Sponsored by The Cotton Foundation through a grant from Farm Press Publications, the awards seek to recognize farmers who have made invaluable contributions to protecting the environment in each of the four regions of the Cotton Belt.

This year’s winners are:

  • L.C. Conway, Cove City, N.C., Southeast Region;
  • Marty White, Jonesboro, Ark., Delta Region;
  • Dale Swinburn, Tulia, Texas; Southwest Region;
  • Paul “Paco” Ollerton, Coolidge, Ariz., Western Region.

Each meets the criteria that have dictated the selection of the High Cotton awards since the program’s beginning in 1995; that is, they are full-time growers who produce a profitable, high quality crop while meeting the best standards of environmental stewardship.

They will be honored at a breakfast during the National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel, Jan. 9.

Co-sponsors of the 2003 High Cotton awards are Deere and Co., Delta and Pine Land Co., Griffin L.L.C., Helena Chemical Co. and Syngenta Crop Protection. Each will be represented at the breakfast.

“These are difficult times in agriculture,” says Mike Gonitzke, publisher for Farm Press Division of Primedia Business Magazines and Media. “But these High Cotton winners continue to do what’s necessary to take care of their land and the environment.”

L.C. Conway, this year’s Southeast winner, believes that growing cotton with conservation tillage is helping beat the odds weather, higher costs and low cotton prices have stacked against him.

The few acres Conway still farms with conventional tillage serve as a reminder of the benefits of planting no-till in a year like 2002. “The cotton on the bedded land wilted worse than the no-till,” he says. “I could tell the difference.”

He says no-till has helped him produce four-year average yields of more than 874 pounds of lint per acre, reduce costs and cut labor requirements on his 480 acres of cotton. (Conway also farms corn and soybeans.)

No-till is also saving his soil. “I don’t see the washing on the fields like I did before,” says Conway. “Before, if a big rain came, you’d see a lot of soil erosion.”

Although it’s costing him more money, Delta winner Marty White is buying biodiesel, a product made from soybean oil, to help keep the air cleaner around his northeast Arkansas farm.

“Biodiesel costs 5.5 cents more per gallon,” White notes. “But they say that it cuts toxic emissions by 80 or 90 percent, gives you more horsepower and protects your engine a little better. I’ve noticed around the shop with all these pickers running on biodiesel, we don't have the diesel smell.

In addition, “we’re using a product that we’re growing, soybean oil.”

White is using other new technological advances to help the environment. “We don't use nearly the chemicals today that we used to because of the Bt cotton, the Roundup Ready cotton, and BXN technology,” said White, who no-tills much of his crop.

“Of course, that money that we saved on chemicals we're now having to spend on technology fees. So it's not like we're saving a lot of money. But it has been better for the environment.”

Southwest winner Dale Swinburn acknowledges that growing cotton under the challenging conditions of the Texas High Plains demands that growers balance attempts to produce high yields against production efficiency and conservation.

Since the early 1990s, Swinburn has concentrated on conservation to save soil and water and to improve efficiency. “A benchmark for our conservation efforts was a field day in Turpin, Okla., sponsored by Kansas State and Oklahoma State Universities,” he says. “The program concentrated on methods to conserve water in dryland sorghum and wheat.”

Swinburn has adapted those techniques to cotton, which, he maintains, offers the best profit potential for his area, which pushes the northern boundary for cotton production in Texas.

He credits Roundup Ready technology with easing the transition from conventional to reduced tillage.

“I also realized that this area was running out of water,” he says. “We have to do a better job of using it.”

Swinburn rotates cotton and wheat and plants his cotton crop in wheat stubble. “That’s a common practice now,” he says. “We see a lot of advantages from crop residue. Limiting wind damage to cotton seedlings heads the list. I hate fighting sand.”

The wheat stubble also protects young cotton from winds strong enough to turn soil into a sandblaster that shears cotton off at the ground.

Western winner Paul Ollerton is a strong believer in integrated pest management or IPM for controlling harmful insects and protecting the environment.

“I hate to start spraying for insects, but you have to if you farm in Arizona,” he says. “When you start, it often begins a cycle of destroying beneficials. That’s the part I don’t like,” he said, adding, “I like using pheromones for pinkies. The insect growth regulators we used to bring whitefly under control have been wonderful.”

Ollerton, who farms in an area between Phoenix and Tucson, headed up a pest control district several years ago where growers banded together to control pink bollworm and whitefly. “I think it worked extremely well in keeping pests down, but it lost funding and grower support,” he said.

The latter often occurs when growers are assessed equally yet not everyone’s fields are treated. “People have to be committed. It’s too bad when they’re not,” he said.

It’s also expensive to treat for insects like it is to control weeds. That’s why Ollerton has resorted to banding 18 inches of the preplant herbicide Prowl. “When you do that you spend pennies on the dollar and in today’s economy that makes a lot of sense,” he said.

He uses Staple over the top for morningglory control and Diuron at layby for weed problems, primarily rhizome johnsongrass and morningglory. Precision guidance cultivation technology also minimizes herbicide use.

Bt cotton, meanwhile, is expensive technology and some growers like Ollerton use it sparingly. Pink bollworm pressure has historically been light where Ollerton farms, but he was about 30 percent Bt varieties in 2002, mostly all stacked varieties, because of the 9-11 attack on America.

When those planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, aerial applicators were grounded.

“We had some fields where pinkie trap counts blew up, and we were afraid that we had a large overwintering population. That is where we planted Bt in 2002 as insurance,” he said.

“We believe that we have another very impressive group of winners,” said Farm Press’ Gonitzke, who will give the opening remarks at the breakfast honoring the High Cotton award recipients in Nashville.

“These farmers, like thousands of other growers in the areas we serve, are the real environmentalists,” he said. “They strive to take care of their land while ensuring that their families can continue to enjoy their way of life.”

This year’s winners were nominated for the High Cotton awards by their neighbors, local Extension agents and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service specialists. They were selected for the awards by the editors of the Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press.

Besides the recognition at the High Cotton breakfast and in the issues of these Farm Press Publications, they also receive an expense paid trip to the Beltwide Cotton Conferences, Jan. 6-10.

For more information on the 2003 High Cotton winners, see the Jan. 2 issue of Southwest Farm Press.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.