up my cost on grain by $30 per acre, and cotton $50 an acre. We have to use a combination of a lot of products, and we have to back that up with hand-hoeing. It’s a terrible thing to have on your farm.”
Two events have had a major impact on cotton in his lifetime: the development of resistance to pyrethroids by the tobacco budworm in 1995, and the onset of glyphosate resistance in Palmer amaranth/pigweed in 2005 and 2006.
“We took care of the tobacco budworm with Bt cotton, and we’re dealing with pigweed — but it’s at a cost,” he says, noting that the latter is not all from the cash outlays for residual and more expensive over-the-top herbicides such as Liberty for LibertyLink crops.
“We had a bad setback on yields when pigweed came in. During the Roundup era, we had cotton plants with beautiful roots. Every time we apply a pre-emergence herbicide, it has an impact on the crop roots.”
McClendon is using lower rates and using one product at a time, instead of overlaying them as many growers are doing, to try to lessen injury and protect the health of his plants. He’s also using cold steel.
“This is my job every day,” he tells the PIE tour group, as he reaches into his truck and pulls out a large pigweed. “This plant is only three or four weeks old, and if it’s allowed to mature, there would be nearly a quart jar full of seed. You can imagine what all those seed would do to your farm.”
He believes having to fight pigweed and delays in registering the herbicides for Xtend, dicamba-tolerant, and Enlist traits are among the main reasons U.S. 2015 cotton acreage dropped to the lowest level since the PIK year of 1983.
“This kind of year is discouraging,” he said during 2015 harvest. “With prices being down and the costs we face in fighting pigweed, we’re just not making a lot of headway. But I have confidence the U.S. cotton industry will survive and flourish, because we’ve always been able to adapt to the challenges we face — and we’ll do so again.”
To watch a video of Larry McClendon talking about cotton, go to http://bit.ly/200cEwQ.