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Mississippi Miracle

Huerkamp Brothers Defy Trends By Staying With Cotton
  

By Tommy Horton
Editor

 

 
Most of the so-called experts said it couldn’t be done. In fact, producing a big cotton crop in Mississippi in ‘08 didn’t seem remotely possible.

Too many factors were working against farmers. First, corn had pretty much squeezed out cotton acres. Second, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike had dumped heavy rainfall onto many fields in the Delta. And, finally, the lure of high corn, wheat and soybean prices was making it difficult for producers to stay with cotton.

Those experts, however, were forgetting one important fact. When a cotton farmer has a passion for a particular crop, nothing will deter him. And that is precisely what is happening with Joe and Jack Huerkamp of Macon, Miss., who farm 35 miles southeast of Starkville near the Alabama state line.

For several years, the Huerkamp brothers split their 3,400 acres equally between corn and cotton and have never veered from that strategy. Corn is the perfect complement to cotton. It is the ideal rotation partner for cotton and has numerous residual benefits.

Unwavering Belief In Cotton

While many of their neighbors might have deserted cotton and planted corn fencerow to fencerow, the Huerkamp brothers didn’t waver in their belief in cotton.

“I know that cotton acres are down right now,” says Jack. “And there are plenty of farmers who want to plant corn on all of their acreage. But we’re not like that. We look at the big picture and want to stay with cotton and protect the industry’s infrastructure.”

To outsiders, it’s remarkable that the Huerkamps continue to stay with cotton, and it’s even more noteworthy that they produced such a good crop in ‘08, despite the unpredictable weather in the summer and fall.

“I’d say we’re looking at a yield of more than two bales on our irrigated cotton,” says Jack. “That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that we had our fair share of storms that rolled through here in August and September.”

While the rest of Mississippi and the Mid-South dealt with the effects of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, it was an earlier hurricane (Fay) that slammed the Southeast and eventually produced heavy rains near the Huerkamp farm. The result was serious boll rot problems that caused an average yield loss of 200 pounds per acre.

Still, it could have been worse. Later in the season heavy storms came through east Mississippi and uprooted six huge oak trees on the farm. Winds reached 50 to 55 miles per hour and an additional six inches of rain drenched the area.

Joe says it looked bleak, but the farm’s DP 555 BG/RR cotton managed to weather the elements and deliver above-average yields. Perhaps even more encouraging to the Huerkamp brothers is the way the Delta & Pine Land test plots performed in the same conditions.

The three new ‘09 varieties – DP 0935 B2RF, DP 0924 B2RF and experimental variety 07W505DF – have impressed everyone. Joe takes it one step further. He believes two of the three new varieties can possibly surpass 555 in yield performance.

“If cotton hopes to stay competitive in the future, we need to have varieties that will do better than 555, and I think we’ve found them,” says Joe. “You might be seeing us plant most of our cotton acreage to these new varieties in ‘09. That should tell you how impressed we are.”

Different Environment

The Huerkamp brothers will be the first to admit that producing cotton in their part of Mississippi is different compared to the Delta or any other region for that matter. And the biggest factor is the clay soil. It requires a different approach, which usually means rotating the corn and cotton acreage.

The Huerkamps know that a mono crop culture won’t work on their farm. The corn stalks leave behind a good root system as well as organic matter. That, in turn, improves cotton plant development and yields.

The brothers’ farm management practices appear to be paying off in other areas. For example, they have few weed problems, with only a small area of pigweed. They go into the field each year and pull the weeds out of the ground. So far, that strategy has helped control the troublesome weed.

As for insect problems, they share many of the same issues of Delta farmers who continue to deal with plant bugs and spider mite outbreaks.

“We know that plant bugs have a perfect host environment in the corn,” says Joe. “But we’ve been able to control them with the same number of sprayings the last few years.”

Beauty Of Corn-Cotton

Joe and Jack started farming their own small family plots in the 1970s, but they took on more acreage in the operation and returned to cotton production in 1986. At that time, they toyed with planting a majority of their acres in soybeans, but that approach didn’t work out. They quickly learned how they could improve their farming operation by splitting the acreage 50-50 between corn and cotton.

The best way to describe the Huerkamps’ approach to farming is that they are single minded. They have a plan and don’t veer too far from it.

“The corn and soybean prices are very attractive, but we know that cotton has to be part of the equation,” says Joe. “We don’t want our gins to lose volume, and that’s why we’re staying with cotton.”

It would certainly make it easier to stay in cotton if the prices were higher. However, the Huerkamps are confident that this trend also will change. Right now, corn prices are lower and are near or below the $4 level.

Jack says two trends – if they occur – could change the dynamics for cotton acreage in a hurry. If corn prices continue to drop, and if cotton prices could somehow increase beyond the 70-cent level, they say that would entice producers to plant more cotton.

“I’m convinced that this is going to happen,” says Jack. “I know cotton prices are pretty low right now, but that kind of price increase would help.”

As for other aspects of the Huerkamp operation, two of the most important employees are Joe’s son (Tyler) and Jack’s son (Brandon). Both are graduates of Mississippi State University and are following in the footsteps of their fathers, who are part of a third generation farming family and also graduates of the same university.

“Our wives help us out in the office when we’re paying bills,” says Jack. “Brandon and Tyler are also a big part of the operation. I’d hate to think where we’d be without our sons. Any way you look at this situation, we’re a family operation, and I would not have it any other way.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.


Huerkamp Farming Operation

• 3,400 total acres.
• Acreage split 50-50 on corn/cotton.
• Major variety – DP 555 BG/RR.
• ‘07 yields – 1,300 to 1,500 pounds.
• ‘08 yields – 1,000 to 1,100 pounds.
• Corn-cotton rotation.
• No-till production.


Family Friends Vouch For Huerkamps’ Determination

Friends of Jack and Joe Huerkamp say they’ve always known that the two brothers were totally devoted to farming. In short, the two men aren’t distracted from their main mission – being innovative cotton producers.

Keith Daniels is a UAP dealer in Starkville, Miss., and has done business with the brothers for nearly 12 years. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he believes Jack and Joe will always produce cotton – no matter what might happen in the market itself.

“Cotton has gotten them to this point in their careers,” says Daniels. “And that’s why they won’t desert the crop. They have a beautiful corn-cotton rotation, and nothing will make them change their strategies.”

Don’t get the idea that the Huerkamps aren’t flexible. They like the idea of embracing new technology and varieties that will make them more profitable. But don’t ever look for the brothers to leave cotton and put all of their emphasis in a grain crop.

Maybe family history has something to do with why Jack and Joe embrace farming the way they do. According to Daniels, that is precisely the reason.

“They’re homegrown guys, and they’ve been through good and bad times,” he says. “It all goes back to their work ethic. Plus, their sons, Tyler and Brandon, play a big role in everything. Believe me, they farm the right way.”

Nelson Stevens is the Huerkamps’ insect consultant and has known the family for nearly 40 years. He echoes the comments of Daniels and is particularly impressed at the number of hours the brothers put into farming.

“They definitely have an amazing work ethic,” says Stevens. “Farming is their passion, and it seems like they work at it 24 hours a day. They also don’t farm from a distance. They will get on the tractor and do whatever it takes to get the job done.”


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