On one of those few, sunny days last October, things were off to a shaky start for Jonesboro, Ark., cotton producer Marty White: A grease fitting malfunctioned on a picker, a pump broke on a module builder, a fan belt needed replacing on an engine.
“Some days are like this,” White explained. “But we're just getting started picking and still haven't worked all the kinks out. But there'll be other days when things are going so well, we won't want to quit.”
The slow start revealed something else about the relationship between White and his employees. He trusts them to solve farm-related problems on their own.
“That's a big reason why I'm able to farm as much land as I farm,” said White, the recipient of the 2002 Mid-South High Cotton award. “I know that they're going to do what it takes to get the job done.”
White and his son, Jesse, farm and manage about 6,000 acres of cotton, 225 acres of corn, a little over 100 acres of rice, and 600 to 700 acres of soybeans. White has five full-time employees, an uncle who helps out part time and another part-time hand. He also hires a regular seasonal crew who help out at harvest.
At a time when almost every farmer complains about the lack of a good labor force, White feels lucky about his. His employees sense that appreciation.
“I didn't get to where I am today by myself,” White said. “My Mom and Dad (Doris and William “Buddy” White), taught me hard work and honesty and to treat people with dignity. I don't know how I could have done it without their help and guidance.”
Over the last few years, White has had to rely on their teachings more than ever before. This year might have been the toughest yet.
The crop got off to a wet, cold start, putting White's crop behind from the beginning. Then on May 14, a heart attack took the life of a long-time employee, Doug Sowells.
“He was my right-hand man on the farm,” White said. “He was with me for 18 years. He was a valuable employee and a good friend, another set of eyes and ears for me. He knew how I liked things done; if something wasn't working right, he'd ask me.
“It's going to be hard getting along without him,” the producer said. “I know I'm going to pick up that radio and start hollering for him. You work with someone that long, you really care for him.”
White doesn't underestimate the roles Sowells played and other employees continue to play in the farm's profitability.
For example, with cotton prices at 52 cents, White has to spread labor and equipment over more acreage to eke out profits. There's not much time for White to tend to every problem. Employees have to know what White wants, and take care of crises.
That leaves White to manage a high-input, high-yield cotton production program. With this approach “when everything works right, yields are good. But even during bad years, my yields are still fairly decent.”
White's landowners are looking for high-yield, too, and White doesn't blame them. “If they're going to level land and spend the money and put out irrigation, they need a good return. So if they're willing to spend the money, I am, too.”
While White stresses the importance of pushing yield, he still watches expenses carefully. His consultant, Eddie Cates of Cates Agri Tech, “makes sure that we don't use anything unless it's economically feasible to use it,” the producer said.
“Eddie's been a very valuable asset. Not only has he been a friend of mine, but he's helped a lot.”
Extenstion verification programs on the White farm have helped the producer fine-tune his cotton production program. Most recently, he has understood the importance of making more timely irrigations.
“If the cotton is starting to hurt from lack of water, you've already waited too long,” White said. “We don't depend on the weather forecast either. If our soil moisture is getting low, we start irrigating. If we get a rain, we'll shut them off. Every year, we're getting better and better about turning the wells on sooner.”
Not every input on White's operation pays off in cash. Sometimes, an input is simply a matter of pride.
He doesn't like weed escapes.
“I have a family that has come in every year for 10 years. Those weeds aren't hurting me economically, but I'm proud of my farming. And a landowner sees and may want me to farm his land.
“I'm not saying that farmers who have weeds aren't making money. That's just one of my quirks. I want a clean field. Then again, not all of them are clean.
“As many acres as we have, we're going to have a breakdown somewhere. Mother Nature keeps you from doing some things on time.”
White is willing to spend a little more money to help the environment, too, including running all his equipment this year on biodiesel.
“Biodiesel costs 5.5 cents more per gallon. 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 diesel, we don't have the diesel smell.” In addition, “we're using a product that we're growing, soybean oil.”
New technology is also helping the environment. “We don't use nearly the chemicals today that we used to use 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.”
The biggest challenge for White is not something that he has much control over — price. “Just give me 62 cents a pound for cotton,” White said. “It's not a bad price for all my hard work, and I was getting that 27 years ago when I started farming.”
Low prices have added to the stress of gathering $2 million of cotton from the farm every year, especially when a sudden storm can cost him 10 percent of his production.
Recent troubles have had another negative impact. White worries that his son, Jesse, 21, has seen all the stress and none of the joy of farming.
“But it will turn around,” White says. “It always does. But today, there is no room for error. Nowadays, you have to make a good crop every year.”
Then again, that's why White loves farming. “Each year, you wipe the slate clean and start over,” he said. “You hope the mistakes you made last year won't carry over into the new year. A lot of the new fields I've picked up are a challenge to me to better the yield.”
Four other reasons that keep White's nose to the grindstone are his wife Patsy, sons Jesse and Logan, and daughter Evelyn. When White was told he had won the Mid-South High Cotton award, he said, “I couldn't ask for anything better except maybe the Best Dad or Best Husband award.
“I've worked hard, and I've always been told that if you work hard, good things will come to you,” White said. “I plan on farming for a long time. It's going to be a struggle. But I'll do whatever I have to do to make my operation work and stay in business.”