This famous photograph of the historic Mont Helena home near Rolling Fork, Miss., says it all. Cotton spans generations of farm families and conjures up special feelings. Producers Adam Hatley (Arizona), Barry Evans (Texas), David Cochran (Mississippi) and Donny Lassiter (N.C.) share their thoughts on this wondrous fiber.
• Fourth-generation farmer.
• Leases 3,600 acres for family farm operation.
• Includes: Cotton (1,900), corn (400), barley (300) and alfalfa (700).
Why is cotton so special to me? I don't know how else to describe it except that it's something that runs in my family's blood. There are two generations of our family who have farmed at this location in Arizona. My father Aubrey Hatley started here in 1976, and I joined him in 1986. Prior to that, he was working for somebody else in Texas, which is where I was born. My grandfather also was in the farming business. So, farming has been on my father's side of the family for three or four generations.
Our farm here in Mesa is a family operation. The partners include my mother, father, wife, sister and myself. We employ about 16 people.
I have an old black-and-white picture hanging on the wall in the farm office that shows my grandfather and his brother together. The two of them and my grandmother are hauling cotton in cotton bags. It's an old photograph, but I enjoy looking at it every day. It reminds me of how long we've been involved in this industry.
Cotton has always been a livelihood for our family. I enjoy growing it, but it's probably more difficult than any of the other crops we have. It's very management intensive. Having said that, it's also a nurturing situation with this crop. You really have to take care of it from start to finish, and, as other producers will attest, timing is everything.
Whether it's timing on planting or fertilizer application, you have to know when to pull the trigger. For us, it's very critical to know when to apply water. If you're late in applying the water, you'll see the results later in your crop, and you might even see the plant shedding fruit.
Our cotton acres have decreased here in Arizona in the last couple of years, and they'll probably drop again in 2013, but it's still an important crop to us. As long as we aren't losing money, we'll continue to grow cotton. It's important because our gins and warehouses depend on us to maintain a steady production.
I still gain the same sense of accomplishment when I look at a big cotton field just before it's harvested. It takes a lot of hard work to make it happen, and you are nursing it along every step of the way. At the end of the year when it looks terrific, you stand there with a sense of pride.
I think there are better days ahead for cotton because I believe we'll regain some global demand that we've lost in the last couple of years. I really think we'll get those acres back, and I'm pretty much hanging my hat on what's going on in China. We have heard for years that China will have to cut back on its cotton acreage so that it can increase its food production. Also, as China's population continues to grow, its middle class will start increasing as well. China has always been a key player in the world market and will continue to be. We definitely need to keep an eye on this country.
I haven't lost faith in U.S. cotton, and I'll keep on growing it here in Arizona. We'll continue to run the course until there is no longer a course to run – but I don't anticipate seeing that happen.
Contact Adam Hatley at his farm office in Mesa, Ariz., at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Third-generation cotton farmer.
• Farms 2,200 total acres, including cotton, grain sorghum.
• Former president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc.
• Former commodity broker.
I am a third-generation cotton farmer here in the Texas High Plains. Our farm has about 2,200 acres, and it's mostly just my wife Lindy and I that are in charge of the operation. We have two daughters – Emily (16) and Haley (12) – and a son Eric, who is studying agronomy at Texas A&M. He is the farmer in the group. But Emily and Haley also enjoy being on the farm. The girls obviously aren't old enough to be involved in what we do. We've been farming for a long time, and my father has his farm about a mile down the road here in Kress. Our family's involvement in farming dates back to the Dust Bowl days here in Texas.
It's pretty interesting how I arrived back on the farm. I was gone for about 12 years and worked as a commodity broker. I returned in 1992, and I'm glad I made that decision. With my background as a broker, you'd think I ought to be an expert on the market. However, I know enough to realize that I don't know that much.
We love to farm here, and I pretty much adhere to a strict cotton/grain sorghum rotation program. I did increase my cotton acres when the market rallied up, but now I'm back on a regular rotation.
When the cotton prices went up, farmers got away from that rotation program. I think we'll see them getting back into it now. There's no doubt that the high grain prices will cause a bit of an acreage adjustment here in Texas. However, cotton still gives us more financial return per acre. It's a good crop for our climate, and it's why we continue to stick with it.
To be a cotton farmer, you have to be totally committed to it. There is no other way to describe it. I appreciate this crop, and I appreciate the people involved in it from all segments of the industry. Over a period of time, a farmer gradually develops a passion for this crop. But make no mistake about it. Cotton is not an easy crop to grow.
Our history with this crop in Texas doesn't date back as far as the Mid-South or Southeast. But, as the boll weevil drove cotton out of East Texas and into the High Plains, we didn't have much cotton here in the Dust Bowl days in the early part of the 20th century. When we finally got rid of the weevil, it quickly transformed the High Plains. In those early days, we grew cotton primarily for the denim market, but because of technology we can grow the best quality cotton found in the world right here in West Texas.
Standing out in a field and looking at a beautiful cotton crop, it's hard to put into words what it feels like. We have a very special commitment to this crop, and there is no doubt about how important it is to the High Plains. As the world economy changes, cotton will be back in higher demand. I'm confident of that. The market goes up and down, and we don't always know why. Good times don't last forever, and bad times don't last forever either.
