Back in 2008, lifelong friends and fellow Northampton, N.C., farmers Ben Harris and David Britton went in together to buy a grain drill. The arrangement worked out well so that when the two began considering buying a baling picker to harvest cotton, it seemed a good fit to once again go in together for this major investment.
After all, baling cotton pickers are expensive, with new models going for upwards of $800,000 and used machines fetching around $400,000. The two farmers knew each other well and also shared a strong trust of each other, so they decided the time was right to invest in one baling picker between each other and both share the cost of purchase.
David Britton notes that the impetus for the idea came from his son Alex Britton who joined his farming operation in 2012 after graduating from North Carolina State University and from Willie Rose who joined the Harris farming operation in 2014 after completing his studies at N.C. State. Willie is the son of Joey Rose, Ben Harris’s first cousin, who is also part of the Harris farming operation.
“Ben and I would never have bought a baling picker had it not been for Alex and Willie. There’s a lot of technology involved and both of them have a good knowledge and understanding of all the technology,” Britton says.
The two bought the 2011 John Deere 7760 baling picker used from Carolina Picker Repair in Dunn, N.C., in 2018. Both Britton and Harris each traded in a basket picker to buy the shared baling picker.
Alex runs the picker for the Britton farm while Willie runs it for the Harris farm. In addition, both Britton and Harris still each own a basket picker which makes the arrangement of sharing a baling picker work during the hectic harvest season.
Like other cotton farmers across the Belt, Britton and Harris turned to the baling picker to reduce labor and improve harvest efficiency. Harris explains that the machine really cuts down the aggravation at harvest of running two basket pickers, two module builders and a boll buggy all while trying to find enough labor to run all the equipment.
Alex Britton explains that the baler picker increases efficiency because it just requires one operator. “With two basket pickers, you need an operator for each picker, two people on module builders and one person on the boll buggy. That’s five individuals and doesn’t count the extra person on the ground. With a baling picker, one person does it all,” he says.
Alex says the numbers show a farmer needs at least 2,000 acres of cotton to justify the expense of a baling picker. Both Britton and Harris farm roughly 1,000 to 1,200 acres of cotton each, so the numbers added up to buy the picker together.
To make it work, both families rely on cooperation and flexibility. But it is still the strong friendship that all four share that make it work. Like David Britton and Harris, Alex Britton and Willie Rose have been lifelong friends. A cooperative spirit is what it is all about.
“We had some people say, ‘if you’re friends, don’t do this.’ But we’ve had no problems,” David Britton emphasizes.
“Before we bought it, we decided we had to be very honest. If I felt David was using it too much, I need not stew about it. I needed to go to him to work it out. But that’s never happened. We never had any scheduling problems,” Harris says.
There is no formal paperwork and contracts between the two operations and the agreement was reached without lawyers. “We decided if we have problems, then we will either get rid of the picker or one of us will buy it out, but it’s not going to affect our friendship. And we are going to do this before it affects our friendship,” David Britton says.
In essence, the arrangement works out due to a strong bond of trust. “If you’re going to share an investment this big, you have to have full trust in the other person: 100 percent trust,” Alex Britton says.
The Brittons grow cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans on 1,700 acres while Harris and the Roses grow cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and Perdue boilers on 1,800 acres.
Since the Brittons grow peanuts and Harris and the Roses do not, scheduling works well because Harris and the Roses can use the picker while the Brittons harvest peanuts. “When they finish peanuts, we let them use the picker a little bit longer if it works out for us both,” Harris says.
“When they have the picker, we just have to figure something else to do while they’re harvesting cotton. We have so many things to do on the farm, that if we don’t have the picker, it all works out fine,” Willie Rose says.
Both families gin their cotton at Gaston Co-op which keeps track of both the round modules and regular modules that each family has picked. This makes splitting the cost easier when determining how many round modules each family harvested with their shared picker. Both David Britton and Harris serve on the board of Gaston Co-op.
Both families share the maintenance of replacing spindles and such after the end of harvest. To determine the money they need to spend, they determine the percentage that each family used the picker and split the cost accordingly. For example, if the Brittons used the picker 55 percent and the Harris and Roses used it 45 percent, they will pay the expenses accordingly.
Through it all, the cooperative arrangement really shines through when it comes to fueling the baler picker.
“At the end of the day, when you’re finished picking, you fill it up with fuel. That way they can run it all they want, and when they are finished, they fill it up with fuel,” Harris says.
The families share a joint account at their local John Deere for the shared picker which makes things easy. They also work with the same banker, Meg Hall at Southern Bank, and both have Farm Bureau Insurance, which makes things easier.
“To make something like this work, it has to be somebody you totally trust. We’ve been friends for a long time. Our parents were good friends. We grew up together,” Britton says.
“I don’t know how long we’ve known each other, but it has to be since we were in diapers at the nursery in church,” Harris says with a smile, adding that both he and Britton graduated high school together and both went to North Carolina State at the same time.
Interestingly, sharing a cotton picker is all part of the family tradition. David’s father Henry Britton and his Uncle Billy Britton farmed in partnership while Ben’s father Billy Harris also farmed. Like their sons, the elder Brittons and Harrises were also lifelong friends.
In the early 1970s, the two families went in together to buy a one-row cotton picker which allowed them to transition away from hand- picked cotton. “It worked out well, so they bought another one together. Our families have always worked well together,” Harris says.
Eventually, both Harris and Britton say they would like to each own their own baling picker, but until that happens they plan to maintain the arrangement of sharing one baling picker because it has worked out well for them and the cooperative spirit and strong friendship between the two families has always been strong.
One thing is certain, both farmers emphasize, they will remain lifelong friends.