George LaCour farms in a part of the world where it’s not much of an exaggeration to say he could grow almost anything he wants. But LaCour likes to grow cotton, and, although these are not the best of times for the crop, he continues to plant as much cotton as the weather and the market will allow. And he continues to hope the crop’s fortunes will rebound soon.
LaCour’s dedication to cotton, his years of service to the cotton industry and his work to protect the water and the land he farms in the lower Mississippi Valley led the editors of Delta Farm Press to name him the winner of the 2015 Cotton Foundations/Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Delta region.
The award is presented annually to a cotton producer from each region of the Cotton Belt served by Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press. The award is made possible through a grant to The Cotton Foundations by Penton Inc., the publisher of the Farm Presses.
Although the alluvial soils he farms in the area of Louisiana bordered by the Mississippi River on the east and the Atchafalaya Basin on the west are some of the most fertile in the world, growing cotton and other crops there can be challenging, according to LaCour.
In 2014, for example, LaCour experienced almost daily rains in late August and September while waiting to harvest his crop. The rains took a heavy toll on the 600 acres of cotton he began picking in early October.
“This is what really hurts,” said LaCour, examining a boll that had hard-locked because of all the moisture as he walked through his fields on Oct. 7. “We have way too many of these to have the kind of yields we would like to have.”
LaCour farms 5,000 acres of row crops in Pointe Coupee Parish in south-central Louisiana. Until this year, he generally grew 1,500 acres of corn, 1,500 acres of cotton and 2,000 acres of soybeans. This year, his cotton acreage was reduced to 600 acres because of the rains that fell during his normal planting window.
He can remember a time when most of south Louisiana was bereft of cotton. “Soybeans put us out of cotton in the early 1980s,” says LaCour. “We brought it back when beans fell out of favor in the late 1980s. Now we’re down to 6,000 acres in the parish. We have nearly 250,000 of soybeans in this area, and all I need is for 10 percent of those to go back to cotton.”
When LaCour first got back into cotton, he was hauling cotton in trailers to Avoyelles Parish, an 80-mile roundtrip. He and neighbors started to build yields and acreage to where they had a good crop in 1990. In 1991, they built the Tri-Parish Gin about a quarter of a mile from the Mississippi River docks near Lettsworth, La., where LaCour’s headquarters is located.
Lettsworth is a tight-knit community as is the staff at Tri-Parish Gin, which LaCour visits while showing a visitor his farming operation. Peggy Grazeffi, the gin manager, started as the gin’s secretary when it opened in 1991. She gradually worked her way up to manager.
“We went through a succession of managers who left for one reason or another,” says LaCour. “Then, we realized we had a perfectly good manager right here in our office. Peggy has done a great job of keeping the gin running smoothly.”
Another reason for LaCour to smile is the addition of his daughter, Catherine, to his farm’s workforce. She returned to the farm last year while waiting to be admitted to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in speech therapy.
“My school plans got put on hold after I graduated from LSU,” she says. “So I decided to come back and work for my dad for a while just to see what it would be like.”
Catherine LaCour is already assuming more responsibility for the cotton harvest, including making sure module tarps are properly fitted and tagged for movement to the gin, and working with the picking crew to keep it on track.
“One of the pickers broke down late yesterday,” says George LaCour. “About 7 last night I told her I was going home and for her to take care of it. She got them going again.”
She also is the farm’s interpreter, working with the H2A program workers who make up most of the farm’s labor. The H2A workers first came to the area to work in the sugar cane harvest. LaCour, who is also a partner in a sugar cane operation, realized they could be helpful with cotton and other row crops.
“We have a veteran work force,” he says. “Some of them have been with us for years. They come in for a specific job, and when that’s finished they go back to Mexico and take care of their families. It’s all legal, and I’m not sure what we would do without them.”
Picking favorite job
LaCour has two other permanent employees. One of them, who is 73 years old, has been with the farming operation for decades. “The other guy — he’s my guy who loves to pick cotton — has been with me 30 years.
“We do not have a large supply of labor in this area,” says LaCour. “I am very fortunate to have two men who have been with me a long time. Some of the H2A guys also do more than one task. My pipe guys, the ones who help me lay pipe for drainage and irrigation, also work in the gin.”
