They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The winners of the 2007 High Cotton awards took one look in that direction and decided they would rather be farming.

The non-farming world’s loss is agriculture’s gain, judging from the environmental contributions made by the winners of this year’s awards, which are sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation.

The winners will be honored at a breakfast at the 2007 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, Jan. 11. They are:

• Justin Cariker, Dundee, Miss., representing the Mid-South;

• Monty Rast, Cameron, S.C., the Southeast;

• Barry Evans, Kress, Texas, the Southwest;

• And Gil Replogle, Visalia, Calif., the Far West.

“Farm Press began the High Cotton awards 12 years ago to honor the environmental contributions of farmers,” says Greg Frey, publisher of Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press.

“We know that farmers are on the front line of environmental stewardship because they and their families work and live on the land. Too often, the public doesn’t see the environmental ethic, that deep concern for leaving the land and water better than they found it that farmers have.”

Justin Cariker is one of those who doesn’t blow his own horn on environmental stewardship but makes protecting his land and water one of the primary goals of his farming operation.

When he left his family’s farm to pursue a marketing degree at Mississippi State University in the mid-1980s, Cariker never expected to come back to it to work. Four years later, he had changed his mind. “Once I came home to stay, I fell in love with farming again.”

Cariker is adamant about using products that are safe for the environment and his workers. That includes buying chemicals in bulk containers to reduce the number of plastic jugs and boxes that must be discarded. It also means recycling the farm’s plastic irrigation tubing to avoid having to burn the plastic or haul it to a landfill.

The family’s fuel business is promoting the use of biofuels. The company, Hendrix Petro, stores B-99 biodiesel and splash blends the product for local buyers. Justin burns B-10 biodiesel, processed from waste vegetable oil, in his pickup truck.

Southeast High Cotton winner Monty Rast was a property tax appraiser for the South Carolina Tax Commission before he returned in 1979 to the family operation run by his uncle and father. In 1983, he decided to try farming on his own.

Early on, he made conservation a major part of his farm plan. When Roundup Ready varieties became available, he switched from conventional to strip-tillage and began planting cover crops to protect his soil from erosion. The practice helped him bring peanuts into his crop rotation.

Adding a GPS system in 2004 made possible site-specific applications of fungicides and herbicides that have brought substantial savings to cotton and peanut production costs.

“We can drive, using Auto-Steer, without end row markers or recognition of where row patterns are, allowing our cover crop to mature completely and give us maximum root mass to hold moisture in the soil,” says Rast.

Southwest winner Barry Evans began his career working as a commodities broker in Amarillo, Texas. But, when a farm came up for sale in Kress, Evans jumped at the chance to return to the country.

Evans also didn’t start out planting cotton no-till, but grew into it gradually with the help of Roundup Ready varieties and a good rotation program with grain sorghum. He hasn’t plowed any of his fields in 10 years.

The practice has helped him conserve the water that falls on his fields from rain or irrigation and eliminate wind and water erosion by allowing the grain sorghum stubble and chopped cotton stalks to remain on the soil surface. And he’s observed another benefit.

“We use less energy with no-till production,” he says. “We need less labor and less equipment. We use a shielded sprayer, a boom sprayer, a no-till planter and no-till cultivators, and we have two tractors we run about 300 hours a year each (on 2,000 acres).”

Gil Replogle, the Far West High Cotton winner, did not plan to be a farmer when he enrolled at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo to earn a B.S. degree in industrial technology. He went to a job fair on the eve of his graduation in 1990, but, instead of finding a job in IT, he became convinced he should go back home to farm.

Because he doesn’t believe no-till is a good fit for the arid Far West, Replogle isn’t into conservation-tillage. But he uses other conservation practices to help protect the environment.

Among those is reducing seeding rates and strip cutting alfalfa to prevent the amount of lygus entering neighboring fields. Replogle also makes judicious use of pesticide applications and has also been applying variable rates of plant growth regulators to reduce expenses.

Each of this year’s winners will receive one of the coveted bronzed Cotton Boll awards that are presented annually to the High Cotton winners. They and their wives will also enjoy an expenses-paid trip to the Beltwide Cotton Conferences, which run from Jan. 9-12 in New Orleans.

Co-sponsors of this year’s awards include Ace Pump Corp., Beltwide Cotton Cooperative, Beltwide Cotton Genetics, Croplan Genetics, Delta & Pine Land Co., Helena Chemical Co., John Deere Co., Stoneville, Syngenta and U.S. Borax, Inc.

email: flaws@farmpress.com