It’s not that often when farmers from all regions of the Cotton Belt set foot on the same farm to talk shop and compare notes. But that was the case in mid-August when cotton farmers from California, Arizona, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi visited Virginia and North Carolina farm country as part of the National Cotton Council’s Producer Information Exchange or PIE tour.
The different regions of the Cotton Belt are as different as the accents of the folks that call each state home, but what isn’t different is the myriad of challenges facing all cotton farmers: Low prices, ongoing trade wars, environmental battles and the unrelenting competition from synthetic fiber. It’s in difficult times when cotton farmers need to get together and find solutions to the problems they face, whether they farm in the Southeast, the West, the Mississippi Delta or in Lubbock, Texas. The PIE tour does just that.
It brings cotton farmers together to see other cotton growing regions, meet their colleagues and learn from each other. It’s been said that the cotton industry is like family, and the PIE program is much like a reunion I had with my cousins in San Antonio a few years ago where I reunited with the children of my aunts and uncles. We are family even though we live in different places. And the same is true for cotton farmers from across the Belt. They too are family, because they all share a love for the natural fiber they passionately grow.
PIE is sponsored by Bayer through a grant to The Cotton Foundation. It is now in its 31st year and has exposed nearly 1,200 U.S. cotton producers to innovative production practices in Cotton Belt regions different than their own.
The nine farmers that visited Virginia and North Carolina in the PIE tour were Michael McManus of Shafter, Calif; Rico Clonts of Safford, Ariz.; Scott Vandemann and Kyle Vaughn, both of Lubbock, Texas; Clark Dillard of Forrest City, Ark.; Vonda Kirkpatrick of Tillar, Ark.; Parker Adcock of Holly Bluff, Miss.; Andrew Berryhill of Tutwiler, Miss. and Tyler Clay of Yazoo City. Miss.
Jim Davis of the Council’s staff did a great job shepherding the group. And I was honored they allowed me to tag along for most of the tour. I came away with the sense that these nine cotton farmers developed true comradery during the tour. The group felt like family.
They toured the Amadas Industries peanut equipment plant in Suffolk, Va., and visited the Severn Peanut Company in Severn, N.C. The bulk of their time was spent touring North Carolina farms, Bayer’s breeding facility in Mount Olive, Cotton Incorporated’s world headquarters in Cary and Frontier Spinning Company in Sanford.
They visited the Hyde County farm of Eric Cahoon, himself a participant in a previous PIE tour, where they learned more about the challenges of salt water intrusion on farmland, a problem unique to Hyde County. They visited the Kent Smith Farm in Rocky Mount, Alligator River Farms in Engelhard, 3-B Farms in Pinetown and J.P. Davenport and Son Farms in Pactolus.
All the farmers on the tour are dealing with weather challenges back home: Too much rain in the Mississippi Delta and too little rain in Lubbock. And on top of the mind of all the group was the worry over low cotton prices. But despite the challenges, all nine PIE participants and their North Carolina farmer hosts shared a sense of optimism and a strong bond with the fiber they each love to grow.
Rico Clonts of Arizona brought a unique perspective to the group because he grows both Pima and Upland cotton on irrigated land. All the farmers say they are committed to producing cotton that meets the fiber and quality demands of textile mills, such as Frontier Spinning.
They each came with lots of questions and a willingness to share ideas and information. Hats off to the National Cotton Council, The Cotton Foundation and Bayer for continuing the much needed PIE program.