Farm Press and the Cotton Foundation presented their 25th class of High Cotton Award winners at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis, Tenn. Four cotton growers were selected from different regions of the cotton belt:
- Frank Rogers III, Southeast States, Bennettsville, S.C.
- Steve Stevens, Mid-South States, Tillar, Ark.
- Dahlen Hancock, Southwest States, New Home, Texas.
- Cannon Michael, Western States, Los Banos, Calf.
“We are here to honor some of the best farmers in the country,“ said Farm Press Senior Content Director Ron Smith at the awards breakfast.
Growers are nominated and selected based on production yields and quality, but also their techniques and management practices used to grow their cotton.
“The High Cotton awards were conceived with the idea of recognizing what growers are doing to achieve goals of consistently higher yields and premier quality cotton while instituting practices that protect the environment,” said Farm Progress Senior Vice President of Operations Greg Frey. “High Cotton winners exemplify the best of the best.”
Prior to presenting the awards, Dr. Bill Norman, vice president of the National Cotton Council, also addressed the winners. “Since 1994, this program has given much-deserved attention to cotton producers who have an environmental ethic and who are committed to achieving sustainability. This year’s recipients use cover crops and crop rotation, not just for soil and water retention but for improving soil health. They are also maximizing irrigation efficiency while simultaneously trying to reduce runoff of water and nutrients — all efforts helping to reduce U.S. cotton’s environmental footprint.”
Norman also recognized each of the winners as advocates for the cotton industry. “All four recipients are active in farm organizations to ensure their voices are heard at the local, state and national level.”
Upon receiving his award, Southeast States winner Frank Rogers III began by thanking Farm Press. “When I started farming in1979, the Southeast Farm Press and Delta Farm Press were very important publications for me — and they remain so to this day.”
He recognized his wife of 40 years, Cheryle. “The life of a farm wife is not easy. She’s stuck with it for 40 years, and I appreciate that, and our son coming back to farm has been helpful as well.”
He thanked the National Cotton Council. “Honestly, no cotton farmer would have survived from 1979 to present without the efforts of the council and Southern Cotton Growers and other organizations.”
Mid-South States winner Steve Stevens, who converted part of his acreage to a Discovery Farm, began by thanking the NRCS for their part in getting the Discovery Farm going, along with Mike Daniels of University of Arkansas and Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist.
“Bill and his crew have worked so many hours on the Discovery Farm, trying to answer questions to problems; for example, water not infiltrating through the soil, and asking the questions, ‘What do we do? How do we fix it?’ And when we would put a fix in place, asking, ‘Why does it work? That’s been a big part of this project.”
Through the Discovery Farm project, Stevens says, they’ve not only proven cotton can be grown more sustainably, but 6 cents a pound cheaper cotton than in conventional farming. “It’s an important message to get out to growers that we can be sustainable and still make money.”
Stevens also thanked his wife, Darlene, for her support, bookkeeping, and allowing him to travel and present the data from the Discovery Farm to groups with an interest in sustainability.
Southwest States winner Dahlen Hancock, who almost didn’t make the awards due to several canceled and delayed flights, compared his journey to farming. “The day that I had yesterday is who we are — not just as farmers, but each of you in the industry. Being in this industry is not for the faint of heart. It’s challenging times. You get up each day and you head out thinking, I’ve got planned out what I’m going to do today. You go 100 different directions to maybe get to your destination or whatever you started. That’s the way yesterday was, which is pretty typical of farming.”
Hancock also recognized his family and the National Cotton Council, but specifically mentors like his grandfather, D.W. Hancock, and his father, Donald Hancock, along with community neighbors. “These people got me down the road to where I am today.”
He, too, thanked his wife, Jodey, for her support so he can travel and serve in the industry. “And I love having my sons back farming and working with them to figure out how we are going to survive, how we are going to move forward.”
Hancock also serves on the Cotton U.S.A. Sustainability Task Force. “I’ve got a few folks that have said, ‘I think this sustainability thing is a little niche, and it will eventually go away,” he says, followed by a chuckle. “No. I know it’s not. That’s why I’m wanting to be part of it. It’s our future. We’ve not only got to be more sustainable, but tell our story.”
The final award was presented to Western States winner Cannon Michael. “I know this award is given as an individual award, but it truly could not happen without a lot of people behind me,” he said. He specifically thanked his wife, Heidi, who was in the crowd, explaining that the first flowers he ever gave her were cotton blooms.
“Cotton is one of those crops I’ve really loved since I’ve gotten into the industry,” he said. But he called the decline in cotton acres in California a cautionary tale, dwindling from 1.8 million acres to just 200,000 acres.
“We’ve rebounded a bit, but we’ve lost a lot of infrastructure — 60-plus gins down to less than 20, and now probably an industry that can never be brought back to being close to what it was.” Michael blames some of the decline on the disconnect between the consumer and what they buy, both food and fiber. “It’s great to have things like Farm Press and the National Cotton Council to tell our story, but I also see opportunities for us to tell the story of sustainability.”
Michael, as a sixth generation farmer, added that he struggles with the misconceptions about farmers and their lack of sustainability practices. “We’ve been doing it a long time and anybody who thinks we would do anything to harm our soil or our employees or ultimately the consumer, I don’t know how that narrative is out there, but it definitely is.
“Agriculture has got to start talking a different language — we’ve got a language with which we talk to each other — but unless we can translate that for the other folks, we are not going to make a dent in this wave of perception. Collaboration is the key.”
Ultimately, Michael says, agriculture has got to find new ways to connect with the consumer. “What better product than a natural fiber that people can feel good about wearing, not coming on the backs of children and slave labor and the terrible things happening in other parts of the world. We’ve got to tell this cotton story that we’ve got right here at home.”