I have often used the phrase “Cotton gets in your blood” to describe the passion many cotton farmers have for their crop. That goes for me, too. I was born on a small family farm in the middle of the Mississippi Delta and picked cotton after school to have pocket money for our yearly trip to the Mid-South Fair in Memphis.
It wasn’t long before the family farm was sold, and Dad became the farm manager of Scotland Plantation near Beulah, Miss. It was quite a change from the one tractor/one mule operation where I spent my early years. Cotton was still king, but there were other crops and Aberdeen Angus cattle, too.
Being a tomboy, I was in heaven. I hunted and fished with my brothers, rode horses and spent hours riding the turn- rows with my Dad as he managed the farm. It was during this time when my love for cotton and farming was deeply etched in my soul.
Along the way there have been key people who have significantly influenced my career. The first was Dr. Marion Laster, field crops entomologist at Mississippi State University. In 1976, I was a single mother with two children and in need of a job. He hired me as a technician in his lab at the Delta Branch Station in Stoneville. Dr. Laster was the consummate entomologist and after spending time under his tutelage, I was hooked.
I soon enrolled in Mississippi Delta Junior College (now Mississippi Delta Community College) to continue the education I left behind more than 15 years prior. This time though, my goal was clear. I was going to become an entomologist. This would not have been possible had it not been for Dr. Laster’s encouragement and willingness to allow me to schedule work around my classes. The rest is history. I transferred to Delta State University where I had my first “real” entomology classes taught by Dr. Johnny Ouzts. After earning my undergraduate degree, I enrolled in Mississippi State University for my Ph.D. under the guidance of Dr. Randy Luttrell, who remained my valued mentor.
I began my career at Cotton Incorporated in March of 1993 and after several years working outside my chosen area, I felt I was home. As a member of the Ag Research team, my desire to maintain my connection with cotton and agriculture has been realized beyond all my expectations.
Over the years, I was lucky enough to fund and guide projects that have created technology supporting eradication programs; insecticide resistance; pest management strategies for post eradication, Bt cotton systems as well as for farm landscapes where cotton is no longer dominant. And, of course, there is COTMAN. The terms Nodes Above White Flower (NAWF), cutout, square set, etc., have become a part of everyday cotton conversations – especially with entomologists!
During my tenure at Cotton Incorpor-ated, there have been many changes in the cotton production system. This has been especially true in insect pest management. We have moved to a system where insecticides are no longer the only option in the toolbox – resulting in a 50 percent decrease in annual applications.
In the 1990s, insect management was the overriding issue when growers were surveyed by Cotton Incorporated. In recent years however, insect pests have taken a backseat to herbicide resistance and other problems. Ag Research continues to use surveys to tailor their research programs to the needs of cotton farmers. In the future, if you are asked to participate, please do so. It is your opportunity to impact the use of your check-off dollars.
It’s time to bring this column and my career at Cotton Incorporated to a close. As I’ve said many times, “People working in cotton are the best.” What I will miss most are the relationships developed over the last 20 years. Hopefully, our paths will cross again in the future. But for now... retirement here I come!
– Pat O’Leary, Cary, N.C.