As a brisk fall wind kicks up outside, Tri Watkins, outgoing SCGA president, stands in his family’s beautifully refurbished office building in downtown Lepanto, Ark.
“I think that this building was built in the early 1920s, maybe even before that,” says Watkins, who runs the Rabbit Ridge Gin just outside town. “The business began in 1911 and, within 10 years of that, this building went up. My family’s been here ever since.”
How did the 2016 growing season treat this area of northeast Arkansas?
“We were very pleased with the uptick in cotton acres. The gin was 2,000 bales ahead of last year – up to over 9,100 bales for the season.
“We had a really good crop until that week of rain in August. That set us back. Nonetheless, we had a two-bale-plus crop, which is good for us. All in all, considering how hot it was in June and how wet it was in August, I have no complaints. A good, dry harvest helped, as well.”
Watkins says the gin didn’t pick up a bunch of cotton from growers whose area gins have been shuttered. “There are gins north of here – Monette, Leachville – that provide stiff competition for this region, especially now that round modules have come to the fore. There’s overcapacity in ginning as it now stands, at least in northeast Arkansas.”
Another cotton acreage bump is expected in 2017. “That isn’t because cotton prices are so strong but because none of the other crops look good. Soybean prices are up a bit but you can only plant so many acres of beans. And if too many go in, it’ll probably knock the market back even more.
“Guys around here are on again, off again with corn. Yields are too inconsistent for it to be a reliable crop.
“We had a good rice yield but the price just doesn’t support a lot of acres.”
What about the cottonseed side of the gin business?
“The price has fallen off quite a bit and that doesn’t help given the dearth of cotton. Milk plays a role, of course, and the dairy market isn’t really strong currently. The demand for cottonseed oil is also off.
“But we’re north of I-40, which the dairies like. We send some cottonseed north but aren’t seeing the demand experienced in the past. That’s reflected in the lower price.”
Asked to reflect on experiences as SCGA president, Watkins says “Honestly, everyone is just trying to survive. We’ve kept our heads down. The gins south of here seem to have had a stronger string of better yields and they seem to be in a little better shape.
“During tough times, ginners have to hang together. That is critical and the SCGA provides a vehicle for maintaining a united front.”
Questions about how the coming Trump administration will approach agriculture is also a concern.
“A lot of farmers voted for Trump. I’m not sure what kind of farm policy or farm bill his administration might produce. That’s a concern because reports are that the Heritage Foundation is being consulted and it’s well known that the Foundation doesn’t care for farm programs.
“The uncertainty is another reason for us to stick together and meet these issues in a united manner. If the farm bill starts taking knocks, we’re going to have to become more politically active.”
Also of concern: how trade deals will be negotiated in the future.
“It’s disappointing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is apparently dead. Trade deals typically work to the benefit of agriculture. It remains to be seen if Mr. Trump will be able to strike the bilateral deals he’s been talking up. Those can be hard to achieve.
“It’s also a concern that by walking away from the TPP we leave a vacuum that China can fill. We’re basically washing our hands of Asia in that sense.”
What about other governmental issues in 2017?
“In terms of legislation, I think growers are watching what will happen with the Waters of the U.S. rule. I’m concerned about the environment and have worked to protect it, but the EPA and Corps of Engineers really overstepped their boundaries when it came to the definitions of what constitutes a waterway.
“Going forward, I’d love for Congress to give us some absolute clarity on what to expect. The EPA has been push, push, push and agriculture has been pushing back. A farmer needs to have a bright line definition he can reference so when he goes out to work fields, he doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble with the EPA or the Corps of Engineers.”
Watkins says the SCGA-run safety program is a key cog in ginners’ ability to protect workers.
“The SCGA is also running a great safety program. I don’t think members would argue otherwise. It’s always helpful to have someone who is unbiased walk through your gin and look at safety with a critical eye. In order to protect our workers, spending the three or four hours going over an inspection is a price well worth paying for a safe operation.”
The introduction of dicamba-tolerant crops and the subsequent drift damage on many neighboring crops is also being watched closely.
“Drift has certainly been an issue, especially north of here on soybeans.
“I’m very worried. I’m concerned about how we’ve gotten into this situation. I think the EPA has let us down, Monsanto has let us down and human nature has let us down. A problem is coming.
“If we can’t get rid of all the old drift-prone formulations there will continue to be problems. There were a number of farmers who sprayed dicamba over-the-top last year and they told their neighbors ‘it’s worth the fine to save my crop.’ That isn’t a viable long-term solution.”
Wallace references the shooting death of producer Mike Wallace over an alleged dicamba drift-related dispute. “We’ve already had a death over this! It’s that serious. How have we let this situation get to a point where someone loses their life over drift?
“We’ve got to talk about this. It can’t be left to fester. The (Arkansas) Plant Board has passed proposed regulations. Assuming those come into effect, there has to be tight enforcement. If they aren’t enforced, we’re no better off.
“There simply must be increased fines. We have to push this so bigger fines are in place for next summer. If there isn’t a fine with enough weight to deter someone from spraying dicamba improperly, more damage will occur. It’s mind-boggling anyone would argue against that.”
We should learn from history, says Watkins. “This is the same kind of mindset that got us into trouble with Roundup. Folks went out and didn’t apply label rates, trying to get by on the cheap. That led to rapid weed resistance and look at where we are now.
“There must be some sort of effective mechanism to control bad behavior. And that’s what this is: aberrant, abusive behavior. For an individual I understand why a man might say ‘I must spray this on my crop to pay the bills.’ On a grander scale, though, that man is hurting his neighbors in particular and agriculture in general by being selfish.”
Watkins is also perplexed about the clash of GMO products and the old adage about giving the customer what they want.
“The Dannon yoghurt folks recently began a program of pushing non-GMO. A number of ag organizations have pushed back.
“I may be a contrarian but that that’s hard to understand. Retailers always say ‘the customer is always right.’ Dannon and other food producers are trying to meet a demand that they see in the marketplace.
“A lot of people – right or wrong – simply don’t want to eat GMO food and are willing to pay a premium. Arguing that they’re wrong is beside the point. If the customer doesn’t want what you’re trying to give them, business will suffer.”