When a descendant of the Pugh family, Sidney Anderson Pugh, relocated to Double Bridges, Tenn., from North Carolina after the Civil War, he began farming some of the same land that is still farmed by the Pugh family today. That land was handed down to subsequent generations of Pugh family members who maintained the family farming tradition and expanded the acreage.
When third generation farmer Farnsworth Eugene Pugh Sr. passed away in 1965, he left the operation in the hands of his two sons, Steve Pugh Sr. and Eugene Pugh II. They now have sons — Steve Pugh II, and Eugene, Pugh III, respectively, who are the family’s fifth-generation to choose farming as not just a career, but a way of life.
More than a year ago, their operation was chosen to participate in a unique program coordinated by retail jeans and western apparel manufacturer Wrangler. “Because we still grow Stoneville cotton seed varieties, Wrangler asked us to become part of a retail-directed program where our Stoneville cotton would be used in a new line of jeans they are calling their “Rooted Collection,” says Eugene Pugh III. “Cotton producers in four other states have also been selected to be part of the program.”
Consumers and supply chains once never questioned how a product was produced or the origin of its ingredients. That has changed. Not only do more of today’s consumers want to know the products they purchase have been produced sustainably, the supply chains are mandating it — especially in the cotton supply chain.
“Supply chains used to be nameless and faceless, but we want to be transparent with the origin of the cotton we source. That is why we created a Wrangler Science and Conservation Program that today includes farming operations that produce cotton sustainably with conservation and environmental preservation a top priority,” says Roian Atwood, director of sustainability, Wrangler. “All of the farmers in this program measure and track their inputs to make sure their land will be productive for future generations of farmers. They are true stewards of the land.”
Other cotton production operations participating in the Rooted Collection include farms from: Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia. The jeans manufactured with cotton from Texas growers Vance and Mandie Smith are the only jeans currently on store shelves, but jeans from the other states should be available by July.
“As a co-manager at Pugh Farms, I’m glad to see Wrangler placing modern farming in the spotlight to show how we are using sustainable farming practices in the production of our cotton,” says Steve Pugh II. “We always consider the impact on our land and its natural resources before we use any new equipment, products, or processes. We not only farm on this land, we live on it, and do everything we can to make sure it will remain productive for future generations.”
Getting Where They Are Today
Today Pugh Farms, Inc., farms 10,000 acres. “Some of our land has been recognized by the Century, or Centennial Farm program,” says Eugene Pugh Sr. “When dad passed in 1965, we were working about 900 acres of ground.”
Steve Pugh Sr. and Eugene Pugh II remember the 28 mules used on the farm that were housed in a barn that still stands behind the farm shop. “One day our father brought home two 40-hp tractors,” says Steve Pugh Sr. “It really changed the way we did things — for the better!”
The acreage the family works today lies in Dyer and Lauderdale counties, with half of that ground located in the hills and half in the river bottoms. If it’s too wet to work the ground in one area, they’ll move to the other until they can get back in it.
They still regularly shore up the terraces and catch basins Steve Sr. and Eugene II constructed back in the early 1970s. “The hills won’t flood, but they’ll wash away. If we hadn’t built those terraces, we’d have spent all our time repairing ditches,” says Steve Sr. “They’re designed to hold 6 inches of water for 24 hours and are a must on this highly erodible land. By the time we had them all constructed, we had a worn out backhoe and worn out backs.”
Farming that highly erodible land has been a way of life for the family. They know how to work it, preserve it, and get a crop out of it. Two thousand acres are cover-cropped with a mixture of wheat, cereal rye, winter peas, and clover. They have it flown in on top of their cotton and soybeans just before the leaves fall. “The fallen soybean and/or cotton leaves blanket the cover crop mixture and help the seeds germinate,” explains Eugene Pugh II. “It’s an NRCS-approved blend.”
Although the operation is about 45 percent irrigated with more than two dozen pivots and some furrow irrigation as well, it is water from the Mississippi River that has given this Tennessee farming family trouble the last few years.
“We’re not protected by a levee in Lauderdale County. It doesn’t pick up until it gets south of Memphis,” says Eugene Pugh, II. “The Forked Deer and Obion rivers drain water from 14 counties in our state and when the Mississippi River is high enough to back up water into these and other tributaries, much of our land floods. That’s what’s happening right now. We have about 2,500 of our acres covered in water — a month back it was 5,000 acres plus.”
They know their land and have some good river bottom ground. “We can get by even on an average-yielding year,” says Pugh II. “We’re lucky, we’ve had good crops the last few years which has really helped with the low commodity prices.”
The fathers and sons will keep their crop mix much the same as they have in recent years. “Our split usually includes, on average, 4,500 acres each of cotton and soybeans, and 1,000 acres of corn — weather permitting,” says Eugene Pugh II. “I hope we can get some corn planted, but that window is closing fast.”
Precision farming technologies are standard across the operation. The Pughs use variable rate prescriptions for spraying, spreading lime, PIX on cotton, and to adjust seeding rates — increasing their plant populations on fields under pivots. “We grid sample everything we farm in our Mississippi bottom ground one year, then the fields around the shop the next year, and finally everything east of Halls the next year,” explains Eugene Pugh II as he shuffles his lime maps on the shop office table. “It takes time, but it pays dividends.”
Each year, the farm produces half of its soybeans under a seed production agreement with Hurt Seed Company, in Halls, Tenn.
Harvesting and Ginning
Luckily, labor has never been a real problem for the Pughs. They currently employ nine full-time workers. Two of the men have been with the operation since 1970. “We had 13 workers before we got the on-board module harvesters,” says Eugene Pugh II. “I still remember traveling field-to-field with boll buggies, module builders, tractors, and cotton pickers. We looked like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus traveling down the road.”
By 2010, two John Deere “round bailers” arrived, and their three 6-row pickers, boll buggies, and module builders were sold. That is when they were able to trim some labor. “University of Tennessee economist Mike Buschermohle visited us one fall and rode on the new machines with his laptop to conduct efficiency studies,” says Eugene Pugh II. “Each time I would drop a round, make a turn, or change wrap, Mike would quantify it with a registered time. He rode in that little seat for two weeks!”
All of their cotton is ginned at Halls Gin, which is run by Miller Pounds, their gin manager who has been operating the gin from its inception. The Pughs and four other farming operators own the gin in partnership. Over the last two years, Halls Gin has averaged 45,000 bales. “We gin a few traditional modules for one customer, but we mostly handle partner cotton — and we’re all round modules,” says Eugene Pugh III.
The family has grown variety test plots for Deltapine and Stoneville for several years. They benefit from seeing the next variety releases and how they perform in their soils. They also grow corn and soybean plots for a few seed companies, and constantly perform on-farm studies to stay ahead of the variety game. “It’s great seeing how the next generation of commercial cotton seed yields before they are commercially released,” says Eugene Pugh III. “Of course, we have a few friends who always call, asking how this or that variety did.”
Though most of their farming days are behind them now, Steve Pugh Sr. and Eugene Pugh II have always worked the land with the mindset of minimizing the environmental footprint they leave after each season. “Steve and I are farming with that same philosophy today,” says Eugene Pugh III.