The last time I saw Danny Davis — back in March at a cotton producers' meeting at Carnegie, Okla. — we talked about the coming planting season. He was excited about putting in the 2017 crop. He had good soil moisture, thanks to ample winter rainfall and about two decades of no-till production and cover crops that helped retain water in the fields.
I walked into one of those fields in mid-October and guessed it would produce close to two bales per acre — a good yield for dryland cotton. Recent harvest aid applications had done their job of dropping leaves and opening bolls; most of the field was a sea of white.
As I shot some photos, I thought how proud Danny would have been to see this field. It was probably one of the best crops he’s made in several years, since he, like most farmers in the region, had struggled with drought for most of the past five years.
It was Danny’s last crop. He wasn’t around to harvest it, take it to the gin, check the grades, or wonder about the markets. He won’t manage the winter cover crop that has improved his soil for the last 20 years. He will plant no cotton this year.
Danny died of a massive heart attack one morning last fall while checking progress of his crop. Those of us who knew him were shocked and saddened at the loss — for ourselves, for his family, for his community, and for the U.S. cotton industry.
ALWAYS A NEW WRINKLE
Last spring, I was planning on driving up to Danny’s farm near Elk City, Okla., sometime during the summer or near harvest. It had been several years since I had been on the farm, and he always had a new wrinkle in conservation tillage to talk about. I thought about those best-laid plans as I walked through his fields in October.
I had eaten lunch earlier with Danny’s wife, Sherry, and his mother, Marge. It was an emotional, but inspiring, visit with two strong women of inestimable faith. Danny’s sister, Lisa Stowe, joined us later.
We talked about harvest plans.
It was late in the season to schedule a custom harvester, but Sherry said a lot of friends and neighbors were pitching in to make certain the crop was brought in. She recalled a neighbor working with one of Danny’s spray rigs and being somewhat perplexed at some of the modifications Danny had made. “He always adapted machinery to fit his purposes.”
I asked Sherry about taking some photos of the crop, and she pointed me in the right direction. I’m not good at estimating yields, but I could tell that Danny’s last crop would be a good one.
Bo Lutz, a custom harvester from Calvert, Texas, proved me right. By late October, Lutz had worked his way up from Harlingen, Texas, to Southwest Oklahoma. When Carnegie Farmers Cooperative Manager Jeannie Hileman asked if he would harvest Danny’s crop, and explained the situation, “I couldn’t say no. She said it would be an honor to harvest Danny’s crop.”
A COTTON INDUSTRY ICON
Lutz says the crop was a good one, picking from 1.5 to 2.25 bales per acre. “That’s really good dryland cotton,” he says. “And I could tell by the way his fields were maintained that he was a really good farmer.”
Lutz never met Danny, but says he learned from the time spent harvesting the crop that Danny Davis was highly regarded throughout the cotton industry. “I met a lot of really good people, and I learned that Danny has done about as much for the cotton industry as anyone alive. Everyone I spoke to had only good things to say about him. A bunch of people were helping to get his crop in.”
Randy Boman, research director and cotton Extension program leader for Oklahoma State University at Altus, says Danny was more than just a good cotton farmer.
“Danny was our good friend and cooperator, and one of the best dryland cotton producers in the U.S.,” Boman says. “He was an icon in the U.S. cotton industry, and many people from across the Cotton Belt knew him, respected his knowledge, and appreciated his kindness.”
His talent for producing dryland cotton was near legendary. “He was arguably the most engaged and knowledgeable dryland cotton grower in the state, and loved to host industry and producer groups to observe his innovative cotton farming operation,” Boman says. “He was a very talented man, an excellent practical ag engineer, and a plant and soil expert. He was as much an artist as a producer, and fretted not only over the yield potential of his dryland cotton, but also the appearance. He wanted to make a good crop, but he also wanted it to look good.”
Boman says he accomplished that through timely weed control, crop growth control, and harvest aid applications.
Danny routinely worked with OSU on variety trials and other production demonstrations. “Last year’s tests averaged 2.5 bales per acre — 1,282 pounds. Staple was 35 and loan value was 54 cents. Some late rain pushed the micronaire up a bit, but it was a good crop,” Boman says.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
Hileman says Danny left “some big shoes to fill,” as a producer, a friend, and as a good source of market information, gleaned from the many industry meetings he attended and the organizations he supported. “He marketed his own crop, instead of putting it in a pool, and said he kept up with markets better because he sold it himself.”
She says Danny began ginning at the Carnegie Co-op about ten years ago “after the gin in Elk City closed. He was always up on market options. I still have his photo on the wall, looking over my shoulder.”
When his first modules came into the gin this year, she says she and her daughter, Sadie ,“just boo-hooed while we got it processed.”
In addition to being a good farmer and a knowledgeable industry source, Hileman says, Danny was, above all, a good man. “The first time you met him, you felt like you had known him all your life.” She recalls his generosity to her family during a medical crisis and his continued generosity to Sadie. “We became very close to Danny.”
She says those in the cotton industry who knew him understood his commitment. “Someone once told me that Danny’s passion for growing cotton was the same as mine for ginning it. That’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever had — or ever will have.
“No one understands the loss his death means to the industry. They may understand the loss his family feels, leaving Marge and Sherry, his daughter Sarah, and three grandchildren. But his support for Oklahoma cotton was outstanding, and the entire cotton industry has suffered a great loss.”
Sherry says she’s close to finalizing arrangements for someone to farm her cotton next year. Whoever that lucky producer is will benefit from years of unsurpassed management, conservation, and healthy soil.
In my writing career, every good farmer I have ever interviewed followed the philosophy of vowing to leave the land in better shape than he found it. Danny Davis did. It’s tragic that he left it so soon.