It was one of those mornings when your gut instinct told you to turn around and head back to town. The snow and ice that had obligingly melted off the main highway covered the FM roads like a sheet of oiled glass.

The tires on the rental car fought for purchase on the narrow slick blacktop and a grim fog curtain alternately fell to conceal potentially perilous bends in the road and then lifted to display scenes of winter wonder: haystacks turned into huge frosted pastries dusted with a fine white powder, icicle spears dangled from irrigation systems, and vari-colored cattle pawing at the glazed green tops of forage wheat could have stampeded out of a Currier and Ives print.

But the directions and map on the seat beside me indicated the farm was just a few miles away. “Take this certain FM road,” the instructions said, “for about so many miles and look for a field road to the right. The farmhouse will be about a quarter-mile off the main road. It has a red roof.”

Despite the fog and the fact that the red roof was obscured by four inches of snow, the directions were so meticulous that all the turns occurred when they were supposed to. The interview would take place.

Good thing, too, because Ronnie Hopper and his son R.N. certainly made the trip worth the white knuckles I pried loose from the steering wheel as I parked in their driveway.

Inside, in the warmth of the basement office/den/big-screen TV room, we talked about cotton production and the role cattle and grain and technology play in the operation. We hit on politics and the farm bill, which at the time remained bogged down in Senate ooze.

I learned about the Hopper farm history, the traditions and why a young man with a good agronomy degree from Texas Tech would jump at the chance to come back to Petersberg, Texas, to farm with his dad.

The goal, Ronnie says, is to make the most economical cotton crop possible. “We still have to make the pounds, but we look for the optimum return. Production always holds the key to success. Folks around here are trying to delay input costs, waiting until later in the season to apply fertilizer, for instance.

“We'll get the crop up and see what yield potential we have and then add fertilizer according to how the crop looks.”

They used to apply all the fertilizer in the spring, but being hailed out a time or two convinced them to rethink the futility of that practice.

“We apply most of our fertilizer through center pivots anyway,” R.N. says. “We spoon feed the cotton throughout the season. Last year we applied no dry fertilizer, but we had followed a sound fertility program for years and decided to tap some of our stored resources.”

They'll make other changes for 2002 as well, but intend to focus primarily on cotton. “We're switching to 30-row equipment,” Ronnie says. “A lot of our toolbars were built years ago and were due for replacement.

“We didn't want to go back to eight-row, 40-inch units, so we changed to 16-row, 30-inch.

“We see potential for extra yield from the closer rows,” he says. “And with the farm economy in a slump, we got a pretty good discount on the equipment. Machinery dealers are hurting, too.”

Technology and horsepower offer American farmers their best advantage over foreign competition, according to the Hoppers. “We're not necessarily innovators with technology,” R.N. says. “We are early adapters. That makes more sense to us.”

He explains that a lot of farmers in their area (the Texas Southern Plains, about an hour north of Lubbock) tried Ultra Narrow Row cotton several years back. “Most went back to conventional spacings,” R.N. says. “The experiment was a big expense.”

They prefer to watch and see until the bugs are out and the risks are smaller. “But we get good equipment and we use it to advantage,” Ronnie says.

They think precision agriculture may pay off. “We can divide things down to a micro-management level, but we have to make certain it's feasible and that it will pay,” R.N. says.

They have software and computer power to use variable-rate application. “We hope to use that technology to apply things like Pix,” Ronnie says. “We don't have a lot invested in software or hardware, but we have our foot in the door.”

They bought a 1,000-gallon, 80-foot boom spray rig last year. They pull that unit behind a tractor with two injection pumps and a 24-gallon chemical tank.

“We put in the chemical and punch up the rate and the unit mixes as we go,” Ronnie says.

“It speeds up the spraying operation,” R.N. adds.

“Next, we installed a data logger,” Ronnie says. “We can download and print chemical records from specific areas in a field. That's extremely useful for regulatory requirements.”

The system works off a GPS tracker that “will draw a map and track a tractor through the field,” Ronnie says. “We're not buying this as a toy. It will help us keep better records and allow us to do a better job of applying chemicals.”

“It's also a diagnostic tool,” R.N. says. “We can find weak spots in the field and determine appropriate application rates. As expensive as chemicals are, we can't afford to apply anything hit or miss. We have to be precise.”

