The first time Mike Griffin saw cotton growing in one of his father’s fields, he knew what he wanted to do.

“I remember rushing back from the shipyard to see my father’s first cotton crop being picked,” says the Suffolk, Va., grower. “The cotton picker was the most intriguing piece of equipment I had ever seen. I knew from the start I was going to grow cotton.”

That was in 1995. Fourteen years later, Griffin is growing 1,000 acres of cotton along with other crops. His love of cotton farming and his efforts to protect the environment have earned him the honor of winning the 2010 High Cotton Award for the Southeast.

This is the 16th year of the High Cotton awards, which will be presented to growers from the Southeast, Delta, Southwest and Western regions during the National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, La., Jan. 4-7. The awards are sponsored by The Cotton Foundation and Farm Press Publications.

This year’s winners are:

• Mike Griffin, Suffolk, Va.;

• Jimmy Hargett, Bells Tenn.;

• Jeff Posey, Roby, Texas;

• Allen Pierucci, Buttonwillow, Calif.

“Cotton producers have faced serious challenges in recent years,” said Greg Frey, vice president of the Agricultural Group of Penton Media Inc., the parent company of the Delta, Southeast, Southwest and Western Farm Presses. “Prices, weather and international trade policy have all made growing cotton profitably increasingly difficult.

“The 2010 winners are a testament to the hard work and the environmental ethic of U.S. cotton producers and their determination that the U.S. cotton industry survive and flourish.”

Farm Press began the awards in 1995 to honor growers who were growing profitable, quality cotton and to showcase the good things they were doing in the areas of conservation and environmental stewardship.

This year’s awards are co-sponsored by All-Tex Seed, Americot, Arysta LifeScience, Delta & Pine Land, Greenleaf Technologies, Helena Chemical Co., John Deere, Syngenta and U.S. Borax, Inc.

Griffin, a former nuclear electrician at a Norfolk, Va., shipyard, took a circuitous route to becoming a cotton producer.

He entered an apprenticeship program at the shipyard soon after graduating from high school and worked there for 20 years, rising to senior nuclear manager. But he says he never lost his passion for agriculture.

Often, after working 12-hour shifts at the shipyard, he came straight to the farm to help his father. He also began acquiring and renting land to start his own farm.

While he considers himself a cotton farmer – his e-mail address is cottonpickr – Griffin is a strong believer in rotating cotton with corn, soybean and wheat.

“We have tinkered with and demonstrated we can have a short-term continuous cotton rotation and make it profitable. We haven’t created an ill-effect on the land, and we replenish everything we take from the soil,” he says. “Still, grain crops are important to us from an economic standpoint and important as crop rotation options.

“On some of our land, we go one year corn and two years cotton. On different soil types, we can go with wheat and double crop soybeans followed by cotton. None of our cotton land stays out of cotton for more than one year.”

He uses a precision fertility program that not only saves money, but also fits in well with Griffin’s strict adherence to good soil stewardship. “Putting on no more chemicals and fertilizers than is needed by the crops for top production just makes good economic and environmental sense.”

Allen Pierucci is also a third-generation farmer in the Buttonwillow area of California’s San Joaquin Valley and one who is proud to call himself a cotton producer. “I was destined to be a farmer — a cotton farmer,” Allen says. “There is something about getting up in the morning smelling picker grease. I also just like the smell of cotton.”

Cotton farmer numbers have been dwindling in the San Joaquin Valley where acreage has fallen from more than 1 million acres 12 years ago to less than 200,000 this season due to a three-year drought, more economically attractive competing crops to use available water, and the growth of permanent crops like orchards and vineyards.

But some believe cotton is poised for a comeback next season, particularly because of the approval of Roundup Ready Pima cotton for the 2010 growing season. It could reach 400,000 acres in 2010 as cotton prices firm up and alternatives to cotton fade economically.

Like most farmers, Pierucci faces the yearly challenges of rising costs. He has embraced technology to keep his costs in check. “We used to cultivate at least two to three times for morningglory and bindweed alone. With the Roundup-resistant technology, we cultivate once and spray for weeds,” he said.

Pierucci has joined the ranks of precision ag producers utilizing GPS tractor guidance systems and field mapping. He uses AutoFarm for furrowing out, disking and ripping. “Auto guidance systems are much more efficient and they save time and fuel. When it is foggy, you do not have people standing around waiting for the fog to lift before going into the field.

Like all California producers, Pierucci is diversified. He also grows alfalfa, wheat and last year onions for the dehydrator. In addition, he recently planted a 72-acre pomegranate orchard.

“Last year (2008) alfalfa was fantastic. I did not sell anything for less than $210 per ton,” he said. Prices collapsed under the weight of the worldwide recession and the dramatic economic downturn in the dairy industry. “I have been waiting for one ‘check’s in the mail’ for seven weeks. No one is returning phone calls.

Allen loves to talk about farming. For several years he has hosted teachers on his farm to educate them about California agriculture.

The walls of Julian Pierucci and Sons office are adorned with pictures of his family on the farm. There is a movie poster on the wall as well. It is for the 1965 flick, “The Man from Button Willow,” which helped put the town on the map.

Pierucci wants to keep it on the map as more than a feed and fuel stop on the Interstate. He also wants it to live up to its reputation proclaimed on the sign on the town’s main street:

“Buttonwillow: Heart of Cotton Country.”

Jeff Posey, High Cotton winner for the Southwest, said his leaving the land better than they found it has always been a priority for the three generations of his family who are currently involved in farming.

“We’re always looking for what works best and what’s best for the environment,” Posey said. “We’re spraying less pesticide than we used to. And we’re using cover crops where we can. I hate to see sand blow. We keep as much cover on the ground as possible, but we still may cultivate some to fight sand in the spring.”

Reduced tillage, he said, helps conserve soil and water and improves efficiency. “We can get over fields in less time. Drip irrigated fields and one pivot field have not had a plow in them since we installed the systems.”

In addition to conservation tillage, the Poseys are doing all they can to conserve water with subsurface drip irrigation on 600 acres and low energy precision application systems on their other irrigated acreage. They use the best technology available, including GPS and transgenic varieties, to reduce pesticide and energy use and were early proponents of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program.

Mid-South High Cotton winner Jimmy Hargett has done his part to try to help restore profitability to cotton, providing the inspiration if not the original concept for the module building cotton picker that was later launched by Case IH.

But Hargett has also put a lot of effort into preventing soil erosion and improving water quality by using reduced tillage farming practices on the 1,700 acres of cotton, soybean, corn and milo he farms in the rolling hills of west Tennessee.

Hargett’s conversion to no-till cotton did not come easy. “Every acre I used to work, I used a moldboard plow. I thought you had to break ground 10 inches deep to make a cotton crop,” he said in an interview.

The resulting gullies were so deep “you had to have a tractor out there to fill the ditches in so you could cross them with a cotton picker. I was the hardheadedest person in the world about no-till. I always said, ‘no till, no yield.’ But I found out the hard way that in west Tennessee, it’s by far a whole lot better.”

Today, the farm’s soils are protected by terraces, diversions, grass waterways, buffer strips and silt basins, all built by Hargett during his 47 years of farming.

Hargett remains optimistic that the cotton industry will continue to flourish, even as it faces some of its biggest challenges. “I think we’ll find a way to keep growing cotton in this country. If we lose the cotton industry, how many people does that affect from seed to shirt?”

email: flaws@farmpress.com