For more than 60 years, this nation's first cotton bale of the season has been harvested and ginned in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. But a crop plagued by drought and then excessive rainfall creating planting delays and a late crop allowed neighboring producers along the Texas Gulf Coast to reap the honor.
Nueces County producer Walter Priestly of Priestly Farms, a partnership with father and son Larry and Chris Hellmann, produced and harvested America's first bale of the 2021 season. Although excited, Priestly is quick to admit the victory is bittersweet.
"That's always been reserved for producers in the Rio Grande Valley because they plant ahead of us," Priestly says. "The only reason we were able to get in there and do this is because they faced significant weather challenges. It's not that we created an opportunity; the weather took the opportunity away from our friends and neighbors to the south. If we could do it all over again, I'd rather them have normal weather and a first bale."
A Sunday afternoon
But as fate would have it, events fell into place on a July Sunday afternoon. In a matter of four hours, Priestly, who had some open cotton, contacted his FiberMax seed advisor Butch Roecker, along with other players critical to the mission.
"I made a call to Chris Vieth, our custom harvester. I told him this would be a money-losing deal, but would he like to be a part of picking the first bale of the U.S. crop? He said he'd love to."
Vieth, who has harvested Priestly's cotton since 2017, typically arrives to Priestly's yard two to three weeks before the crop is ready. They had only been there four days when he received the call.
"He called and says, 'Hey, do you think you have a picker that can be ready to go?' I said I can."
And a few hours later, on July 18, Vieth, five crew members and his pickers, arrived at the field and began harvesting the cotton. Vieth says he wasn't concerned about running on such short notice since he keeps his equipment ready to go.
"It was really neat that Nueces County was going to get the first bale," he says.
Harvest on Priestly's farms officially began August 13. Before the season is over, Vieth and his crew will harvest more than 19,000 acres from Nueces County to Altus, Okla.
Priestly leases some of his land from the legendary King Ranch and gins his cotton there as well. Priestly contacted King Ranch gin manager Pat Ritter and general manager Brandon Benton to see if they were on board. Although the plant wasn't yet running, Priestly says they jumped at the opportunity and fired up the gin.
"It all came together," Priestly says. "It wasn't planned; it just happened on a Sunday afternoon. Some capable, motivated people made a decision to do something, and it happened."
Having a hand
July 19, King Ranch ginned Priestly's two round bales. "Pat Ritter, our gin manager, just celebrated his 40th season with the ranch (29th with the gin) and that's the first time he's ever had the first bale," Benton says.
"It would be cool to be the first producer, but for Pat and his gin crew to know that out of however many bales are ginned (nationally) this year, they had a hand in the first one coming off the press."
On average, King Ranch gins about 100,000 to 125,000 bales annually. Of the ranch's 72,000-row crop acres, about 30,000 are leased to producers like Priestly.
Priestly produces grain sorghum as well as corn and runs cattle. He's been growing cotton since he returned to the farm in 1993. Throughout his career, he's primarily planted FiberMax varieties. The first-bale cotton, planted March 5, is FiberMax 1830 GLT.
Roecker, who's been Priestly's seed advisor for several years, said Priestly Farms unknowingly did him a favor as he prepares to retire in August.
"I wanted to win it the last year I was employed," says Roecker, whose Valley producers have earned the "first bale" title the last seven years. "It all came to fruition." The 2021 crop is the 44th of his career.
Cotton in the Rio Grande Valley is typically planted towards the end of January, beginning of February, followed by the Coastal Bend at the beginning of March and the Winter Garden area in April. But this year was a different story.
"We had the freeze this year (in February), which set everything back, and we were in a drought," Roecker says. "So, even in the Rio Grande Valley and challenges with irrigation and the availability of water, everything got pushed back. We were planting in the Coastal Bend about the same time they were planting in the Rio Grande Valley. We were pretty much through, and they were still planting. I was concerned if any acres would be ready on time for the first bale."
Roecker spoke to Sam Simmons, Harlingen Cotton Committee chair, about first-bale prospects in the Valley. But because the crop was so behind, "Sam said, I'm not sure the first bale will even be harvested down here this year."
His comment struck Roecker. "I got to thinking about the Coastal Bend and reached out to Walter."
Much like the Rio Grande Valley, Priestly says it's been a tough growing season. "We've faced significant weather challenges from drought on the front side to excessive rain at the end."
"We don't have a field that doesn't have a weather-related issue this year. We started the season dry and didn't get good stands, so we have a lot of skippy stands. We carried them through due to a lack of options.
"We had excessive rainfall, so we had low-lying areas that we lost entirely. It's just not as pretty and as uniform as we would like."
When it comes to average rainfall amounts, Priestly jokes, "I don't know what normal is anymore." But according to his rangeland insurance policy, which is broken into quarters, the last vegetative index showed that rainfall levels were more than 220% of what they usually are for that quarter.
Despite the rain, Priestly has harvested his grain sorghum and corn and is halfway through with cotton. "So far, the yields have been better than expected," he says.
The first bale will be sold September 23 at the annual "First Bale Auction and Scholarship Fundraiser," in Harlingen. Proceeds benefit students at Southern Careers Institutes.
"We did this because we had never done it before, and we thought it was something neat," Priestly says. "But we hope the opportunity is never there again. We hope it goes back to the Valley where it rightfully belongs."