When Justin Cariker left his Dundee, Miss., family farm in the mid-1980s to pursue a marketing degree at Mississippi State University, he was happy to be leaving the tractors, cotton pickers, dirt and insects behind. “I was finally getting out of here,” Cariker recalled thinking.

But between that moment and the day he earned his degree from MSU, something rekindled his passion for farming, something he can't quite put his finger on. Maybe he needed some time away, or perhaps his college experience filled him with confidence. But when he returned home to Dundee, Miss., in January 1989, he was ready to farm. “Once I came home, I fell in love with it again.”

The road since has had its share of bumps and bounty, but somehow, you get the idea that Cariker is thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. “Every day is a new challenge,” he said from his office inside Hendrix Petro, a fuel company venture owned by the Carikers, just off Old Hwy. 61 in Tunica.

Cariker is the Mid-South's 2007 High Cotton award winner, given annually to a farmer for his achievement in profitability, quality and environmental stewardship. In a nomination package, Bobby Bassi new ventures manager, Syngenta, said Cariker is intent on “building a more sustainable approach to farming for optimizing inputs, impacting the environment and the bottom line.”

“A commitment to efficiency is the cornerstone of Justin's operation and manifests itself across the myriad of soil types found on his farm,” added Art Smith, area agronomic crops agent, MSU.

Cariker farms 4,000 acres of cotton and 1,000 acres of soybeans, his farm fields stretching out for 25 miles along the Mississippi River, from the Robinsonville casinos to Dundee. He farms with his father, Clarence and brother, Chuck. Cariker and his wife Shelby, have two sons, Connor and Leland.

When Cariker came back to the farm in the winter of 1989, the majority of the farm was planted to soybeans. Cariker immediately started planting more cotton noting, “It's hard to generate enough money on 2,000 acres of soybeans to pay for your combines, insurance, worker's comp and all your overhead.”

The key to a profitable bottom line each and every year are consistent high yields and good quality, which Cariker does with good management, irrigation and some help from Mother Nature.

About 65 percent of Cariker's cotton is irrigated by furrow, or by one of the farm's eight center pivots. His philosophy is to start early, usually in June, before his cotton is too stressed and starts throwing off fruit.

“I remember over the years looking at tail ditches after furrow-irrigation when the ditch would be full of squares. Since we've started watering earlier, I'm not seeing that. That's one reason why our yields are coming up. We've picked some irrigated cotton this year that's going 2 bales to 2 and a quarter bales.”

That's a little off from huge crops of the last two years, which produce irrigated yields of 1,300 pounds on some fields and dryland yields of 1000 pounds. This year, the mid-summer heat shriveled the crop, and non-irrigated cotton yields are coming in around 600-650 pounds.

Profits are sure to fall off when costs skyrocket and yields return to average. But Cariker stresses that he'll never scrimp on the critical inputs.

“We watch our inputs closely, but we never give up on yield. Lime costs $40 an acre, that's 80 pounds of cotton at 50 cents. ”

Cariker has reduced some of his cost-of-production risk with the help of Syngenta's AgriEdge program which generates a cost-per-acre for Cariker at any given time during the season. “Once you get to a certain dollar figure, they go to a cost-share with me. It helps in a bad year like this year. I use virtually 100 percent Syngenta products, including herbicides.”

Cariker is also working with the company on variable-rate defoliation and plant growth regulator applications on some acres. “I'm not as sold on variable-rate insecticide, because insects can move around. We use the infrared satellite images from Syngenta to create variable-rate prescriptions via a Web site. It's small scale right now. We're still testing, but I can see a benefit in putting our products where they're needed.”

Farm profits are also affected by factors off the farm, such as cotton marketing, a concept not lost on Cariker. He is president of the board of directors of Signia Cotton Cooperative, sponsored by Syngenta and Uster Technologies, a fiber testing instrumentation manufacturer. After only a year, Signia has significantly expanded its membership and enrolled acres.

“There is no overhead, no bricks and mortar. We outsource everything, including our local field representatives and marketing agent.”

In time, Cariker hopes that Signia will be a brand of cotton desired by the mills. Information on chemical use, variety, irrigation, etc., would stay with any Signia cotton bale from the gin to the textile mill. Signia cotton bales can also be grouped by whatever characteristic or set of characteristics a mill wants. “For example, we can make sure that every bale that a denim mill needs has the appropriate quality, and the same for high quality.

“We're just trying to build some awareness for Signia cotton, not just produce a commodity. We want to build a relationship.”

Growers and ginners for the Signia brand follow certain quality protocols for production, ginning and handling of cotton. “We're trying to set our standard as a 31-3, where loan is a 41-4. We're emphasizing quality cotton.”

