Jeremy.WillieTractor Brad Robb
Working toward the conclusion of his 41st crop, Willie German is grooming his three sons, Jeremy (shown here with Willie), Jeff and Jacob, to assume control of German Farms when Willie’s last module has been hauled to the gin yard.

West Tennessee’s Willie German — farming for the future

With his three sons and a few dedicated hired laborers, Tennessee's Willie German continues to grind out crop years as he looks toward the future.

Multi-colored leaves floated toward the ground en masse around the edges of the field where Willie German’s son, Jeff, was running German Farm’s CPX 620 Case IH basket cotton picker across a sea of white, while another son, Jacob, stayed close with the boll buggy, running back and forth to the module builder. German also has two Case IH CPX 635 moduling pickers. German’s third son, Jeremy, was cutting cotton stalks with a Bush Hog as fast as he could.

German and his sons were back in the fields four days after another unwelcomed in-harvest rain — one of many that swept across their Fayette County, Tenn., farming operation — an operation that Willie German has been row cropping and running cattle on for 41 years.

“We probably had a better crop this year than we did last year, but we had much better harvest conditions last year,” says German — eluding to the 8 inches of precipitation that arrived credited to the wide rain bands of hurricane Michael. “When we got that rain, the cotton got lighter. It came at a time when bolls were just cracking open. They locked up, so the top crop just didn’t fluff out like I was hoping it would.”

Some of his 2,500 acres of cotton yielded 1,400 pounds. Some picked 997 pounds. German believes he will put the wraps on this season with a 1,150 pound an acre average. “We averaged 1,160 pounds last year,” he adds. “When we planted on May 1 of this year, it was beautiful — conditions couldn’t have been more perfect.”

German knows that anytime a west Tennessee cotton producer can average two bales a dryland-acre, he should be thankful. Heat units through the season were plentiful. Early rains came at just the right times, and his cotton was not “switchy.”

“I continue to be grateful for the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and what it’s done for this industry,” says German. “Weevils used to eat the top out of our cotton crop every single year.”

There were many years, like so many U.S. cotton producers, he sprayed every five days just trying to keep weevils at bay, so the bottom bolls would have enough time to harden and drive the long-snouted pests on up the plant. But many times, his efforts were fruitless, like a certain percentage of his cotton that became a victim year after year. “We always had a 7- or 8-inch switch at the top of the main stems because we just reached an economic point where we exhausted our spray budget,” remembers German. “We used to average 700 to 800 pounds.”

Genetics, Pests, and Decisions

Although German has a few center pivots under which he rotates corn and soybeans, most of his nearly 9,000-acre operation is dryland and dedicated to the commodity the market seems to be saying to plant these days — cotton. “I can’t grow $8 soybeans or $3 corn, but I can grow 75- or 80-cent cotton,” confirms German.

An aerial view of Fayette County would reveal a patchwork layout of fields — some as small as 2 acres. The semi-hilly landscape is always more than a challenge on which to move equipment. Silty loam soil covers most of German Farms, which he says limits his yields to a certain extent.

“The genetics our industry’s breeders are turning out are nothing short of amazing,” says German. “I plant Deltapine and Dyna-Gro cotton varieties, but I’ll plant a number of different varieties on a few small fields each year to see how they’ll perform. The DP 1522 B2XF, DP 1518 B2XF, and Dyna-Gro 3385 B2XF really did well for us this year.”

He always has to spray at least twice for plant bugs each year but is thankful his farm is not in the Mississippi Delta where they have to spray for plant bugs like German used to spray for boll weevils.

Even though dicamba was at his disposal this year, German concentrated mostly on using preplant herbicides like Warrant. Gramoxone was applied to make sure he started clean, but he came back with 22-ounces of Warrant before his cotton emerged. Two weeks later he applied another shot of Warrant, but this time he doubled it with Orthene after thrips moved in. “We’ve also got Roundup if we need it — for anything but pigweed!”

There were a few areas of pigweed that mandated dicamba this year, but German has a unique option on his sprayer when that time comes. “I have an injection rig on my sprayer, and I keep a supply of dicamba in my saddle bag tanks,” says German. “If I see an area I want to hit with dicamba, I hit the switch, and it injects the dicamba in with the chemicals we were already spraying.”

A few management decisions had to be made this year on German Farms. Two of German’s pickers are six years old and one is 12 years old, and reliable farm labor continues to be an issue with German as it does with many farming operators. He wants to increase his cotton acres next year, so to increase on-farm efficiency, he is going with John Deere on-board module-building harvesters.

“I’d like to get my cotton acreage back up around 4,000 acres but to do that, I have to become more efficient,” he says. “Once the new harvesters arrive, I’ll be able to spread out my labor while harvesting more cotton simultaneously.”

Diversification

Until 2012, German operated two equipment dealerships. He had excellent employees and a reliable customer base, profits were good, and when farming harvests were lean, the equipment dealerships helped support his farming enterprise. Consolidations started sweeping across agriculture. Manufacturers started pushing German to increase the size of his dealerships. “The outfit that eventually bought us out had 10 stores and they wanted more, so I sold,” adds German. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the equipment business, but you have millions of dollars in equipment sitting on the yard. It was fine when we were selling and trading, but I knew my farming enterprise wouldn’t be enough to counter losses in lean equipment sale years when we got so big.”

It does worry German that industry consolidations could limit competition. “That will most likely drive up our input costs,” realizes German. “With my sons working with me now, and the new harvesters coming, I look forward to farming with them, teaching them the intricacies of farming management and one day turning the operation over to them,” adds German.

Despite the headaches and seemingly never-ending problems that come with farming — like a small picker fire or the recent flat on the left outside tire of his basket picker this year, Willie German looks forward to each year. He still loves the smell of cotton at harvest and driving around the many fields that are puzzled together through a patchwork of small dirt access roads. He also looks forward to his son Jacob’s November wedding, and wonders if a future grandchild might one day take over German Farms.

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