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29th High Cotton Class credits soil health, varieties and family for success

Four cotton farmers from across the Cotton Belt were nominated and chosen as the 2023 High Cotton Award honorees for their sustainable production of U.S. cotton.

Farm Press Staff

February 28, 2023

5 Min Read
2023 High Cotton Award winners: Southeast-Rusty Darby; Midsouth- Kody Beaver; Southwest- Williams Family Farms (Mark, Ryan, Russel and Reagan); and Western- Aaron Barcellos. Farm Press Staff

The 2022 cotton season tested the 29th Class of High Cotton Award winners, but it didn’t thwart the production of their upland and Pima cotton varieties across the Cotton Belt. Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation are honoring four producers and their families for their perseverance, determination and leadership sustainably producing high-quality cotton with consistent yields.  

The 2023 High Cotton winners are Southeast- Rusty Darby; Midsouth- Kody Beavers; Southwest- Williams Family Farms (Mark, Ryan, Russel and Reagan); and Western- Aaron Barcellos.  

This year’s winners credit cover crops, rotation, variety selection, equipment, family and employees, as the primary success factors on their farms.  


For Chester County, S.C., farmer Rusty Darby, the 2023 High Cotton winner for the Southeast, the keys to success are earliness and understanding the physiology of cotton. He stressed good help is irreplaceable in making top yields. 

“If we’re picking cotton late, we’re not picking as good a crop as we could have,” Darby said. “If we’re picking cotton early, we’ve got a pretty good crop. I like to defoliate in mid-September to be considered early. We push the envelope planting really hard. I check soil temperatures; 65 degrees is what’s called for. 

“I’ve been able to get pretty good results at 62.5 if I have a decent forecast. I’m going to be ready to plant cotton on April 10. I’ve got all of my inputs. I’ve got everything ready.  I’ve got the ground ready. Weather conditions may not let me, but I’m ready. If the weather does let me, I want to go. To be able to get a good stand, that early, cool germ tests are critical to me. We need a lot of vigor in the seed.”  

Reed Rogers, who is married to Rusty’s daughter Julia, is a partner in the operation. Darby’s wife, Cindy, does the books. Darby is quick to recognize the contributions of brothers Willie “Skinny” Hardin and Johnny “Hooker” Hardin “Hooker and Chase Simmers to his operation. 


Kody Beavers, the 2023 Delta High Cotton Award winner, farms 3,000 acres in northeast Louisiana with his wife, Melanie, and their partner Jack Dailey. The young farmer relies heavily on technology and cooperative efforts to produce his cotton crop. 

“I love growing cotton. I would have the whole farm in it if it made sense,” he said. "Cotton in comparison to grains is more of an art form. It's a challenge and you can have some fumbles and recover from it. With cotton, you have to work at it and kind of almost baby it. You can do different things to have different results throughout the season. It keeps you in tune with what's going on with the crop.” 

He said at the end of the season, hopefully, “You're going through a sea of white. It's just a very good feeling whenever you've got to the end and have had a good crop, because you've got a lot of hard work involved in it." 

Heavy rains hit the area hard in August and resulted in a huge loss in yield, but good cotton prices softened that blow just a bit. 

Cover crops, variable rate application and a keen eye on conservation efforts keep Beavers' operation on track.


Williams Family Farms is Southwest’s 2023 High Cotton honoree. For four generations, the Williamses have produced high-quality cotton near Farwell, Texas, and within the last decade, expanded 150 miles north to Dalhart. The farm includes Mark and his sons Ryan, Russell, and Reagan, all serving in various capacities to make the farm successful. 

Along with cotton, the Williamses produce corn, wheat and sorghum on about 18,000 acres. Their homeplace has been in the family for nearly a century. Ryan says, although cotton is a finicky, tough crop to grow, it’s a commodity that means a lot to his family.  

Ryan says this award belongs to his dad. “He’s the one who deserves it. He's put more time and effort into the cotton industry than any farmer I know.”

Mark spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s in Washington D.C. fighting for crop insurance and working on political issues for cotton producers. He served in various leadership positions such as president of Plains Cotton Growers and the Southwest Council of AgriBusiness and chairman of American Cotton Producers, along with numerous National Cotton Council board positions. 

The Williamses credit variety selection, water, timing and equipment as key aspects of their production success. They primarily plant Deltapine cottonseed and have begun to convert their irrigated acres from  30-inch rows to 40s to increase irrigation and farm management efficiency.  


California cotton farmers like Aaron Barcellos have good reason to walk with their heads high. The extra-long staple cotton they produce in the West continues to gain popularity with large brands willing to pay premium prices for the fiber crop. 

Barcellos is part of a small cadre of U.S. cotton growers capable of producing high-quality Pima cotton used in fine linens and clothing. He is also this year’s Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the West. 

The family farm that Barcellos owns in partnership with several family members is called “A-Bar Ag Enterprises,” a nod to Aaron’s father, Arnold. Aaron is a partner in the farming operation with his son Alec, his brother, Aric, and Aric’s son, Aric Jake. 

Aaron has long been active in cotton associations and various agricultural organizations. He is a past chairman of The Cotton Board, current chairman of the Tomato Products Wellness Council, and sits on various other commodity and water district boards.  

He is a board director for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, an organization designed to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurements to sustainable cotton production and drive continuous improvements in key sustainability metrics. 

The 2023 High Cotton Award winners were recognized at the High Cotton Breakfast, Feb. 24, during the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, Memphis, Tenn. 

High Cotton Breakfast

The 2023 honorees were recognized Feb. 24, at the High Cotton Awards Breakfast in Memphis, Tenn., in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show. Follow this link to read more about what each winner had to say about cotton production, the industry and what receiving this award means to them and their family. Also, read about the Williams Family Farms hometown, courtside celebration.

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