Steps to preserve quality begin with defoliation, says Cariker. “We scout each field individually to determine defoliation rates and try to pick in a timely manner. We run three pickers, two six-row John Deere 9976s and one four-row, John Deere 9960. Each picker has a boll buggy. That allows us to build our modules on good, solid ground. That helps because the gin doesn't have to pick cotton up in the mud.”

The Tunica Gin has installed a gin process control system called IntelliGin, which has helped preserve the quality that Cariker strives so hard to achieve each year. “Most of the improvement comes on 31 color cotton, where you need to turn that stick machine on to get the premium. It also senses if cotton is a 41. If you don't need the stick machine, it won't waste the lint.”

Cariker markets about 40 percent of his cotton with Signia, 20 percent with another cooperative and 40 percent himself, with the help of a marketing consultant, John Beasley, of Little Rock.

The marketing plan with Beasley “includes a lot of forward contracting and buying back on the board through puts and calls. This year, we sold a lot of cotton at 61 cents.”

Cariker says he couldn't do as good a job of marketing his own crop without the help of his farm manager, Harold Garrison. “He wakes up every day and comes to farm. He's like me being there. We've grown the farm quite a bit in the five years that Harold has been here.”

For Cariker, stewardship of the land and profitability go hand in hand. He is adamant about using products that are more environmentally- and worker-friendly. Winston (Cariker's crop consultant) and I both are pushing it and it's a good practice.

Many of the products Cariker uses are also easy on beneficial insects, which complements the farm's integrated pest management approach.

“Keeping the beneficials around as long as possible can postpone a pesticide application or two. With some of the harsher chemicals, it seemed like once you started applying, you were doing it once every three days. So I don't mind spending a little extra money if it will help me wait a little longer before I have to get back in there.”

The farm purchases its chemicals in bulk containers, most of them closed systems, “so we don't have as many plastic jugs, or boxes to dispose, and we have less potential contact with the chemicals.”

The farm recycles all its rollout pipe. “It's is a time-consuming practice, but we don't need to be piling all that stuff up and burning it,” Cariker said. “People don't need to see that. I think farmers need to do better than that.”

The family's fuel business, Hendrix Petro, run by Justin's brother, Chuck, is promoting the use of biofuel. The company stores a B-99 biodiesel blend (1 gallon of diesel to 99 gallons of biodiesel) in an 8,000-gallon tank on the farm property and splash blends the product for local buyers. Cariker burns B-10 biodiesel blend, processed from waste vegetable oil, in his pickup truck.

Cariker employs a stale seedbed approach to tillage, preparing land in the fall, then putting up the cultivator for the season. He is experimenting with no-till on a buckshot, furrow-irrigated farm.

“We're on the fourth year of the ground not being disturbed at all. We'll probably make 900 pounds this year, but my net dollars are probably three times as much. We don't do anything but run a High Boy and a hooded sprayer through the field.”

Cariker is more that a little wary of going to no-till on his better cotton ground. “Typically, on our mixed ground, we'll Paratill down the row. On our heavier ground, we'll bed it back up. On our lighter soils, we'll run the Paratill, and either bed up in the fall or wait until the spring.

Cariker is on the board of directors at the Tunica County Farm Bureau, is a county director for the Delta Council, and a member of the Soil Conservation district for Tunica County. He's on the board of directors of the Tunica Gin, where he gins 80 percent of his cotton. The rest goes to Three-Way Gin.

Two years ago, Cariker became a member of the National Cotton Council's cotton leadership program, a six-week course designed to develop tomorrow's cotton leaders. Former National Cotton Council chairman Bobby Greene, Servico Gin, Courtland, Ala., and former Cotton Council International president Bobby Carson, a producer from Marks, Miss., are products of the program.

“It made me realize that we have to do more than grow a commodity,” Cariker said of the experience. “We have to make a product that is different from our neighbors.”

Cariker also participated in the NCC's Producer Information Exchange, in which cotton producers visit various regions of the Cotton Belt so see how cotton is grown there. The cotton leadership program and the PIE tour are made possible through grants to the Cotton Foundation from Dupont and Bayer, respectively.

Cariker is also a member of the NCC's Policy Education Program. This class, supported by Syngenta, is made up of producers from across the region who meet twice a year to learn about the procedures and policies the NCC makes and supports.

Like many producers, Cariker is not enjoying the limbo of being between farm bills. “The future of farming scares me. I don't know what they're going to do with the next government program. It makes it difficult to nail down a long-term contract on land.”

Despite the worries, Cariker has never regretted the decision to return to the farm in 1989. When asked why, there is not a hint of hesitation in his response. “I love it.”

Earnheart says Cariker's passion for cotton has had a wide-reaching impact on the community, too. In nominating Cariker for the award, he stated, “Out of my 35 years of consulting in cotton in the Mississippi Delta, I have seen no better cotton farmer, citizen or family man than Justin.”