Delta cotton can flourish, say college students

Winners of the Future of Delta Cotton Student Essay Contest are long on creative ideas on how to build stability into the Delta cotton industry — on every subject from agronomy to agrotourism.

This week, six honorary winners are being announced. Each will receive $1,000. They are John Smith and Tyler Dixon from Mississippi State University, Frances Free and Zoe Teague from the University of Arkansas and Jason Head and Jessica Jarrell from the University of Tennessee. Last week, the two grand prize winners, Michael Ferro and Matthew Turner, both of Louisiana State University, were announced.

The essay contest, sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection and Delta Farm Press awarded over $11,000 in prize money to winning students from the four universities in undergraduate and graduate categories. Judging took place from May through July, and the winning entries were announced in August. All winning essays are available for reading online at

Tyler Dixon is an undergraduate ag business student at Mississippi State University. Raised on a cotton farm, he knows all too well the impact on cotton of high grain prices and high input costs. The family farm has switched all its acreage, including cotton, to soybeans this season.

Dixon believes a big key to cotton’s comeback will be the introduction of cotton varieties with resistance to plant bugs. “It will be a tremendous addition to the cotton grower’s insect management arsenal. There will be higher profits as a result of fewer trips, less insecticide used and higher yields.”

But new technology will be for naught if cotton prices can’t compete with grain, according to Dixon. “In 2010, if cotton doesn’t make a comeback, it’s going to be tough to get back in if we lose a lot of our infrastructure.”

Dixon won’t shy away from hard work once he leaves the classroom. In the future, he would like to work for a retailer, “while keeping the farm going and doing some scouting on the side. My parents, Brett and Lisa Dixon, taught me a lot about character and my father taught me a lot about farming. I’ve also learned a lot just working for my boss, Ray Chacon, checking crops.

“I like scouting cotton a lot better than any other crop. The others are easy to check. There is something going on all the time in cotton. It’s neat getting out there, checking it and seeing what’s going on.”

Fran Free is a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, studying agricultural economics and agribusiness. She wrote in her essay that the nation “is entering a new phase of supporting an agriculture that is built upon a balanced structure of ecosystem management, social responsibility and strong efficiency that fulfills our food and fiber needs.

“Consumers want to feel good about their purchases and companies are modifying their purchasing and marketing schematics to enable their customers to feel that they are doing their part.”

Upon graduation, Free would like to add agrotourism and hunting ventures to the family farm. Recently married, she hopes to start on her grandparents’ farm, “with a bed and breakfast and culinary classes because there have been a lot of cooks in our family. We could also do some farm tours during the growing season and at harvest-time. We would cater to families.

“The farm is right next to a major highway, a wooded area where a lot of people like to go deer hunting, and it’s close to the duck hunting capital of the world. I think this would be a good base to take advantage of ecotourism …. I think the farm could really be a jewel.”

Free acknowledges that it’s difficult for people who grew up in rural, farmland areas “to understand why people from the city who are three or four generations removed from a farm would actually want to come back to their roots and see how a farm works. But they do.”

Jason Head is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, working on a master’s degree in biosystems engineering. He was raised on a tobacco farm in middle Tennessee.

Head wrote in his essay, “The future of Delta cotton depends on precision technology for the crop to remain profitable. Just as the invention of the mechanized picker allowed producers to raise more cotton with less labor and increased efficiency, this technology will allow them to raise cotton more efficiently in terms of fuel and fertilizer.”

In an interview, Head noted that with variable-rate applications, “farmers can cut down on waste and use yield maps to determine where the most productive areas of the field are versus areas of the field that have poor productivity. It might not make a lot of sense to put fertilizer on parts of a field that are not going to yield a lot.”

Variable-rate technology has uses in weed control, too, Head wrote. Weed sensing technology “is available to producers, but utilized by few. Glyphosate prices are expected to double this season and use of these systems would greatly reduce the amount of chemical needed for weed control. Variable-rate systems are also being used for variable-rate application of plant growth regulators and defoliants.”

