For 2018, the March USDA estimate said about 13.5 million acres of cotton would be planted. Some 600 acres of that is on father-and-son team Frank and Robbie Polk’s farm in east Arkansas.
The area the Polks farm isn’t far south of Poplar Grove, Ark., on 318. It is a land of silt loams known as Bottleneck. “I’m not sure why that is, but it’s been called that my whole life,” says Frank.
For good reason, Frank is very happy cotton is back in his mix.
“My grandfather moved here from over in Mississippi. My dad started farming after WWII. I followed him into it after I got out of college in 1976.
“Dad and I farmed about 500 acres — he never wanted to grow very large. When he passed away in 1996 we were farming about 1,200 acres at the time.”
After that, the farming economy dipped and, like many others, the Polks expanded to survive. They now farm around 4,100 acres. “The land is pretty much right along this road — 5 or 6 miles (north) and 9 miles the other.”
Polk and his father were cotton farmers “for my first 37 years in the business. We grew cotton until 2012, and I called myself a cotton farmer until then. But we’re happy to get started back with the crop this year.
“My dad was a cotton farmer, and that’s what I identified as. I hated to leave it, but the circumstances, the finances, meant we had to step away. I’m happy we’re back in it and hope we stay.
“Getting back in, we talked to a lot of folks to get back up to speed. I spoke with many farmers, to my consultant. People have been making better yields with better varieties than when we got out five years ago.”
When his turn away from cotton happened, “it was to a lot of corn, obviously a lot of soybeans. We normally grow a good bit of wheat. This year, we quit growing so much corn. We had all soybeans in 2016 and 2017 and realized that wouldn’t work and had to go back to a rotation — we just couldn’t get good enough yields.
“So, this year, we’ve gone to about 600 acres of cotton and 640 acres of corn.”
Polk says it’s “kind of funny” this was the year of his reintroduction to the crop. Unlike many, he’d kept his cotton equipment.
“Then, I sold our picker last November!” Frank says laughing. “A guy had been trying to buy it for a while, and he finally met my price, and I went ahead and let it go. Then, in February, I decided to grow cotton and went out and bought another one. But we never let loose of the builders and boll buggy and other things.
“We never could get what we wanted for our picker until last year, but I always thought we’d get back to cotton. It was more of a rotation thing than it was about the price. The price did help, though — it spiked a little and we knew we’d be able to make a little money. But it was also the absolute need to move into something else for a rotation.”
Is cotton making a comeback?
“I think more people are picking up cotton again. There were only around three farmers in this area that still grew cotton until the last two years. Now, three or four others are going back to the crop.”
The Polks will carry their cotton “to Marianna, Ark., to Larry McClendon’s Mann Gin. Our gin — the Goodluck Gin — closed down years ago. We sold out and the equipment’s gone. The Service Gin in Marvell, Ark., is still there with the equipment still in place, but they aren’t opening this year.”
Having been busy with a sprayer while his father talked in the shop, Robbie Polk arrives.
“I graduated from (the University of Arkansas at) Fayetteville in 2009 with a crop management major and pest management/ag business minor. I went to college in case I didn’t want to farm. But, deep down, it became obvious while I was up there that I wanted to. At that point, I wanted to have the degree as a backstop.”
Robbie got married the year he moved back and is now raising a baby daughter with his wife.
“I like cotton — nice to continue the tradition of what my dad and granddad did,” says Robbie. “It’s pretty and I enjoy it and would like to stay in it. But it’s definitely more labor-intensive. Eventually, we’ll have to get a baler-roller. We just don’t have enough help to work the old-style basket pickers.
“So, we need different equipment. Part of that is because we don’t have the labor. Back when Dad was my age, they had a lot more people around, more good help.”
Frank agrees that labor is “a big issue, no doubt.”
“The workers we have now are as good as they come,” says Robbie. But we need more of them.”
Franks says in the next few years “we’ll be thinking about looking overseas for help. The great, reliable labor force around here isn’t just becoming fewer in number, but it’s also getting older. We’re all getting older!” he laughs again. “But it’s increasingly hard to find anyone who’ll stay with you.”
What about pigweeds?
“Man, that’s the issue,” says Robbie. “That’s why so many farmers have wanted dicamba to be available (for Xtend crops).”
All of the Polk’s soybeans this year are Xtend varieties. “We went in with the theory we’d have dicamba,” says Frank. “We’ve overlapped residuals, and that’s worked pretty well. We’ve got a pigweed problem, though, and we’re out chopping every day.”
The Polks first started seeing resistant pigweeds in 2006. “At first, it wasn’t a huge problem. Then, in 2008 and 2009, it became a big problem and has been ever since. I think we have some PPO resistance, as well.”
Asked his thoughts about the House draft farm bill, Frank says the “government needs to help somehow. It’s been a struggle the last three or four years with margins being so thin. You simply can’t afford to make any mistakes.”
The Polks don’t insure crops “because the insurance is so expensive it’s not affordable. If there isn’t a disaster, the insurance takes any profit we hoped to make.
“We’re probably 80 to 90 percent irrigated around here. There’s a few hundred dryland acres but that’s it. That’s our insurance, I guess. Without that, we’d have no choice but to buy insurance.”
The rumblings about a trade war — potentially on multiple fronts — and how it could affect U.S. agriculture make the pair uneasy.
“I’m not going to push away concerns about the noise the government is making about imposing tariffs and how we’re approaching trade,” says Frank. “Yeah, it worries me. Right now, the markets are dropping out some and I believe the threats of tariffs are partially to blame. At the same time, President Trump is right that many trade practices have treated us unfairly. In the end, I think it’ll work out — but that doesn’t decrease my nervousness.”