They farm in different regions of the country and in very different ways, but as producers, Rick Morgan, George LaCour, R.N. and Ronnie Hopper and Mark Watte face a wide array of challenges. But they and their families all share a love of the land they farm, of the communities where they work and live and, especially, of growing cotton. For those and other reasons, they are the winners of the 2015 High Cotton Awards.
“The High Cotton Award winners are some of the best cotton producers in the nation,” says Greg Frey, vice president at Penton Inc., which publishes Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press. “But they also do their utmost to protect the land, air and water. They represent the very best in environmental stewardship.”
Frey and the editors of the Farm Presses will present the awards to this year’s winners at a breakfast at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio on Jan. 6. Now in their 21st year, the High Cotton Awards are sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation.
Winners — this year, Morgan, Corapeake, N.C.; LaCour, Morganza, La.; the Hoppers of Petersburg, Texas; and Watte and his family of Tulare, Calif. — are also featured in the first January issues of the Farm Presses, coinciding with the Beltwide Cotton Conferences, where the awards are presented.
Co-sponsors of this year’s awards are AMVAC, Bayer CropScience FiberMax/Stoneville, Deltapine, Dow Phytogen, Dyna-Gro, Helena Chemical Company, Netafim and Rio Tinto Minerals.
The original concept for the High Cotton Awards Program was that it would be a competition in which growers would vie to produce the highest yields in their region — the Southeast, Delta, Southwest and Far West. But the leaders of The Cotton Foundation and the National Cotton Council had a better idea.
“They asked if we would consider a program honoring producers for taking care of the environment,” Frey says. “Everyone in production agriculture knows that farmers are the original environmentalists. The High Cotton Awards provides a platform for demonstrating that to the public.”
Each of the 2015 High Cotton winners approaches environmental stewardship in their own way.
George LaCour: Cropping challenges in Louisiana
Although the alluvial soils Louisiana’s George LaCour farms in the area bordered by the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya rivers are some of the most fertile in the world, growing cotton and other crops there can be challenging, he says.
In 2014, for example, he got rains almost daily in late August and September while waiting to harvest his crop. The rains took a heavy toll on the 600 acres of cotton he began picking in early October.
LaCour farms 5,000 acres of row crops in Pointe Coupee Parish in south-central Louisiana. Until 2014, he generally grew 1,500 acres of corn, 1,500 acres of cotton and 2,000 acres of soybeans. But his cotton acreage last season was reduced to 600 acres because of the rains that fell during his normal planting window.
To offset the effects of excessive rainfall and to irrigate more efficiently when it’s dry, LaCour is reworking his land field-by-field. When he completes the land-forming process, he believes he will use less irrigation water and farm his fields with less fuel and labor.
LaCour has been practicing reduced tillage for years. He beds up his rows following harvest in the fall and doesn’t touch them again until he makes his planting decisions the following spring. Then, he runs a row conditioner or a roller over the top of the beds and plant cotton, corn or soybeans on the field.
The reduced tillage strategy and the improved drainage and irrigation capability are all part of an effort “to make sure our soils stay in place,” he says. A portion of one of his fields has also been left in trees as part of a wildlife corridor that provides access to more habitat for the area’s black bear population.
Rick Morgan: Long-time no-till proponent
North Carolina’s Rick Morgan, for example, has been farming using reduced tillage practices for more than 20 years and went to 100 percent no-till 10 years ago. “We started 100 percent no till when we got out of peanuts,” Morgan says. “I’m a firm believer in the no-till system, not only from a yield perspective, but also from the conservation perspective. No-till allows me to not only preserve soil quality and decrease erosion and moisture loss, but also burn less fuel, use smaller tractors and less equipment.”
No-till makes his poorer land better by building organic matter. “It’s worked out great for us,” he says. “I think it’s helped out more on poorer land than our better land, but it works for us on all of our land.”
But for Morgan, the bottom line benefit of 100 percent no-till is water conversation. “When you keep water from running off your field, you also keep nutrients from running off and you keep nitrogen where it’s supposed to be. No-till helps us do that, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Ronnie and R.N. Hopper: No-till in the High Plains
Texas’ Ronnie Hopper and his son R.N. also are believers in no-till crop production. They predict the practice will gain acceptance across the Texas High Plains as farmers deal with the increasingly serious problem of a declining water resource.
They say they farm no-till cotton because of soil and water conservation, energy and labor savings, and replacing organic matter in the soil. The thing that makes it work, they say, is crop rotation.
“We started converting to no-till production in the summer of 2006,” R.N. Hopper says. “We became fully no-till about 2008, with only a few exceptions when we had to work new farms to level fields or take out beds.”
He says technology, including herbicide-resistant crops, improved planting and spray equipment, and better varieties “allowed us to plant no-till cotton.”
The result has been significant water conservation, improved soil, and contributions to better yields. Change has been a good thing for the Hopper operation. “We grew mostly continuous cotton until 2006,” Ronnie says. “From 1998 until 2006, except for hailed-out acreage, we planted only cotton.”
They recognized problems with that program. “For one thing, our irrigation water resource was not strong enough to handle 100 percent of peak water demand for cotton,” R.N. says. “For another, we were seeing a lot of disease — Verticillium wilt, for instance. Rotation doesn’t help with Verticillium, except we don’t have to look at it for a year. But with a rotation crop we are building the soil.”
Watte family: Cotton roots run deep
Cotton runs deep in the veins of the Watte family of Tulare, Calif. Mark Watte says cotton helped build the infrastructure for agriculture that exists in the San Joaquin Valley today. The Watte family’s cotton roots date back 56 years to their first planting in 1959. While the first crop yielded two bales per acre, today’s Watte cotton yields are about four bales (2,000 pounds) with higher quality lint.
“Over the years, cotton has been our moneymaker and has paid the bills,” says Watte.
The Watte family farm — George Watte & Sons Farms — includes about 3,000 acres, plus a 1,000-head Jersey cow dairy. Last year’s cropping system included: alfalfa (Roundup Ready and conventional) on 440 acres, triticale (970 acres) for green chop and corn for silage (350 acres), and black-eyed peas (460 acres).
Last year, they had 760 acres of cotton (all Roundup Ready), including 450 acres of Pima (Phytogen 811 RF) and 310 acres of (Upland) Acala cotton (Phytogen 725 RF). Over the last several years, they planted 665 acres of pistachio trees — Kerman and Golden Hills varieties. About 300 of the tree nut acres are commercially bearing.
Mark, a full-time farmer for 39 years, is mostly responsible for irrigation and agronomy, while brother Brian manages farm equipment and personnel.
Over the decades, Mark Watte has grown about 30 crops, including grapes, olives, and oranges on an absentee-owner farm in the Exeter-Lindsay area. “Of the many crops I’ve grown, the one that provides the grower with the most opportunity for plant manipulation is cotton,” he says.
On the pest front, the Tulare area has less insect pressure than other parts of the SJV due to its distance from the foothills. The spider mite is the top pest threat for the Watte’s, followed by whitefly. Both are controlled using IPM and softer insecticides.
The lygus pest is present in fields but below the economic threshold for treatment. “I’ve never sprayed an acre for lygus during my farming career,” Watte said.
A lesson the Watte’s learned over the years is to protect and utilize beneficial insects.
“We have always been very cognizant and aware of keeping beneficials intact as much as possible. It’s embedded in us – it’s just what we do,” Watte said.
Watte uses about 36 inches of water, or less, for cotton in the farm’s Chino series clay loam soils.
On the technology side, the Watte family was one of the first growers in the “neighborhood” to laser level farm ground (1979) which improved water uniformity in the fields.