Veteran farmers, innovators, marketers, industry leaders are all apt descriptions of the 27th Class of High Cotton winners.
These producers, recognized annually by Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation, are honored for growing quality, sustainable U.S. cotton.
The 2021 honorees, nominated and selected from across the Cotton Belt, are as follows: Southeast- Jerry Lee Hamill, Enfield, N.C.; Mid-South- Doug Scott, Sikeston, Mo.; Southwest- Robbie Robbins, Altus, Okla.; and Western- Hansen Ranches, San Joaquin Valley, Ca.
This year's High Cotton winners credit crop rotation, technology, field variety trials, and soil health management, along with their families and employees for their success.
Two of the winners have been producing cotton for more than half-a-century: Hamill, 52 years and Robbins, 62.
Hamill, who aims for production perfection, said adapting to change is the key to longevity.
"I want everything right. I want it as near perfect as we can do it. I don't like anything halfway done," Hamill said. "If you're going to take the time, the initiative, and the funds to do anything, then let's do it correct and to the best of your ability."
Hamill farms about 4,000 acres of Upland cotton, soybeans, peanuts, and corn and runs beef cattle on his North Carolina operation.
Robbins, who produced his first cotton crop as a junior in high school, credits variety trials, irrigation, and cutting costs as success factors on his Oklahoma farm. Early in his career, he said, Extension agents played a significant role.
"They helped young farmers grow, learn and do better," he said. Robbins began with a 5-acre plot, now farms 6,000 acres of cotton and 3,000 acres of wheat.
Scott is no rookie to farming either. He's been producing Upland cotton in Missouri for the last 40 years, where he said each year brings its own challenges.
"There's a lot of variables you cannot control, so you better do a pretty darn good job on the ones you can control," Scott said. "The weather can make you look like a fool, and it can make you look like a genius. And a lot of times it's in the same day."
Scott grows 4,600 acres of cotton rotated with corn and soybeans.
While Hamill, Robbins and Scott produce Upland varieties, brothers Phil and Erik Hansen, and cousin, Nis Hansen, produce Pima cotton. The Hansen family grew Acala and Upland cotton until the 1980s when they made the switch. Today, they produce 10,000 acres of Pima on their California farm.
"It was pure economics for us," Phil said. "We were just trying to see if we could grow something that would provide us a better return on our investment."
Pima cotton has proven to be a good fit in their heavy soils and climate conditions.
"We can make four-bale cotton out here," Phil said.
The Hansens, fifth-generation farmers, also grow pistachios, almonds, pomegranates, and safflower on their 20,000-acre operation.
Hamill sites variety selection as a key component of cotton production.
"The varieties get better every year. The technology is just outstanding," he said.
"In eastern North Carolina, you have to get the variety to match your land, and that is critical in some of the land we work. We have some deep sand and we have some sandy Norfolk that is great peanut land. And we have some land that is holding the world together."
For the last 20 years, field variety trials have been vital to Robbins' production success. He said they help determine the best fit for his sandy to clay-loam soils.
Robbins' full-field trial ranges from 40 to 50 acres with replicated applications through a half-mile field. He said they are a big help.
Scott echoed their sentiments. "We've been able to consistently raise good yielding cotton, especially with some of the new varieties and technology," he said.
While the 2020 crop struggled due to wet planting conditions, Scott said the two previous crops were much better.
"Our 2018 crop had been the best we'd ever had, and then 2019 topped it," he said.
On the Hansen's farms, cotton is typically followed by a cereal crop then rotated to corn, alfalfa or sorghum. They also rotate with safflower, which Phil admitted is not a moneymaker, but its deep roots benefit the soil ahead of cotton.
"Safflower helps the ground quite a bit," he said. "It kind of dries it out and opens up the soil."
Following safflower, the Hansens deep rip, put up large borders and flood the fields for about 30 days during September and October.
"Cotton does really well after we do this," Phil said.
Irrigation efficiency is also vital to production success. Robbins flood irrigates from canals with water from the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District, a lake located about 18 miles north of Altus.
"Irrigation's been key," Robbins said. He drip-irrigates 800 of his cotton acres.
Tillage practices also play a role in production success. Scott selects practices based on soil type and weather. But whether no-till or low till, he tries to keep it to a minimum.
"We have tried forever to come up with a system to eliminate stalk shredders. They're just so high maintenance and expensive. We bought some bedder finishers."
Scott’s intentions are to eventually eliminate all of their hippers, bed conditioners, stalk shredders, and stalk pullers. And, he offered up the caveat, “if it works.”
Hamill strip-tills most of his cotton ground.
"For our cotton and corn, we realized that so much of the land needed to be ripped under because it compacts so easily. We rip at least 90% of our cotton and corn land every year, right in front of the planter," he explains.
Scott stopped tilling 35 years ago, a decision that saves him money and time. "There was no way I could till all of the land because of labor and time. It would take twice as much land and three times as much money."
The 2021 winners acknowledge their success is not of their own. Family and faithful employees play an important role, along with leadership roles within their communities and the industry.
The Hansens regularly host the National Cotton Council's annual Producer Information Exchange, or PIE Tour.
"We do that to expose ourselves to other ideas," Erik said. "It's good to communicate with other people in your industry and you may learn something about ginning or irrigation that you didn't know."
Four unique cotton farms come from distinctly different production environments varying in production practices and management philosophies but share a common goal of farming sustainably. This defines the 27th Class of High Cotton winners.
The 2021 winners will be honored individually rather than at the annual High Cotton Breakfast in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, due to COVID-19 concerns. Farm Press looks forward to honoring each of them in their hometown.
Also, join Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation for a livestream presentation of the 2021 High Cotton awards, March 23, 1 p.m. CDT. Farm Press will stream from four locations across the U.S. and recognize each grower/operation. Follow this link for more information.