“There is a learning curve to figure out how to make the system work,' Ronnie adds. “Things can go wrong and we have to know how to handle the equipment to make it work efficiently.”

Another software package helps manage irrigation. They can dictate inches of water applied, fertilization timing, amounts and dates through the computer. It also tracks variable costs.

“We can use this system to determine where to apply water to get the best return from the system,” R. N. says.

“It's one thing to retrieve information from a system, but we need to coordinate that data to use for management decisions,” Ronnie says. “At the end of the year, we can print out the information to show the cost of every well. We're working to get it to determine the cost per gallon.”

They'll also use computer technology to track planting dates, seeding rates and other routine chores to establish trend lines. But they don't intend to fine-tune the system to the point of micro-managing every acre of land.

“We'll probably use three to four rates under a circle,” R.N. says.

“We need barebones, common sense information that helps make money,” Ronnie says.

A cattle operation has helped profit margins some years, especially when hail ruined a large part of the cotton acreage and the Hoppers planted forage wheat in the fall for stocker cattle.

“But as times get better, the cattle are the first enterprise to go,” R.N. says. That may change in the future as demand for water in the area intensifies and if the aquifer continues to diminish.

“Water management will be the key,” R.N. says. “If we plant half the acreage in wheat and use water through the winter to grow wheat and cattle, then plant cotton on the remaining acreage, we double our water for the summer crop. We'll grow beef and cotton on the same water resource.”

“With center pivot irrigation we can exhaust a water supply quickly in the summer,” Ronnie says. “We can start earlier and run later than with other systems.”

But, considering commodity prices, choices are limited. “Our goal has to be to produce as many pounds from a gallon of water as possible. And water is the key.”

“I don't think we'll run out of water,” R.N. adds. “The area may support less cropland in the future as acreage reverts back to forage or conservation use. Cattle may work well in that system.”

Ronnie, president of the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. and the Texas Cotton Producers, Inc., and member of various national cotton boards, watches politics closely. He says one of farmers' biggest needs is a way to tell the public about agriculture.

“It's been a tough few years,” he says. “And there is no rhyme or reason to when cotton prices will improve. I don't expect them to be much better this spring than they were last fall.”

He says the government, and whatever comes out of a new farm law, will drive farm decisions. “It can be distressing to step back and see what's happening to agriculture,” he says.

Which begs the question, Why is his son, a bright young man who could do a lot of things off the farm, so adamant about carrying on the tradition.

“This is a family farm,” he says. “We're still here and we're still in business. I think we'll always have agricultural producers in this area. We may not be growing the same things we are now or at least not in the same proportion, but I want to be one of those producers.”

The Hopper family has been on this piece of land since 1943, when Ronnie's father moved in as a tenant. “I was born in 1946 and have been here all my life,” he says. “My contemporaries in college came off farms, but most did not go back. They were too discouraged. But when my son indicated his determination to come back to the farm, I encouraged him.”

He says until R.N. made that commitment he tried not to influence him too much. “In a small town like this, most upwardly mobile young people leave the farm for other careers.”

“He didn't actively discourage me,” R.N. says. “And I've always felt my future was here.”

He likes the dynamics of farming and the rural setting. “Cost of living is lower here than it would be in a city,” he says.

Ronnie says the work will be hard.

“To be successful, R.N. will have to work harder than he would if he had chosen another career. It will be tough but he can do it. By and large, I've averaged 70-hour work weeks on the farm, but a lot of corporate leaders, in upper management, put in a lot of hours, too.”

It appears to be a working relationship built on mutual respect. R.N. says his dad once told him that they would disagree on things from time to time.

“He said he'll sometimes think I want to change too fast and that I'll think he's too slow to change. We always arrive at a reasonable compromise.”

We left the warm comfort of the farm/home office and did a quick tour of the grounds, still covered in a layer of snow. Ronnie was a bit perturbed that his shop was not as ship-shape as he likes it, but every tool seemed to hang on it's proper peg and a mechanic was making good use of a day too wet to do anything but shop work.

We had lunch, accompanied by Mrs. Hopper and the gin manager, at a little hole-in-the-wall diner I would not have entered without a local guide, and had the best cheeseburger in Texas.

The trip home was uneventful. No fog, no snow, no skids, no white knuckles.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com