I don't know what else to say except that cotton is unlike any other crop grown in this world. It's fascinating, and every year is different.
Contact Barry Evans at his farm office in Kress, Texas, at email@example.com.
• Third-generation farming operation.
• Family ginning operation began in 1994.
• Crops produced are cotton, soybeans and winter wheat.
We are fortunate enough to have a family farming and ginning operation here in Mississippi. We've been operating the Avon Gin as a private business since 1994. Prior to that, we were one of the stockholders at the gin. In fact, on the property where the current gin stands, three different gins have operated there in the past.
The farming operation has been operating for three generations. My father is David Cochran, Sr., and my grandfather was H.T. Cochran. We have about 50 percent of our farm acreage in cotton but perhaps less than that in 2012. Soybeans and winter wheat are the other crops we grow.
Our ginning operation certainly reflects the lower cotton acreage in this part of the Mississippi Delta. In a good year, we might gin 20,000 to 25,000 bales in one season. This year, it's down to about 6,500 bales.
You might ask the question why we continue to stay with cotton in light of these lower numbers? All I can tell you is that cotton is what brought us to the point where we are today. It was always the major crop that we grew, and it's still one of our major crops. We have always grown cotton because we're cotton producers – plain and simple.
I wouldn't enjoy growing it to lose money, but that hasn't been the case so far. We are not losing money on cotton, and, in fact, we're making money on this crop. As a family, we feel obligated to keep growing and ginning cotton because we have the equipment. These businesses create several jobs that our workers are looking forward to having or are expecting.
If we were to close down the gin and get rid of the cotton equipment, you are talking about several people who would be without a job. In our situation with the farm and gin, we could see 30 or 40 people lose their jobs if we quit growing cotton. These people are depending on us to supply them with that job.
I really think cotton will make a comeback, and we'll see higher prices. We have seen plenty of ups and downs throughout the history of cotton. I'm sure you've heard of the saying that "the best cure for high prices is high prices." I think that has a lot to do with what happened to cotton. Two years ago when cotton prices increased to $1.50 and two dollars, everybody in the world started growing cotton. We created more supply than demand.
I remain an optimist when it comes to cotton. I think we can regain some global demand, and, at the current price, I think we'll capture more market share. I may be wrong, but I've talked to some textile mill officials, and they say they'd rather spin cotton as opposed to polyester.
Why do farmers love cotton so much? It is something that you have to want, and it gets into your blood. I don't know why. The bottom line is that we have been blessed to grow this crop and produce it from the field until it's finally ginned. I just feel like I have a certain responsibility to the people who depend on us.
Contact David Cochran at his farm office in Avon, Miss., at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Farms with parents (Bobby and Debbie) and brother Mark.
• Grows seven crops on 8,000 acres.
• Acreage includes cotton, peanuts, double crop wheat/soybeans, corn, milo and two specialty crops (chufa and sage).
Four generations have been involved in farming cotton here in the northeastern part of North Carolina. We've been involved in this labor of love for a long time. My grandfather was a sharecropper, and he and my grandmother had a little bit of land, and that's how it all started. Like many farmers here in this state, we grow many different crops. In fact, we produce seven different crops on about 8,000 acres.
Cotton will always be part of the operation. We follow the market and have to be diversified, but cotton will still be planted on more than half of the acreage. The good thing about cotton is that we have the infrastructure in place. Whether it is 50 percent of what we grow or 75 percent like it was two years ago, we are set up to handle it. That's the good thing about our current situation.
We have a lot of different soil types here in North Carolina, and our typical rainfall is such that cotton is the one crop we can rely on. We can usually pencil in what our potential profits will be with cotton. And the good thing is that all of the crops we grow are excellent rotational crops with cotton. It's an ideal combination with peanuts, corn and double-crop wheat and soybeans. Our specialty crops also work well with cotton.
We are mostly all dryland on the cotton, and we'll probably produce two-bale yields on 4,000 acres. Our average is about 800 to 850 pounds. If we can stay in this range, it keeps farmers from moving to other crops. If you know anything about cotton, you realize that it has a rich history in North Carolina. It's the crop that has allowed this area to grow other row crops in lean years. When we didn't have other crops to lean on, we could always count on cotton.
On some crops, you can put them into the ground and go across the field a couple of times, and that's it. Cotton isn't one of those crops. It's almost like a child. From the time you put it into the ground, you aren't done with it until it's in the module. You have to care for it every step along the way. To say that we have been fortunate this past year is an understatement. We survived a tropical storm and hurricane that barely brushed part of the East Coast.
I think we can make a comeback in cotton – especially if the world economy turns around, and we have some upward momentum. We can definitely regain market share that we lost during the $2 cotton price era. We know that the grain prices are moving a lot of cotton acres into other crops. That might be the best thing that could happen to cotton in the long run. I foresee a change in these high corn and soybean prices, and it will probably happen fast – just like it did for cotton.
What is my message to other farmers across the country? Diversify to take advantage of the opportunities in the market. More importantly, we will never give up on cotton because it's never given up on us. You've got to dance with the one that brought you to the party.
Contact Donny Lassiter in Conway, N.C., at his farm office at email@example.com.