Larry Ford says you can't move forward if you keep looking back, and nothing's guaranteed.
"Every year is different. You can farm for many years, in my case more than 50, but you haven't farmed this year, yet," said Ford, 74, on a September morning as he watched the round-bale picker move across the field outside Greenwood, nestled in the center of Florida's Panhandle
During his 2018 harvest, Ford's cotton picker caught fire and burned up. A year later, Marlon Franklin, who was driving the picker that September day, made purposeful passes in the field to maintain a clear, harvested path for the young man manning the water truck to get to the picker fast with a ready hose in case things flared again.
The cotton picker catching fire in 2018 was a fluke, a devastating turn for a season, but it wasn't the worst thing that happened to Ford's 2018 cotton. That honor goes to Hurricane Michael, which practically wiped out Ford's 2018 cotton crop, along with that of many growers in the region.
For his leadership in agriculture with a mind to caring for the land, the cotton industry and his more than a bit of endurance against adversity, Ford is the 2020 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award from the Southeast.
Ford has three daughters: Lisa Shiflett, Donna Rogers and Allison Stoutamier. Donna, a CPA, keeps the operation's books. Donna's husband, Rhett, works with Ford's crop consultant Wess Briggs with chemical application and maintains the farm's chemical records and helps with crop planning. Ford's son-in-law Michael Shiflett works with the cattle operation and irrigation and equipment maintenance. Ford has four grandchildren. He has been married to Elizabeth Ann for five years. His previous wife of 45 years, Vivian, passed away in 2010.
In Ford's part of the world, cotton dances well in rotation with peanuts. His typical rotation includes about 1,000 acres of peanuts, 2,000 to 2,400 acres of cotton and 250 to 400 acres of corn. He also has a 125-herd pure bread Brahma cattle operation.
PREPPING FOR COTTON
Ford's next cotton season starts soon after the trucks haul the current year's bales away. In November, he pulls cotton stalks and soil samples and applies lime to correct pH.
Fields to be planted in cotton get a rye cover crop. He shoots for a four-foot-or-better rye stand by March, when he'll start burndown with glyphosate, Valor, Prowl H20 and 2,4-D. He strip tills the rye for planting in mid-April. He was one of the first in the area to start using, and promoting, conservation strip tillage. Preplanting, he'll clean up any pigweeds with gramoxone.
He uses variable rate fertility applications and establishes grass waterways and field borders to manage runoff. In 2019, he planted Deltapine 1646 on irrigated land and 1840 on his dryland. Both got starter fertilizers of 10-34-0 and 28-00-5. Sandy soils will get a top-dress. When cotton squares, he applies additional potash as needed. He'll put out nitrogen through his irrigation system but also uses a coulter system to put nitrogen by the row.
"We have a good scout who gives us a report every week and lets us know whatever we need to do and when, and we do it on a timely basis," Ford said, adding that if weather prevents ground rigs, he calls in a plane.
About 80% of his cotton is under irrigation. Ford farms in water shed and spring basin and under some strict water-use restrictions, he has a consumptive use by the state of water he needs to comply with. He uses soil tensiometer in most fields, which deliver data to his phone to help schedule irrigation. He has retro-fitted some systems with variable rate technology, which conserves water and reduces irrigation costs.
On a typical year that doesn't include a harvesttime natural disaster like a hurricane, his average irrigated cotton yield goes 1,300 pounds per acre with some fields going as high as 1,700 pounds. Nonirrigated fields average 900 pounds to 1,100 pounds, depending on the year.
With his cattle operation, Ford uses a bahiagrass and a sod-base rotation, which helps to boosts his peanut and cotton yields coming off the cows grazing. His rotation is two years cotton and one-year peanuts.
AHEAD OF THE GAME
He said the XtendFlex cotton performs well in his operation. But he has had some escape pigweed in the last two years. Up until then, he was applying a layby of Valor, glyphosate and Diuron. He plans to go back to that layby application for the next cotton season.
For his pre-emergence application, he uses Reflex and Diuron and then comes in with a glyphosate and Dual Magnum. He applies in-season dicamba at least once, and twice as needed.
"The cleaner you can keep a field, the higher the yields and better the grades," he said.
He graduated the University Florida in 1967 and for three years after worked with Farm Credit before returning to Greenwood to start farming with a few hundred acres.
He's traveled the country and world to promote agriculture. He's a longtime leader and past president of the Florida Brahma Association and a director of the National Brahma Breeders Association. He is also a long-serving leader in the U.S. peanut industry, including past president and current board member of the Florida Peanut Producers Association and chairman of the National Peanut Board.
He is president of Tri-states Peanuts and Malone Peanut, LLC and board member of the Jackson County Farm Bureau and is grower advisor for Staplcotn, in which he markets his cotton. In 1963, he was one of the state vice presidents of Florida's FFA. He's a deacon at First Baptist Church in Malone, Fla., where he and his wife are members.
Wes Briggs has been Ford's crop consultant for 25 years and is well-known in the region.
"Over my 32 years of row crop production, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many outstanding farmers, and Larry Ford is at the top of the list. Larry has always been proactive and ahead of the game adopting new farming practices and technologies. Larry’s passion, dedication and knowledge for cotton farming really sets him apart. His commitment to achieve highest yields and attention to detail are evident in all his crops and he has always unselfishly participated in on-farm trials, working with university, extension and ag company professionals," Briggs said.
"I can think of no other cotton grower that is more worthy of this prestigious award. What an outstanding award for an equally outstanding person to represent the cotton industry," Briggs said.