Any farm writer who has plied this trade for more than a handful of droughts and a bin buster crop or two can recall more than a few farmer interviews that progressed about as smoothly as a root canal performed with a twenty-penny nail and no Novocain.
South Plains, Texas, farmer Don Marble wouldn't fit in that category.
Only the constraints of time, appointments to keep and the limitations of an aging reporter's arthritic writing hand prevented us from filling several notebooks with snippets of Marble's recollections of crops made and abandoned, markets soaring and crashing and farm legislation strengthened and watered down.
He made his first crop more than 50 years ago and recalls that a bumper cotton yield in 1947 finally brought his family out of the Depression that lingered in the rural south long after other parts of the country had begun to enjoy a post-war recovery.
“We made enough that year to dig an irrigation well,” Marble recalled from the Marble Brothers Farms office near South Plains. “1948 was dry but we made a crop on irrigation.”
He said the 2004 planting season started off like the 1949 crop, plenty of planting moisture. “We made a good crop that year,” he said.
“We had good planting moisture back in 1980. Rainfall had been abundant in 1979 and we had good rains the following winter, in January, February and on into April. We used a four-wheel-drive to get some field work done.”
Conditions went south in a hurry.
“Temperature hit 109 degrees on June 3 and it stayed hot all summer. That remains the hottest year on record. The heat didn't back down until the first of October.”
Marble said early crop prospects made a bin buster look almost certain.
“It was like every seed came up twins,” he said. “Plants just jumped out of the ground. But no rain fell after we planted and then the heat hit. In skip-row cotton, plants didn't get more than six or eight-inches high. We made one small boll in the top of the plant.”
Marble said even with no chance of making a decent return, farmers still had to harvest. “We had to strip the cotton to qualify for insurance coverage,” he said. “In a lot of places we went three feet between bolls. I think we averaged 30 pounds per acre.”
Risk Management Agency
Marble turned his attention to current issues and remarked that he's glad to see the current Risk Management Agency trying to improve coverage.
“They're trying to reduce the amount of money insurance companies get for administering the program,” he said. “Our Plains Cotton Growers Inc., is working on it.
Good coverage makes sense, he said. “Without multi-peril crop insurance, we wouldn't be in business.”
As he went into the 2004 planting season he was concerned about the cost of growing cotton. “Making a cotton crop is tough,” he said. “We need rain so we can avoid irrigating. Without rain we spend a fortune to water cotton. Fuel prices keep going up and natural gas has held steady — at the top. And cotton prices remain under pressure.
“When prices get cheap, our farm bill is our only salvation.”
Marble recalls involvement in several farm bill debates, consulting and advising some legendary Texas legislators, including George Mahon and Larry Combest.
He says farm legislation in the 1970s focused on limiting payments to farmers. “Debates indicated the government was tired of making direct payments to farmers,” Marble said. “George Mahon helped get a good bill through.”
He's always advocated a strong farm program. “It's a miracle that we have the program in effect today,” he said, “and it is a tribute to Texas congressmen. They cooperated with PCG and lobbyists and worked with the U.S. Senate to get what we needed in the farm bill. I didn't think we'd ever get a direct payment. It's a good program.”
Holding onto it may prove equally difficult, he said.
“Whether we can continue to protect the program is anybody's guess,” he said. “We have got to stay awake all the time. There are things out there we need to know about.”
Farmers have more folks working for them than many realize, however. “A lot more key legislators are working to protect it (the farm bill) than most folks realize. Seniority is so important with farm legislation. And we have been fortunate to have good support for agriculture in the U.S. Congress.”
Trade qualifies as one of those things farmers need to know about, he said. “The World Trade Organization ruling, for instance, is not just about cotton, but I don't think the United States will allow a country like Brazil to tell us how to run our business.
“When we get out of this country we meet people who would sell their souls for anything. Their only interest is what they can get for themselves.”
He said in the long run the WTO ruling will have little influence on farm programs. “But interests inside the United States may use this issue to amend the law.”
Trade issues mean farmers have to know about markets, too, Marble said. “I do my own marketing. I tried associations but I've always preferred to sell my cotton myself. I have a cotton gin and everything that goes through it is our cotton. We don't gin for anyone else so all we gin is for sale.”
