If Arkansas producer-ginner Larry McClendon ever thought about writing a book, the past two years have given him enough material to publish a best-seller.
Not really if you take a closer look at what he’s done and where his journey has taken him. He probably had enough information for that book after last fall when record-breaking rains hit many parts of the Mid-South and wreaked havoc on cotton crops.
That alone would’ve been enough to challenge even the most innovative farmer. But, consider that McClendon, a farmer since 1975 and a ginner since 1991, also took on the duties of being chairman of the National Cotton Council in 2008 and board chairman in 2009.
Now you start to get a clearer picture of where he’s been.
Reflecting On The Past
Sitting in his second-floor office at the McClendon-Mann-Felton Gin Co., in Marianna, Ark., he talks about all of those experiences now with appreciation and knows that he’s a better farmer and ginner for having gone through them.
Perhaps nothing was more difficult than what he dealt with during the fall of 2009. That crop year, according to McClendon, was the most difficult experience of his farming career. He lost about 30 percent of his production, and that carried over to a dropoff at the gin where 82,000 bales were handled – the lowest output since 2001.
But, like any good farmer today, McClendon says he learned from the experience and is extremely optimistic about the 2010 crop season.
“The ‘09 crop was difficult,” he says in something of an understatement. “We planted and re-planted and didn’t get the cotton into the ground until the first week of June.
“On Sept. 1, I thought it was the most impressive looking cotton I had seen on our farm in 35 years. We were pleased to be where we were because it was a late-planted crop.”
Harvesting should’ve begun around Sept. 10. Unfortunately, that’s when everything changed. For the next six weeks, the farm received between 20 and 25 inches of rain.
By Nov. 1, McClendon assessed the situation and realized that 90 percent of his cotton was still in the field waiting to be harvested. Sensing that the clock was ticking, he hired extra workers and rented several harvesters. The crop was picked in eight days. An expensive crop had just gotten more expensive.
“For the first time in my life, I felt that circumstances were running me, and I wasn’t running the farm,” he says. “Like I said, I haven’t seen anything like it in my life.”
McClendon says he’s heard older farmers talk about the floods of 1957 and 1972, but now he has his own reference point on how weather has affected his farm. The fall of 2009 has easily moved into the record books.
So, the obvious question is how does a farmer recover from a rain event that damaged every crop on his farm? What are the lessons to be learned?
“It’s obviously character-building,” says McClendon. “You learn about risk management, but you also learn a lot about yourself. For some of my friends in the south Delta, they’ve probably had about all the character-building lessons they can stand. However, I have a deep faith, and if you farm, it’s definitely an advantage to have that.”
An Innovative Farmer
Two of McClendon’s closest friends are National Cotton Council agronomist Bill Robertson and Arkansas cotton consultant Bob Griffin. Robertson worked with McClendon for 12 years when he was the state cotton Exten-sion specialist. Griffin has been a consultant for the McClendon farm for more than 30 years.
“What I remember about Larry is that he always asked me good, tough questions,” says Robertson. “And he always put his gin customers first. He was always trying to find things that would help them on the farm. I also remember that he would make sure everybody else’s cotton got ginned before his own cotton was ginned. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Griffin recalls that McClendon always surrounded himself with good people on the farm and at the gin. He also was known for “being a perfectionist and did not ever want to settle for things being done halfway.”
He says McClendon knows how to delegate responsibility, but will always be checking his fields at daybreak to make sure he knows whatever problem needs to be address-ed on each turnrow.
An Industry Leader
Is it possible to sum up in a few sentences what McClendon experienced as NCC chairman in 2008 and board chairman in 2009? Probably not, but it was unquestionably two of the most important years in U.S. cotton’s long and proud history.
He had a front row seat in the development of the 2008 Farm Bill, WTO negotiations and other legislative issues that affected the industry.
“You start off thinking how can I contribute?” he says. “Then, you realize how complex this industry is with so many interconnected issues.”
The challenges for McClendon increased dramatically when other events such as an economic recession and shrinking cotton acreage were added into the mix.
“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “It was the perfect storm with a lot of issues coming together at the same time. And if it weren’t for the National Cotton Council’s efforts, none of us would be here right now.”
A Farm Bill That Works
McClendon is particularly proud of how the 2008 Farm Bill came into being. It wasn’t perfect, but it turned out better than he anticipated.
As for the WTO negotiations, he believes the NCC is effectively fighting this battle, and he is confident U.S. trade representatives understand that cotton can’t be the sacrificial lamb.
“I hope we’ve turned the corner on the WTO talks,” he says. “The main thing is that we have to fight the battles in Washington every day. That’s just the way it is.
“I’m incredibly optimistic about the future because of better prices, yields trending up and hopefully better weather. My message to other farmers is be persistent and keep the faith. Many years from now we’ll look back on these days and be proud of how we somehow got through them.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or email@example.com.
McClendon On The Move
Larry McClendon has always prided himself for being cool under pressure and being able to make the right decision.
Those skills were put to the test numerous times in 2008 when he was chairman of the National Cotton Council. On one of his many trips to Washington, he and an industry contingent were calling on House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
After a brief meeting, the question became whether the industry group would get on board with Peterson’s plan for the Farm Bill or go home. It was an “all or nothing gamble” that confronted McClendon, California producer John Pucheu and Texas producer Woody Anderson.
“The congressman told us he was leaving the room for about an hour,” recalls McClendon. “He said he needed an answer when he returned. We didn’t have time for an executive committee meeting, and we’re basically debating everything that is important to cotton – payment limits, price support and program eligibility. Normally, I handle things pretty well, but there were some sweaty palms in that room.
“Fortunately, we made a good decision and went with Chairman Peterson’s plan, and he was an advocate for cotton from that point on.”
McClendon made two trips to Geneva, Switzerland, for WTO meetings. He recalls one instance where several other countries were expecting the U.S. cotton contingent to cave in and make additional concessions.
“I think these other countries were looking for a silver bullet from the United States in the hope of reaching an agreement,” he says.
“There was no silver bullet. Our group held its ground and said ‘no.’ We said we’d go back to Congress and fight our battle there if we couldn’t work it out here. Early the next day, the talks broke down, but it was because China and India refused to open their markets for additional trade.”
It was another chapter in McClendon’s tenure as NCC chairman in 2008 – a year he isn’t likely to forget.
McClendon’s Commitment To Cotton Is Extensive
• Past president of National Ginners Association.
• Past president of Southern Ginners Association.
• Southern Ginners Association’s “Ginner of the Year” in 2002.
• Board member of Staplcotn.
• Board member of NCC for six years.
• National Ginners Association’s “Ginner of the Year” in 2003.