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Cotton producer tells his side of deer story

At around 9:15 in the morning in mid-August, my phone rang. “I'm David Ciarloni, the farmer who shot the deer,” the caller said, “and I'd like to talk to you face to face about what you wrote.”

A few minutes later, I was in my pickup headed to Memphis for the meeting.

I wrote about Ciarloni in the Aug. 17 issue of Delta Farm Press, although at the time I did not use his name. He's been at the center of a controversy over an article in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. The headline of the article read, “Cotton farmer shoots 40 deer.”

The Commercial Appeal article portrayed Ciarloni as a reckless individual who single-handedly killed deer that were damaging his cotton crop and didn't care what his non-farming neighbors thought about it.

The article gave me the impression that the neighbors in the area were shocked to learn of the incident, were concerned about lead whizzing past their windows and the disposition of the carcasses.

I knew the portrayal of Ciarloni was probably unfair, and the article noted that everything he did was perfectly legal. But in my column, I chastised him for not being sensitive enough to the needs of his neighbors, misguided as they may have been about agriculture.

I figured it was a good example of how not to deal with the general public. I wrote a cautionary column about protecting one's reputation and always keeping community relations in mind.

But upon meeting the plainspoken Ciarloni, I quickly learned that I did not have command of the facts at all.

What wasn't mentioned in any published article was the fact that Ciarloni's rift with his neighbors actually began long before the deer started eating cotton this spring. In fact, the critters Ciarloni has most often had to chase off his property are the two-legged variety, his neighbors, who behave as though the property belongs to them.

Ciarloni has repeated the story time and time again to trespassing neighbors. In 2004, he signed a five-year lease on the land, about 200 acres, which is owned by the Chickasaw Basin Authority.

While the CBA property is government owned, the farmed land is not public property. Ciarloni has a legal and binding lease to farm the land and has considerable capital investment in the property.

He also has the lawful right to protect his investment from liability risks, such as making sure that people are not on the property during any chemical sprays, or causing damage to his property.

He is at liberty to prosecute trespassers as well.

It was a right many of his neighbors apparently scoffed at repeatedly.

It turns out that if Ciarloni is guilty of anything, it's being too nice. Over the three and a half years he has leased the property, his neighbors: removed from the farm a load of dirt dug from a road Ciarloni had just graded.

They also entered the property with a grader to smooth over the theft. They cut fences or climbed farm gates to hunt, ride horses, jog and walk across the property. But whenever he came upon a trespasser, he preferred communication to prosecution.

It did little good. In one exchange with a trespassing neighbor, Ciarloni was told in no uncertain terms, that he would not be farming cotton on the land by the end of the CBA lease, and that the land would never be farmed again.

A herd of hungry deer might have set the stage for exactly that to happen.

An Easter freeze in 2007 injured much of the foliage in the woods surrounding the CBA field.

With food sources dwindling, the deer wandered into Ciarloni's cotton fields and the lure of tender green shoots of cotton. They ate the terminals, chewed on leaves and ran roughshod through the fields. Ciarloni says nearly all 200 acres of his cotton received some damage.

Cotton plants in some parts of fields were chewed to the nub. Mike Dennison, Extension director with the University of Tennessee, estimated more than a 50 percent loss on the farm.

To control the pests, Ciarloni went straight by the book, applying for a depredation permit from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to take out the deer.

More government officials came out to the farm and confirmed the losses. A 14-day permit was issued, with other permits to come if the damage continued.

Six shooters were designated to participate in the control plan, including Ciarloni. They discussed firing direction (to always shoot away from the residences and toward the river) and the disposition of the carcasses, which were to be left in the woods, but as far away as possible from the residences.

TWRA approved the plan.

Ciarloni advised neighbors. They seemed appreciative of Ciarloni letting them know.

But several days into the shoot, his neighbors suddenly became “outraged” and called officials from the CBA to complain. CBA subsequently pulled Ciarloni's permit, though damage was still occurring to Ciarloni's cotton.

Charles Perkins, CBA's chairman, told a reporter, “something will have to be done eventually to deal with the deer population.” But the acknowledgement doesn't help Ciarloni. Deprived of the right to protect his investment, he has begun negotiations to terminate the remaining year left on the lease.

Detractors didn't stop their attacks on Ciarloni, however. A local radio station compared Ciarloni's situation to Michael Vick's dog fighting troubles.

The story in the Commercial Appeal quoted Perkins as saying he heard that Ciarloni had killed the 40 deer all by himself, using a shotgun. Neither is true. Four of the designated shooters carried out the plan. All had rifles.

In the article, CBA-area residents expressed concern that scavengers such as buzzards and coyotes could feed on the carcasses.

But other options, such as burying the carcasses or dressing the deer for needy families were not practical due to extreme heat, the number of deer to be controlled and the fact that many of the 10 cotton fields where shooting was permitted were not contiguous.

The option to leave the carcasses was legal, and agreed upon by TWRA. It was the only way the situation could be handled. The cycle of life and death, especially when an animal population is out of control near humans, isn't necessarily a pretty picture.

That still wasn't the end of it. Arthur Wolff, one of Ciarloni's neighbors wrote a letter to The Commercial Appeal, lambasting Ciarloni for his actions, then piled on farmers in general for their “scandalous subsidies” and chemical misuse.

Another neighbor wrote a letter to the editor complaining that Ciarloni's cotton appeared to him to be undamaged by the deer. I wonder, was his eyesight so remarkable that he did not have to trespass on Ciarloni's farm to make this assessment? And did he know that when terminals on a cotton plant are destroyed, the plant may indeed continue to grow, but its maturity will be delayed, perhaps to the extent that its bolls may never mature by harvest? A cotton plant devoid of harvestable cotton bolls might as well be deer salad.

“David is getting a bad rap over this because a lot of people don't understand that deer have gone from being an animal everybody likes to see to a pest in certain areas,” said John Charles Wilson, a CBA board member who voted against pulling the permit.

Ciarloni has years of experience dealing with people unfamiliar with agriculture. Since 1977, he has successfully farmed the shrinking patches of farmland in Cordova in East Memphis, one of the fastest growing urban areas in Tennessee.

Ciarloni applied his entire arsenal of public relations skill and did everything humanly possible to keep his CBA neighbors informed and educated about his activities on the farm, even purchasing a high clearance sprayer to minimize the need for aerial applications and the potential for drift.

“I've tried to do everything right and politically correct to keep everybody happy. I didn't get into this just wanting to kill a bunch of deer.”

One thing he didn't count on was that many of his neighbors had already made up their minds that the land should not be farmed.

“They are using the deer thing to stop the farming,” Ciarloni contends. “They want it for their own recreation.”

Ciarloni's neighbors might get a lot more than they wish for if that happens, according to Wilson. “It's just a matter of time until the deer come up to the residents' yards and start eating up azaleas and everything else. They're browsers. That's what they do.”

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