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High Cotton: Danny Locke

Danny Locke is known as much as a wrangler and horseman as he is recognized as a successful cotton farmer.

For years he has donated his horses, mules and wagoneering skills to a historical program in the Madera, Calif., schools that takes fifth graders on wagon train expeditions to relive history.

Most of the journeys have been in California, but three years ago, it was a 30-day wagon train trip through West Texas to retrace the route of a 1850s gold prospector bound for California.

The 71-year-old Fresno County, Calif., farmer — this year’s Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the West — says he is often “roped into” volunteering his time for the wagon train, but the quick, hearty chuckle that follows makes you believe it wasn’t hard to get him to say “yes.”

Locke could also be called an easy mark when it comes to the family’s Pikalok Farming operation along the banks of the San Joaquin River in Fresno County, Calif., which is involved in a lot of research and demonstration projects.

The 1,570-acre farm has long hosted University of California and San Joaquin Cotton Board statewide variety trials.

For seven years, the California Sustainable Cotton Project has been located at Pikalok to demonstrate more environmentally friendly cotton growing. Kevin Long, Calcot field representative, says the Locke family readily accepted the challenge to reduce pesticide and herbicide use and, subsequently, farming costs in the sustainable ag project.

It’s not an organic cotton demonstration, but one that incorporates practices such as hedgerows to increase the populations and diversity of beneficial insects and also to serve as a trap crop to attract pests away from crops.

The bottom line for the sustainable cotton project has been increased yields and better quality cotton.

Long says Pikalok cotton, long marketed through Calcot, has been sold at a premium over other Western cottons of similar qualities.

For a decade, Danny and the family farm partners have captured and recycled drain water. They installed the first high horsepower, solar-powered irrigation pumping system, which powers a 50-hp irrigation pump and provides power for the farm shop and the farm’s main residence. It has been a big draw for visitors, often hosted by daughter and son-in-law Mari and Gary Martin.

The Lockes strip cut alfalfa, a practice highly recommended by University of California Integrated Pest Management Regional Advisor Pete Goodell to prevent pest migration from the forage crop to cotton.

Locke began practicing conservation/minimum tillage 15 years ago — before it became fashionable in the West — to increase microbial activity in the soil. This has resulted in a savings of 50 percent over what they once spent on traditional cultivation and tillage.

All of this represents a considerable commitment of time and resources. Many of the projects and demonstrations also include field days, and the family often hosts smaller groups of people who want to learn what they’re doing.

University of California Cooperative Extension Fresno County Farm Advisor Dan Munk, who has worked with the family for almost two decades, says, “I’ve been impressed with Danny’s leadership in the industry as he works to improve farming practices and land stewardship.”

Family members are also involved in off-farm activities: Mari with the controversial San Joaquin River restoration to make sure farmers get a voice in the project, and son-in-law Gary serves on the Calcot board.

Danny served 10 years on the San Joaquin Cotton Board and 20 years on the board of the Paso Canal Company and Resource Conservation District for his region.

Time spent in activities affecting the farm is just as important sometimes as tractor time, he says.

Asked why the family is so involved in so much, the response reflects Danny’s cowboy precepts: “It’s the right thing to do.”

But he balances it all with the constant reminder that Pikalok must make a profit. It has done that with cotton for four of the past five years — no small feat in the beleaguered U.S. cotton market.

It’s not strictly about the money. For Danny it’s all about keeping his family on the farm; in addition to Mari and Gary and their son Daniel, eager to finish college and work full-time at the farm, there are Danny’s daughter, Kelley Jo Locke, and son, Dane Locke III.

“I guess I’m like an old mother hen,” Danny says. “I don’t want the family to get away from the farm. It has always been important to me to have my children be part of the farm.”

By California standards, less than 2,000 acres is almost defined as a one-man operation, but Pikalok is the livelihood of many.

One suspects Danny has a reason to stay relatively small. He likely could buy more land, but with the small acreage, the family must invest its time in the farm for all to make a living.

There is a hard and fast Danny Locke rule: The family is directly involved in the most important jobs, such as planting and harvesting.

“When there are critical jobs to do, everybody comes together,” says Gary.

“We don’t ask any of our workers to do something we wouldn’t do,” adds Dane, who along with Gary handles virtually all the agchem spraying.

Martin says Pikalok Farming decisions take a natural progression. “Decisions come from conversations among ourselves about what is going on on the farm and about the future. From those conversations come decisions.”

Pikalok’s cotton yield averages close to 3.5 bales. In 2008, the family farmed 650 acres of cotton, 560 acres of alfalfa, 223 acres of corn silage, and 125 acres of newly-planted almonds.

It becomes obvious in a short time with the family that it is Danny’s quiet leadership that fosters everyone getting along. He’s easygoing and admittedly slow to anger or get upset.

“I’ve been angry a time or two,” he says. “The last time I got mad, I thought I was going to give myself a heart attack, and it wasn’t making any difference with the chemical guy I was mad at. It isn’t worth it to get mad.”

Locke grew up on the land he farms today between Firebaugh and Mendota, Calif., and has been farming for more than 50 years.

In 1920, his father and uncle moved the family to California from Washington state, where they had been homesteaders. Settling first in the Merced area, in the 1930s they eventually bought the land the family now farms. His farther farmed into his 90s, and Danny isn’t planning to retire any time soon, either.

“I remember skipping school to pick cotton,” he recalls, “but they wouldn’t let me pick because I was supposed to be in school.”

Danny made sure his children worked all the jobs on the farm.

“I remember the first time dad had me chop cotton,” Dane laughs. “After 40 minutes, I felt like I had been there for hours.” Mari and Kelley chuckled in agreement.

Daniel went for his first picker ride when he was barely able to walk. “He went to sleep on the floor of the picker cab, while dad drove the picker,” recalls Mari.

Unlike many cotton producers, 2008 was a good year financially for the Lockes. They sold cotton for 90 cents per pound in the Calcot call pool.

“We’ve always been in the seasonal pool,” says Gary, “but the opportunity came up early to sell all our cotton for 90 cents, and we took it. It was what made the decision on how much to plant.” He hastens to add that Pikalok still has 2007 cotton in the season pool.

There likely will be less than 50,000 acres of upland/Acala cotton in California in 2009, and perhaps only 100,000 acres of Pima.

“The only thing that makes sense right now economically is Pima,” says Martin, although he admits that past experience with the extra-long staple cotton makes it a less than desirable alternative for them.

But it will be tough to find a 90-cent price for the 2009 upland crop, he says.

Pima is difficult to get a stand, and it takes a longer season to mature a crop — making it more risky.

“We tried it, but we couldn’t get the yield that we do with Acala,” says Danny, who agrees with his son-in-law that unless upland prices improve markedly, Pima may return to Pikalok.

“These are not good times for cotton, but I think it will come back. California cotton quality is what got us here, and it will be what keeps us going, because the world knows our cotton.”

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TAGS: Cotton
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