Head hopes someday to work for a fertilizer company, specializing in variable-rate applications. “Variable-rate technology can be a very low risk technique to adopt in the sense that most fertilizer companies provide this as a service along with soil sampling, testing and mapping on a per acre charge. This allows a producer to use this technology without purchasing more equipment.”

Jessica Jarrell is an agricultural economics student in her senior year at the University of Tennessee. She hopes to attend graduate school in May 2009 and has interned the last two summers with Tennessee Farm Bureau.

Jarrell was raised on a small beef cattle farm in Greene County in east Tennessee. “Being from east Tennessee, people generally think of this as the land of the mountains and tobacco, so cotton wasn’t something I was familiar with.”

She learned about the crop when she was on a marketing team with the National Agri-Marketing Association during her sophomore year in college. “Our project was to invent a product that could be useful for farmers and then develop a marketing plan around it. Our product was a cotton stalk cutter that rode behind the cotton harvester.”

Jarrell wants to turn her experiences in agriculture into a career as an advocate for farmers. “I want to make a difference for agriculture in some way, maybe marketing or advertising.”

She also wants to bring agriculture into the rural classroom. “One thing we can do, and I’ve worked a lot with the Farm Bureau on it this summer, is to send out surveys addressing some of the common misconceptions people in rural communities have about agriculture.

“If we learn what those misconceptions are at an early age, we can work with programs like the Tennessee Foundation for Ag in the Classroom, 4-H and FFA programs to help educate young children about the importance of agriculture for the U.S. economy and for international trade.

“Some of those children who are being raised on farms could be convinced to return to the farm. Somewhere in there, that love and passion for agriculture has to be instilled.”

John R. Smith is an entomology student at Mississippi State University. He earned his undergraduate degree in ag business from the University of Arkansas at Monticello and master’s degree in entomology at the University of Arkansas. Currently, he’s researching spider mites, including a study on cotton yield loss to late-season infestations.

Smith wrote in his essay that Delta cotton producers need continued technological innovations to stay profitable. “In the future, more emphasis should be placed on adding traits in cotton that benefit the end user as well as the producer, similar to additions of vitamins and nutrients occurring in other crops.

“From the perspective of an entomologist, in-plant protection from plant bugs would be the ‘holy grail’ of insect control and could be the catalyst needed to make cotton production more profitable in the Delta. However, I believe the most important thing we in the agricultural industry can do is to protect the technology currently available by practicing resistance management and increasing public support of biotechnology.”

Smith, from Hamburg, Ark., said he has worked under some great mentors, including MSU Extension entomologist Angus Catchot, “who gave me some great exposure,” and University of Arkansas entomologist Randy Luttrell, who taught Smith about Bt cotton.

Upon graduation, Smith would like to work in Extension or industry, “whatever opportunity comes up. I’m really open right now.”

Zoe Teague is an undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas studying environmental soil and water science. She hopes to become an environmental agricultural lawyer, with the ultimate goal of being an attorney for the office of general counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency.

An advocate in that position could do a lot for agriculture. “A lot of people don’t realize that the United States is not reliant on a foreign country for our food and fiber needs,” she said in an interview.

“I’ve worked with a lot of farmers, and I realize the importance of the industry in the United States. In Arkansas, we have the best rice farmers in the world, and we have some really great cotton farmers. It’s really important to work with them to grow toward sustainability and toward more environmentally-friendly and efficient practices, instead of just shutting them out completely and having to rely on someone else.

“It’s absolutely essential that we continue to produce our own food and fiber. Cotton really needs a lot more support from our lawmakers and policymakers. A lot of times, Washington really doesn’t understand how important agriculture is, especially in the South. Raising awareness is a big step toward continuing to flourish as an industry.”

Her passion for agriculture runs in the family. Her mother, Tina Teague, is an agricultural entomologist and her father, Paul, is an agricultural economist and a produce broker. “We are an agricultural family. I pick cotton every year. I’ve spent a lot of time in a cotton field.”

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