He said buyers offered some attractive acreage contracts when cotton prices were high.
Marble recalls several marketing opportunities, hit and missed, over the past 50 plus years.
“My brother and I rented a farm in 1951,” he said. “When we harvested, cotton was 55 cents a pound. We held out for 43 cents.”
He fared better in 1973. “I sold at harvest for 60 cents and better. My landlord held his share and sold later for 40 cents.”
Marble recalled that in 2000 conventional wisdom held that cotton prices would rise. “I came back from the production and mechanization conference and knew that cotton was not going up. I sold, got out at 47 cents and 48 cents before prices fell to 30 cents.”
He said cotton going into the loan will earn just what the loan pays. “That's all we'll get out of it,” he said.
“But most of the time, if we handle it right, we can find a window of opportunity to sell cotton. But we have to stay awake all the time.”
He's used the options market to set a price floor. “It's good insurance,” he said. “I always hope I do not make a dime on the put. I want to get the money out of the market. If I make money on the put, I'll need it.”
Marble said pricing cotton has become more difficult as the industry evolved into an international market. “For instance, China manipulates the market big time.”
Marble has spent much of his career tracking farm legislation, markets and weather patterns, but he's also watched and adopted technology that improves efficiency. He started with that first irrigation system back in 1947. Now, he waters a bit less than half of his 5,500-acre crop.
“I wouldn't have believed 20 years ago that I'd have to turn the pivots on and water all season,” he said. “I can water it but I can't give it all it needs. If I get some rain in season, I'll do OK.”
Marble said some wells that used to provide 600 to 800 gallons pump no more than 100 to 250 now that the water table has declined. “And it costs a lot to drill another well.”
He's using LEPA (Low Energy Precision Application) irrigation to conserve as much water as possible. He uses drag hoses and furrow dikes on every other row and configures furrows in a circle. “Using circle furrows is the only way to work with drag hoses,” he said.
He's also converted to Roundup Ready cotton. “I parked the cultivators and rarely use them.”
He said before Roundup Ready cotton, silverleaf nightshade caused big problems in cotton. “We would hoe in June and give cotton a chance to get ahead of the nightshade,” he said. “By the end of August, the weeds would be coming through the canopy. The nightshade used up a lot of water and nutrients.
Cleans with Roundup
“With Roundup Ready I don't see that any more. And I put cotton on fields with vine and weed problems where I couldn't grow it before. I cleaned those fields up with Roundup.”
He uses several varieties, including DPL 434 and FM 989. “I can't harvest 5,500 acres of cotton in a day, so I have to use cotton that will stay open in the boll for up to two months.”
He's stayed with stripper cotton. “I can't make a case for picker cotton in this area. It cost too much money for a picker and we can pick clean cotton with strippers now.”
He plants dryland cotton, about 2,275 acres, in a 2-in-1 skip pattern. He's also cut back on tillage the last three years. “I used to go the whole route with tillage operations. I'm not quite minimum tillage now, but I've cut back a lot.”
Marble runs a stalk cutter after harvest, beds up and then rips the middles. He sprays fertilizer and Treflan then runs the stalk cutter again to incorporate the herbicide. “Then I wait to plant.”
He rod weeds just before planting.
“I used to tear up the ground, cut stalks, chisel, disk, spray fertilizer and Treflan, field cultivate and then bed, flatten the beds, rod weed and plant.
“I do about half as much tillage now. I use about half as much diesel and a lot less equipment. I have some machinery I haven't moved in three years. I also need less labor.”
Before we took our reluctant leave and moved on to another West Texas farm, Marble escorted us to a back office for a peek at his photo gallery, a wall of pictures with legislators, most of whom helped push needed farm legislation through a sometimes reluctant Congress. Mahon is there, as is Stenholm, Combest, along with several U.S. presidents including Jimmy Carter and George Bush.
The gallery may be a point of pride but Marble is not boastful of the role he may have played in consulting with key legislators. Mostly he expresses gratitude for the work dedicated public servants have accomplished in an effort to give him and other farmers an opportunity to be successful.