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Burlesons: Southeast High Cotton Award winner

Ronnie and son Andrew Burleson of Richfield, N.C. are the 2017 High Cotton winners for the Southeast.

Ronnie Burleson and his family were the first farmers to bring cotton back to Stanly County, N.C., in 1991. In the 26 years since, cotton production has grown significantly in that part of the state. The Burlesons’ success and achievements with the crop have grown as well.

“We knew cotton would grow around here, because my dad and other people grew it here before I was born,” Ronniie says. “But the boll weevil put them out of business because they couldn’t control it. The Boll Weevil Eradication program started in North Carolina in 1987, and by 1991 the boll weevil was pretty much gone.”

With the challenges of the boll weevil out of the way, and depressed grain prices at the time, Burleson and his family were looking to crops that would work to  fill the gap. “Cotton happened to be at better prices, so we decided to jump in and give it a whirl,” he says.

That was in 1991. “My dad (Thurman Burleson) was still alive, and he was supportive. He saw us grow our first crop before he died that winter.”

The Burlesons have grown cotton every year since then, and they plan to stay with the crop. Today, Ronnie farms with his son, Andrew, brother Dennis, and Dennis’ son, Aaron. The Burlesons are known for their commitment to soil conservation, adapting the latest technology, and going the extra mile to produce a high yielding, high quality cotton crop.

Their success with cotton and their commitment to the industry has earned Ronnie and Andrew Burleson the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation 2017 High Cotton Award for the Southeast states.

Conservation tillage

“Ronnie epitomizes every virtue for which this prestigious award was founded,” wrote David Ruppenicker, CEO of Southern Cotton Growers, Inc., in a letter supporting the Burlesons for the award.

“He has been extremely successful, and continues to produce bountiful crops on land (hills) not ideally suited for row crop production. He told me once that they invented conservation tillage because plowing the ground unearthed too many rocks.”

When Burleson started farming cotton in 1991, there was a steep learning curve to overcome. “Generally speaking, the traditional cotton areas of North Carolina didn’t grow cotton like we were planning to grow it,” Ronnie explains. “We didn’t know that much about cotton, and it was learn as you go.

“We got as much information as we could from whomever: Extension people, seed people, and chemical people. They were learning along with us in this area. Everybody’s thinking was that everything we did that year was wrong — but we made two-bale cotton. So, we told everybody that we were just going to keep doing things wrong.”

The Burlesons have been no-tilling their grain crops since the early 1960s, so it made sense to no-till their cotton as well. They have been no-till ever since, and Ronnie says they are committed to the practice because it works.

Cover crops

In the past few years, cover crops have been a vital part of their success with cotton. They like a wheat cover crop that they kill before planting cotton into it. Andrew Burleson explains that the standing straw and mulch helps them with erosion control, weed suppression, and moisture retention.

Since the Burlesons don’t irrigate, the wheat cover crop proves particularly beneficial for maintaining crop moisture in hot, dry years. But Andrew says the greatest benefit is that it returns organic matter to the soil.

Fortunately for them, plant bugs haven’t been a problem so far in their part of North Carolina. Resistant weeds have popped up, but not to the extent as in much of rest of the state. “Pigweed is becoming more of a problem, and we stay on top of before it gets out of control,” Andrew says.

The use of pre-emergent herbicides is a vital part of their weed control program. They use Roundup and Valor, then burn down the wheat cover crop two weeks ahead of planting cotton. At planting, they apply another pre-emergent to protect the cotton early. After that, they apply a sequence of Warrant-type products to get them through the season.

“If we need to, we will come in with one shot of Liberty,” Andrew says. “But we don’t really rely on Liberty. We do use it, but we don’t spray all of our acres with it. We tend to spray less than half our acreage with Liberty.”

Early varieties

One important pigweed control method is the planting of early varieties. Both Ronnie and Andrew emphasize that this is one key to their success.

“We have to plant early varieties here to make cotton work,” Andrew says. “Companies are trying to breed more varieties for earliness, so there are some better early varieties available now.”

The Burlesons do much of their own testing when selecting cotton varieties. “We do on-farm variety trials,” Andrew says. “This gives us good data. A cotton variety that works well in Robeson County might not work here. We do research so we know that works and what doesn’t.”

They like to plant a lot of varieties. Last year, they planted 10 different varieties, with the majority devoted to three or four varieties. “We always want to try the new stuff,” Andrew says.

The Burlesons farm a total of 4,200 acres. Last year, they planted 2,400 acres of cotton, 1,200 acres of soybeans, 450 acres of corn, and 150 acres of peanuts. In addition, they have some beef cattle, and last year they had turkey and hog contracts. “We continue to stay diverse,” Ronnie says.

Still, cotton has proven to be the most consistent crop for them. “Our corn yields are variable,” Andrew says. “With cotton, even when we have wet spells and dry spells, there are less peaks and valleys. Cotton is a little more resilient crop.”

Scattered across five counties

The Burleson farming operation is scattered across five North Carolina counties just east of Charlotte — Stanly, Anson, Cabarrus, Rowan, and Richmond. It covers a 50 mile stretch, with some land 43 miles south of their home base of Richfield and some land 10 miles north. Each field is small, with an average size of 11 acres.

“We do a lot of moving up and down the road,” Ronnie says. “We own a good deal of farm land, but we rent probably 75 different plots.”

They have a 10-year average yield of 1,100 pounds per acre. Andrew says the 2016 overall yield was also about 1,100 pounds, with some fields performing much better than others, depending on rainfall patterns.

Through it all, both Ronnie and Andrew are committed to the cotton industry. Andrew is the current president of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association and Ronnie is a past president. Both are active in Farm Bureau, Ronnie served on the Southern Cotton Growers board from 2009 to 2014. Andrew serves as a National Cotton Council delegate, and is one of two members of the American Cotton Producers. He has also served on the board of Southern Cotton Growers since 2015.

The Burlesons have been instrumental in the expansion of cotton in their part of North Carolina. In 1996, they helped form Rolling Hills Gin, which helped spur additional cotton acreage in the region. They are partners in the gin, and their cousin, Wes Morgan, is the manager.

Ronnie and wife Terry have two children and three grandchildren. In addition to son Andrew, they have a daughter, Ashley. Andrew and his wife, also named Ashley, have three children: daughter Georgia, and sons Michael and Matthew.

Faith is important to both Ronnie and Andrew Burleson. Both father and son are active members of New Mount Tabor United Methodist Church..

Both Ronnie and Andrew are N.C. State graduates; Ronnie studied agronomy and Andrew majored in agronomy with a minor in ag business. Ronnie has been farming since 1971, while Andrew has been farming since 1999.

For the 26 years he has grown cotton, Ronnie has always been willing to share his knowledge with other growers who are interested in the crop. “Years ago, when we got in the business, we found that there were a lot of helpful people in the industry,” Ronnie explains. “People try to help you. The first year I started growing cotton, I learned more in that one year than I learned in any year of school. Growing cotton is totally different than growing a grain crop — you have to relearn your thinking process about how the crop grows.”

Ronnie says he is still learning, and that he is going to stay with cotton. “Cotton is a perennial, and that presents a lot of challenges. That’s a good thing. I enjoy the challenges, and at the end of the day, the effort you put toward it ends up giving a return that you are much appreciative of. So, yeah, we plan to stick with cotton.”

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