Their farming operations and environments are as different as night and day, spread out as they are across 11 states and almost as many geographies. But this year's High Cotton winners share a common passion: A concern for leaving the air, land or water better than they found it.

In the eight years since the Delta, Southeast, Southwest and Western Farm Presses began sponsoring the High Cotton awards through a grant to The Cotton Foundation at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in 1995, it's difficult to remember a more dissimilar group of winners.

One farms about 1,000 acres, practically by himself. Another oversees a 12,000-acre family farming operation with numerous employees. One has pioneered the use of conservation-tillage techniques in cotton and peanuts in Georgia. And one is fairly new to reduced-tillage practices.

But each is vitally interested in leaving their farm in the best shape possible, both environmentally and productively.

(The winners and their families will be honored at a breakfast at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio Jan. 8. The co-sponsors of this year's awards — John Deere Company, Delta and Pine Land Company, Helena Chemical Company, Syngenta and U.S. Borax — will also be recognized.)

“If we don't do whatever we can to protect the land — not only protect it, but make it better — there will be nothing to leave our children and grandchildren,” says Billy Sanders, the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the Southeast Region.

“Working with the Soil and Water District, I've recognized that a lot of political things come into play. But I think we should tie everything together for the benefit of both the farmer and the environment.”

Sanders, who along with his son and nephew farm 2,900 acres of cotton and 750 acres of peanuts in Dooly County, Ga., says it's not enough to simply protect the land you're farming — “you also need to make it better.”

At the other end of the Cotton Belt, Fred Starrh and his two sons, two daughters and son-in-law have paved 33 miles of roads on their San Joaquin Valley farm with an oil-sand compound to reduce dust, both to improve their operation and the image of agriculture in an increasingly environmentally conscious state.

The Western High Cotton winners are also converting older diesel engine pumps to cleaner burning models to reduce pollution and installing drip irrigation exclusively for cotton production to reduce water use and to utilize well water as a replacement for increasingly tenuous surface water deliveries.

“People look right past the thousands of cars and trucks on the valley roads to see our tractors and diesel engines running in the fields and think that we are somehow responsible for most of the pollution,” notes Fred Starrh.

“All we can do is tell our story about how we are doing our part in reducing pollution in the valley,” he says. “We hate dust just as much if not more than anyone else, and that is why we have used an oil-sand material to pave 33 miles of roads on our farm.”

In the middle of the Cotton Belt, Coyt Hendon, this year's Delta High Cotton winner, is taking steps to make sure he prevents as much soil and water from running off his 1,000-acre farming operation as possible.

“We land form a field or two each year during the winter months to improve drainage and lessen runoff, both from soil erosion and pesticide applications,” says Hendon. “Considering that the entire farm is located on Porter Bayou, the soil and irrigation water would run straight into the bayou if it could. We're doing everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen.”

Hendon's efforts at improving his land apparently are paying dividends. “It's easier for us to water the land-leveled fields, and we now use less water to irrigate. Hopefully, the improvements we're making to the land will continue to increase our water conservation, while still providing the water needed to produce consistently high yields. We've definitely seen less sediment runoff from our fields,” he says.

Like many other south Texas growers, Ernest Bippert, this year's Southwest High Cotton winner, has struggled with the hand Mother Nature has dealt him in a series of dry years. But that hasn't stopped Bippert from taking the best care he can of his land.

Bippert has used a combination of conservation-tillage, moisture management and technology to save soil, water, time and money on his 2,000-acre cotton and milo farm near Kingsville.

Comparing the costs for conventional and conservation-tillage systems “used to be a wash,” Bippert says, “with labor savings and chemical expenses balancing out.” But long-term, he's convinced conservation-tillage will save him money and improve the quality of his environment.

“Consider equipment,” he says. “I put 300 hours a year on a big tractor in conservation-tillage. I'd put 1,000 hours on that same tractor with conventional production. When I trade that tractor, it will be worth more money. Also, I'm not buying sweeps and not buying as much diesel. I don't run a field cultivator. I can use labor for other chores.

“And I have more leisure time to spend with my family. I don't have wind erosion and if I'm not cutting production, I'm ahead. Conservation-tillage is definitely an advantage.”

“This year's winners represent the best of the environmental ethic displayed by so many of our farmers,” says Greg Frey, publisher of the four Farm Press Publications. “We are proud to be participating in honoring these growers in partnership with The Cotton Foundation.”

The winners and their families will receive an expense-paid trip to the Beltwide, the premier information exchange program sponsored annually by the National Cotton Council.

For more information and photos of this year's winners, please see the articles in this issue of Southeast Farm Press.

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