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Alabama farmer Nick McMichen is the winner of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation 2018 High Cotton Award for the Southeast states.

Nick McMichen uses data, likes being connected and cotton

Nick McMichen is the recipient of the 2018 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southeast states.

Nick McMichen likes to stay ahead of the curve. The diversified, tech savvy fifth generation Alabama farmer is well known in the U.S. cotton industry for his leadership and his combination of old-school-meets-innovative ways of handling his farming operation, which is located at Centre, in the northeast part of the state. McMichen, 47, is the recipient of the 2018 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southeast states.

This is the 24th year of the awards honoring farmers who combine outstanding production with a concern for the environment.

Much of what McMichen does technically on his farm has been published over the last few years in Farm Press. We’d be glad to point you to what we’ve done to share the technological nuts and bolts of his operation, or the details of how he farms, and we’ll talk about some of them in this story.

But what is his true secret to success? Or if success’ is too strong a word, what’s his way of making a go at it? The answer is: He questions what he should be doing, he is involved with his industry locally and nationally — and he likes data, being connected, and sharing.

Standing in one of his fields, in his trademark overalls, McMichen strikes the image most Americans have of “farmer.” But nestled in the bib or back pockets of those overalls you’ll find a smart phone and tablet filled with programs to connect him to his farm, the agriculture industry across the country, and to his more than 2,000 Twitter followers.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

But first, let’s first take care of the important stuff: He is married to Freida, and they own part of Cherokee Gin and Cotton Company at Centre. They have a teenage son, Matt, and their daughter, Mindy, is engaged to Tyler Bruce. Along with McMichen’s father, Randall, they all work together in the farming operation or at the gin, or both.

McMichen and his family grow about 1,600 acres of cotton, 600 acres of soybeans, 400 acres of wheat, 300 acres of corn, and in 2017, for the first time, 160 acres of peanuts. They have 500 acres under irrigation and he uses AgSense to operate the pivots.

In 2016, they averaged 1,300 pounds per acre on 1,300 acres of cotton. Their five-year average yield is over 1,000 pounds per acre, more than 100 pounds over the county average.

McMichen is actively expanding his operation to accommodate his family’s desire to stay on the farm and work it together, and we’ll talk about that a bit later in this piece, too.

FARM PRACTICES

In general, he soil samples on 2.5 acre grids, and uses precision, data-based technology to apply variable rate seed, crop protectants, and fertility. They use the Accufield system from Agri-AFC for the grid sampling and fertility program. They tested three different soil moisture probes for Auburn Extension, and decided on using the Aquaspy probe on the farm this year.

McMichen installed drip irrigation on about 60 acres 20 years ago, and at that time, didn’t have GPS guidance to help do it. They buried the tape on 76 inch centers, 10 inches to 12 inches deep. At the time, they were on 38 inch row patterns, and were fertigating through the drip system. But when he changed row patterns, he discontinued the fertigation, but still uses the tape to supply water. In 2017, the drip field was used to break Alabama’s 100 bushel soybean challenge.

For 20 years, McMichen has been a no-till farmer. He now plants cotton on 30 inch rows in a 2:1 skip row pattern — which is not a new way of planting cotton, but not an old way either. It saves inputs and seed costs, he says, without sacrificing production, and several growers in his region utilize the system.

VARIETY SELECTION

“Nick has a stringent variety selection process, which has proven successful and profitable,” says Rich Lindsey, manager of, and partner with the McMichens, in Cherokee Gin and Cotton, and in some related farming operations.

During the 2016, growing season, despite a record-breaking drought that struck the area he farms, his entire crop had a loan value more than 2 cents over the gin average.” More than 60 percent of that year’s crop had a color-leaf-staple grade of 31-3-36, which is premium quality for the area.

Each year, McMichen devotes extra time and effort to carefully maintaining cotton test plots, from which he captures precise data. The plots are individually ginned, and he uses the information that’s generated in making decisions on the farm. He shares the information with others, and asks the gin to post results of the test plots on the gin website so other growers can have access. He is also an enthusiastic participant in Deltapine’s New Product Evaluator program.

The use of RFID tags to precisely track round bale cotton modules is gaining traction in the industry, and McMichen volunteered to test the technology in partnership with Cherokee Gin and the Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association. He likes it.

MARKETING STRATEGY

More than 20 years ago, he wanted to get better at marketing his cotton — so, again, he asked questions and got involved.

Keith Brown, president of Keith L. Brown and Company, Moultrie, Ga., recalls: “Nick and I first met at a Bayer cotton conference 20 years ago. I was one of the marketing panelists, and centered my remarks on the need for hedging the inherent risk that comes with cotton production. Nick approached me after that meeting with a host of questions.”

Brown says McMichen employs a simple but effective strategy for cotton marketing: Buy December puts in the spring to floor the cotton crop, and then at harvest sell out the cash crop, substituting July calls in their place.

The McMichen farming operation is growing. Late in 2016, he and a partner bought 600 acres of land that was mostly in 25-year old pine trees. It was, he says, “one of those once in a lifetime chances” to get some good land in a bend of the Coosa River — pretty land, with good water access.

The family then hit it hard, clearing the timber, busting the stumps, and getting the land ready for a crop in 2017. Less than 10 months after buying the woodland, McMichen harvested 400 acres of cotton off it. In early November, the cotton looked to average about 1,300 pounds. The acquisition had paid off. McMichen videoed the entire conversion process, from pine land to cotton harvest.

Earlier in 2016, he and two partners had bought a 1,300 acre farm just over the state line, near Rome, Ga.

STATE MATCHING FUNDS

Over the last five years, Alabama’s legislature has become more progressive in agricultural investment in the state, specifically by providing matching funds to increase irrigation and improve water management on farms.

McMichen has taken advantage of the matching funds to install center pivots and construct a 12-acre reservoir to collect and store water for use during the growing season. The reservoir has a floating pump. 

“I am honored to have nominated Nick for the High Cotton Award,” says Eddie McGriff, regional agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “Nick is a very progressive, forward-thinking farmer, who is always looking at new techniques to improve his operation. He cooperates with Alabama Extension and private industry to put multiple trials on his farm to test new practices and varieties.

“The time and effort he puts into these trials benefit not only him, but all farmers in north Alabama. He is a leader in the cotton industry, well-respected by his fellow growers, and exemplifies the characteristics that the High Cotton Award lauds.”

McMichen chairs the Cherokee County Soil and Water Conservation District, and is president of the Area 2 Alabama Association of Conservation Districts. He participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program and uses riparian buffers to protect streams on his property. Since 2010, he has been a delegate to the National Cotton Council, and a member of the Southern Cotton Growers board, and is a member of the Alabama commissioner of agriculture’s Strategic Planning committee. He is an active member of the Ebenezer United Methodist church.

There’s nothing wrong with going down a path that works, McMichen says, but when it stops working, it’s time to change — it’s better to alter course before things stop working. It’s a tricky row to keep straight, but that’s the goal he works to maintain.

McMichen is a hands-on farmer, but he admits, as do his family members, that his role in the operation is changing. As children come of age and the family expands, he will be delegating more and more responsibility to others. He can see this taking place as he steps back and looks at the big picture, which will become more his primary job over the next few years.

Will the plans the family makes now work out? Wil the expansions and technology pay off? “I don’t know,” he says, “but I know I was born to farm.”

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