Tom, left, Walter, center, and Will Pitts stand in front of a warehouse full of cotton bales in Indianola, Miss.

Pitts brothers extend cotton legacy

Indianola, Miss., brothers Will, Walter, and Tom Pitts carry on the family farming tradition started by their father, Willie.

Just down the street from where B.B. King is laid to rest next to the museum that bears his name, just past the dilapidated old gin where he once worked, is a small office filled with pictures and remembrances recounting the history of a multi-generational farming family, and the father who started it all.

Willie Mitchell Pitts was born in Indianola, earned a degree in agriculture from Mississippi State University, and promptly went to fight in the Korean War. “After the war, dad came back and started farming,” explains Will Pitts, who along with his brothers Walter and Tom operate Pitts Farms.

Their father was active in the Mississippi Republican Party and nationally with the GOP. Faded color prints taken through the years of Willie as he conversed with Presidents Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford adorn the office hallway wall, as do pictures of Willie kayaking, canoeing, or mountain biking. Nine old, worn out bike odometers, each reading 9,999 miles, are evidence of his cross-country trips and passion for mountain biking.

Willie also had a passion for growing cotton, but turned over the farming operation to his three sons in 1998. “We might have taken over the operation that year, but he was still the boss (or at least kept giving us free advice) until 2012,” says Will Pitts. “He really got upset with us when we got out of cotton in 2006.”

The Pitts’ diversified farming operation includes a trucking business that allows them to haul their own cotton across the Greenville Bridge to McGehee Producers Gin. They hauled nearly 3,000 round modules across that bridge by the time their three John Deere on-board module harvesters were shut down for the last time in 2017. “We had three trucks and one dedicated driver that carried three loads of modules over to the gin each day,” says Walter Pitts, who started farming with his father after earning his degree from Mississippi State where he played defensive lineman on the football squad.

The brothers saw a need as well as an opportunity 15 years ago and started Cottonwing Air, an aerial application service. “We recently upgraded our Air Tractor from the AT-502 to the AT-802,” says Walter Pitts. “It’s extremely powerful, has more capacity, and has been a good investment for us.”

The brothers planted 5,000 acres of cotton of various Deltapine varieties in 2017, and around 1,800 acres of soybeans, and 1,400 acres of corn. “We’re about 85 percent irrigated through 11 pivots and about 60 miles of poly-pipe,” says Tom Pitts.

People around Indianola are lucky to have a water table that allows wells to be set around 80 feet or so, and the closer you get to the Mississippi River, which is only 25 miles away, the easier it is to reach water.  “We are all aware of the on-going concerns surrounding our aquifer, and we’ve been using Pipe Planner to regulate holes sizes in all of our poly-pipe,” adds Tom.

Yields and Quality

The brothers started harvesting cotton on September 24, and the last round module was dropped on October 21. Their friend and the incoming Chairman of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, David Cochran, helped them with the last part of their harvest.

A relatively small level of pest pressure allowed the brothers to make only maintenance control applications last year. “We were lucky, we had a few plant bugs, a few worms, and some spider mites, but nothing too serious,” adds Will.

Low pest pressure, timely rains, and good overall growing conditions led to cotton that was around four cents over the loan according to their Recap Report from the USDA Classing Office. “We had great staple numbers too,” says Walter. “Forties were very common, and we even had one bale that hit 42.”

Their color grades were excellent as well, but leaf grades were surprisingly high. “With the amount of cotton we had to haul to the gin, I believe the longer modules sat in the field, the more the leaf content broke down, but our grades were amazing. Some numbers even rivaled Pima staple numbers,” adds Walter.

The brothers averaged around 1,200 pounds an acre. “Dad would have liked that number,” says Walter, as he turned toward the wall of pictures, remembering his father who passed away in 2015.

Although they will rotate some cotton fields to corn to stave off nematode populations, their 2018 crop mix will once again lean heavily toward the crop that was the fabric of their father’s life. “We have a wide range of soils in our area,” explains Walter. “Nematodes love the thin, sandy soils we have. If it’s got some loam in it, they’re not nearly as bad, but we always choose and place our varieties judiciously.”

The Delta has always been a great place to grow cotton and listen to soulful blues music (see related photo gallery at http://bit.ly/2scnbyj).

The Pitts name is listed on the Board of Contributors that helped build the B.B. King Museum, which is impressive from entrance to exit. According to Will, his daughter Lizzy who is a senior at Ole Miss, is more impressed with the short video her friend Walt Hill produced highlighting Pitts Farms’ 2017 cotton harvest – replete with a smooth sound track from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The video may be viewed at: http://bit.ly/2DV9zNG

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