Only 20 percent of LaCour’s farmland can be irrigated. But he is working to improve the watering efficiency and the drainage of his fields, including a 120-acre block that was in corn in 2014. “We leveled this field several years ago,” he said. “Now we’re turning it around so that I can water it the way I want to.”
Irrigation has not been a priority for the farming operation. Being located between two major rivers, his land has a relatively high water table that gets recharge most years. And then there are years like 2014, which LaCour calls the wettest he’s seen in 30 years.
“We haven’t gone two weeks without rain since May 1,” he said. “We rolled out our polypipe and then never put any water in it. In 2014, I’d say we must have received about 20 inches of rain more than we would normally get.”
LaCour’s non-irrigated soybean yields have been running around 70 bushels per acre this year, and his corn finished with an average of 200 bushels per acre. His cotton yields were not what he wanted, but it’s not the first time he’s experienced the vagaries of the weather. He knows firsthand how destructive hurricanes can be.
Eye of the storms
“We had a huge crop when Gustav came in several years ago, we had a lot of cotton blown out on the ground,” he said. “In 2005, Katrina went east of us, which meant the worst of it hit in Mississippi. A month later, Rita came in further west than Katrina and really kicked us.”
It takes more than a hurricane or two to keep the LaCours down. The family first came to the region in 1782 after George’s great-great-great-grandfather received a land grant from the government of Spain. Some of the land remains in the operation today.
“It’s some of the worst land we have,” says George. “We have crawfish on it now. Most of the land from that era is now located in the Morganza spillway.”
After going unused for years, the Morganza floodway was opened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the spring of 2011 to relieve flooding from the Mississippi that reached record levels at Vicksburg, Miss. LaCour had the dubious distinction of having drought conditions on one end of his farm and 10 feet of water on land adjacent to the spillway on the other end.
“Most of that May was a blur,” he said. “We had to take things out of the floodway that we had accumulated over 30 years. We dismantled fuel tanks and sheds and moved equipment while trying to plant cotton and harvest wheat.”
He wound up making a decent corn and bean crop despite the flooding and the drought. The area average 1.75 bales per acre of cotton even though the drought hurt yields.
Not long after that tumultuous season, LaCour became president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, a position that meant seven-hour drives over some of the loneliest roads in the Delta to take care of SCGA business at its offices in Memphis, Tenn.
He has also serves on the Cotton Board, the organization that oversees research and promotion efforts on behalf of farmers, and he chairs the Pointe Coupee Parish Farm Bureau. He is also a graduate of the Louisiana Master Farmer conservation program.
“We’re trying to make sure our soil stays in place by working to improve drainage and the irrigation capability on our fields where feasible,” he says. “A portion of one of his fields has been left in trees as part of a wildlife corridor that provides access to more habitat for the area’s black bear population.
“We also practice minimum tillage wherever the weather permits.” On the day LaCour was interviewed, tractor drivers were rowing up fields that had been in corn and early beans in preparation for planting next spring.
When it comes time to plant, LaCour will run a row conditioner or a roller over the top of the beds and plant cotton, corn or soybeans on the field. Which one depends on the markets and the weather at the time he would typically plant. “We’ll decide in February,” he says. “If it’s too wet to plant corn in March, that land will go to cotton.
“We run a para-till with a bedder in the back to put up our rows in the fall,” he says. “We will leave the beds untouched until we burn down with Roundup and 2,4-D in the spring. We’ll apply Lead-Off as a pre-emergence herbicide about 45 days before planting when possible. Then we’ll use Dual at planting and follow with a layby such as Direx.
Pull them up
“We’ve been trying to make sure we use multiple modes of action with our herbicides ever since glyphosate-resistant pigweed began to show up. Then, whatever came up, we pulled up. I had three guys walking our fields most of the growing season.”
LaCour says it’s been interesting to watch Catherine “develop her own group of friends” in Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations. “These are people she can talk to,” he says. “After a little bit, they realize most of them have the same kinds of problems.”
George can easily relate. “I’ve had an opportunity to meet a lot of great people in the industry through my years as a member and delegate to the National Cotton Council,” he noted. “It has been a great experience.”