Mike Tate is considered to be a “preferred” neighbor among residents in his community.

Jimmy Dodson uses border strips to avoid drifting pesticides onto his neighbors' lawns.

Jason Luckey spends hours telling agriculture's story to community organizations.

Danny Locke shows small groups of other farmers what he's doing to make his operation more environmentally friendly.

These are challenging times for farmers, but the winners of this year's High Cotton conservation awards are showing they're willing to go the extra mile to make a difference on the environmental front in their communities and in their industry.

It helps, of course, that the winners of this year's High Cotton awards, sponsored by The Cotton Foundation and Farm Press Publications, have a story to tell when it comes to what they're doing to take care of their soil, water and the air.

“We continue to be impressed with the number of Sunbelt farmers who are doing exactly the right thing when it comes to the environment,” says Greg Frey, publisher of the Farm Press Publications — Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press.

“We've always known farmers are the true stewards of the soil, air and water. This year's High Cotton winners exemplify the best of the best.”

Cotton Foundation President Mark Nichols, an Altus, Okla., producer, said the High Cotton awards program continues to “set the bar high for U.S. cotton producers' conservation efforts by spotlighting these environmental stewardship leaders. Farm Press' editors are to be commended for once again ferreting out the cream of the crop — and shariang those inspirational techniques with all of us across the Cotton Belt.”

This is the 15th year for the annual High Cotton awards, which are co-sponsored by Ace Pump Corporation, All-Tex Seed, Americot/Nexgen, Arysta LifeScience, BASF, Beltwide Cotton Cooperative, John Deere, Helena Chemical, Monsanto, Nufarm Americas, Inc., Syngenta, Trimble and U.S. Borax, Inc.

Mike Tate, this year's Southeast High Cotton award winner, can trace his farming roots back several generations. But Tate is concerned about making sure the land he farms with other family members in Madison County, Ala., is there for future generations.

Starting with soybeans following wheat, Tate Farms has gradually converted all of its land to no-till, resulting in a number of benefits, including improved soil structure, improved soil erosion control, increased soil moisture retention, increased cation exchange capacity, decreased soil compaction and decreased energy use.

“Although the goal was to find a solution that would allow continuous cotton production, this instead led us to look at other cover crops, which have the added benefit of protecting our soil during the winter months,” says Tate.

Tate Farms also has several miles of contoured terraces, drainage basins and grassed waterways that help make sure soil and nutrients stay on the land and out of streams that run into the Tennessee River that runs through northern Alabama.

The Tates are dealing with increased urbanization. Area schools and residents of subdivisions have voiced concerns, especially during boll weevil eradication. But Mike has always been willing to listen and has strived to be a good neighbor. In fact, Tate Farms is considered the preferred neighbor by many in the area.

The annual Tate Farms Cotton Pickin' Pumpkins operation has also become a successful agri-tourism venture, drawing up to 45,000 visitors each fall.

Jimmy Dodson, the High Cotton winner from the Southwest, says he learned much of his environmental ethic from his late father, Giles, who started farming near Corpus Christi in 1937. Jimmy's grandfather came to the Coastal Bend of Texas in 1900.

“My Dad taught me a lot about stewardship as a concept, and how stewardship for the land results in leaving it better than I found it,” Dodson told Southwest Farm Press Editor Ron Smith. “From him I learned to always try to find a better way of doing things.”

The current owner has reduced tillage operations by one-half to two-thirds over the last few years to help improve soil moisture, improve the soil and provide a haven for fish and wildlife while making a living from cotton and grain sorghum.

“I'm trying to reduce tillage to limit erosion, and we're doing a better job than we were 15 years ago. We're keeping dust from blowing and keeping nutrients where they belong,” says Dodson. “We farm a lot on the edge of town so we try to find ways to minimize drift and odor. We want to be good neighbors.”

Jason Luckey, this year's Mid-South winner, is also finding himself in an increasingly urban environment. While that means more food and fiber for farmers to supply, it's also convinced Luckey of the need for farmers to be more proactive on environmental and economic issues.

“There are houses now where fields used to be,” says Luckey of the area around where he and other family members farm near Humboldt, Tenn. “Medina is coming from one direction and Jackson is coming from the other. If you read and educate yourself, then you can speak of agriculture with some knowledge.”

Luckey has made participation in farm and community organizations a second job. “You can sit around in shops and co-ops and hear the complaining about what's going on. But it's my future, and I wanted to get involved to make sure that people understand what's going on out there.”

“Jason has put his heart and soul in not only his farm, but in getting other folks involved and creating awareness in the issues that producers face with his activities,” says Gibson County, Tenn., Extension agent Philip Shelby. “I see him involved in every aspect of community.”

Some of the farm's proudest efforts have been in conservation. “We have created a lot of wildlife habitat on field borders and underneath tree lines,” Jason said. “The wildlife strips consist of native grasses to protect and help build populations of quail, turkey and other birds in the west Tennessee area. Where water leaves that side of the field, the strips help us stop erosion at that point, too.”

Rotating crops and no-till are other methods the Luckeys use to preserve the soil for future generations. “It's important for us to conserve our soil for the next 30-40 years for me and for my son,” he notes. “We try to use everything we can, terraces, catch basins, filter strips and wildlife strips, and we diversify our crops. It's not going to make you a living if you run it ragged.”

Danny Locke, this year's High Cotton winner from the Far West, routinely holds field days to show area farmers some of the new technology that's being tested on his farming operation in Fresno County in California's San Joaquin Valley.

One of the biggest draws in recent months has been a 50-horsepower solar energy system that drives an irrigation pump and provides power for the farm shop and Pikalok Farming's main farm residence. Tours are frequently hosted by Locke's daughter and son-in-law, Mari and Gary Martin.

For seven years, the California Sustainable Cotton Project has parked at Pikalok to demonstrate more environmentally friendly cotton growing. Kevin Long, Calcot field representative, says the Locke family readily accepted the challenge to reduce pesticide and herbicide use and subsequently farming costs working with the sustainable agriculture project.

Danny Locke began practicing conservation/minimum-tillage 15 years ago — before it became fashionable in the West — to increase microbial activity in the soil. This reduced-tillage has saved 50 percent over what they once spent on traditional cultivation and tillage.

University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Dan Munk has worked with the family for almost two decades. “I have been impressed with Danny's leadership in the industry as he works to improve farming practices and land stewardship,” says Munk.

Asked why his family's farm partnership is so involved in so much, his response reflects Danny's cowboy way. “It's the right thing to do,” says Danny.

For years, Danny, a wrangler and horseman, has donated his horses, mules and wagoneering skills to a historical program in the Madera, Calif. schools that takes fifth graders on wagon train expeditions to relive history. Most of these journeys have been in California. However, three years ago it was a 30-day wagon train trip through west Texas to retrace the route of a 1850s gold prospector bound for California.

Locke says he is often “roped” into volunteering his time for the wagon train, but his quick, hearty chuckle that follows makes you believe it was not hard to get Locke to say yes, a characteristic that seems to hold true for all of this year's High Cotton winners.

This year's winners will be honored at a breakfast at the National Cotton Council's Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio. They each receive an expenses-paid trip to the Beltwide for two.