Myers Vittetoe won't fit a stereotype. He's a cotton farmer, a ginner, a pretty good “shade tree” mechanic, and, although not a trained engineer, he can make pretty much anything he needs to keep the farm, the gin or various and sundry pieces of used equipment running.

He says tending to details helps maintain profit potential, especially when markets head south. He farms with his son and grandson in Hunt County, Texas.

Vittetoe got into the gin business back in the early 1990s. “We saw a lot of optimism for cotton and wanted a place close by to gin, so we bought machinery from an old gin and built our own. I've worked on the gin every year since.

“Good, late-model, used gin equipment is not expensive,” he says. “Since we first built, we've replaced a lot of the old equipment with newer, better machinery.”

A good used Lummus press is one of the latest additions.

Some equipment still goes back a ways. He powers the gin with a 12-cylinder propane engine. He says few modern gins use propane and figures most electric gin facilities are easier to run, but this engine operates efficiently and allows him to avoid some of the costs of electric power.

“And we generate a lot of our own electricity. That helps control costs because we have to pay stand-by power rates, even when the gin is idle.”

He does everything he knows to improve gin efficiency. For instance, he designed a system to pull hot air off a generator, through a radiator and into a pipe that blows the air onto cotton coming out of modules and into the gin.

“It's free heat,” he says. “Dry air that doesn't pick up a lot of humidity and saves us a few pennies on ginning costs.”

Last year was the best gin season. “We ginned 3,300 bales on two gin stands. Growers in the area did a good job of defoliating and they made a good crop. A good gin crew also helped.”

Vittetoe has added his own improvements to much of the gin equipment, including safety cages that fit over drive belts to prevent injury. The cages come off easily for maintenance but prevent workers from getting hands caught in the belts.

Vittetoe has “always been in cotton, except for two years in the 1970s “when we switched to corn. We got into a lot of weeds with the corn,” he recalls.

He says cotton acreage is not likely to increase in the area, which is only about an hour's drive from Dallas and subject to the urban sprawl that's devouring much of North Texas' farm land.

“Folks talk about growing cotton,” he says, “but it takes a whole lot of money to get into the cotton business. Strippers and module builders are expensive, and we can't use them for anything but cotton.”

He keeps costs down as much as possible by using older equipment and repairing it himself. “Based on what dealer service departments charge, we make about $75 an hour by making our own repairs,” he says.

He recalls a comment his son made once when they had to repair a tractor the second time. “He said that if we repair the same thing twice we must be making $150 an hour.”

Most of Vittetoe's equipment is well beyond 10 years old; some of it is even older. But he has one relatively new stripper that seems an anomaly among the decade-old tractors.

“It's a stripper that was wrecked,” he says. “Some teenagers, probably, took it for a joy ride and ran it off a cliff.”

He has pictures showing a twisted, misshapen, green and yellow pretzel of a wreck that appeared to be beyond repair. The insurance company declared it a total loss. But Vittetoe made an offer on the wreck and bought it. He repaired what he could and then found used parts around the cotton belt to replace pieces that were damaged too much.

A little paint, some ingenuity and a lot of elbow grease made the machine operational again, without a hint that it was nearly destroyed.

He's tinkering with cotton variety selection, too. “My son, Jeff, had seen some picker cotton up in Altus, Okla.,” he says. “Farmers were planting picker-type cotton, stripping it and making better yields. We tried it.”

He says the first year they ordered more seed than they needed and convinced some neighbors to try some picker cotton, too. They've been pleased with it.

“We get more vigor from the picker varieties,” he says. “It grows off better and we make more cotton.”

He has used Deltapine, FiberMax and SureGro varieties.

“But we still don't do a good job stripping it,” he says. “We tried to use pickers a time or two but it never has worked. If we get a little wet weather we can still strip cotton, but we can't get in with a picker.”

Considering the cost of pickers versus strippers, Vittetoe says he can see no benefit to paying extra for pickers.

He has seen some advantage in a different marketing strategy, however.

“A few years back the Independent Cotton Ginners came out with a marketing program, and we got farmers together at Texas A&M-Commerce, to see what kind of appeal a marketing pool would have. A lot of farmers were interested.”

He hedged his bets a bit and put only half of his cotton in the pool the first year. “But last year, only a few bales that came through our gin did not go into the pool.”

He says the pool charges $1.50 per bale. “We get loan price and then payments on top of that if the market goes up,” Vittetoe says.

“It works better for us because most farmers don't have time to market a crop the way we know we should.”

And leaving marketing to experts leaves time for Vittetoe to spend in his gin and to “keep things running. I can work on tractors and the gin equipment and haul modules. We don't hire much labor for trucking. That helps us stay in business.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com