I received a call from the campus bookkeeper here in Tifton.
“Dr. Kemerait, I have students in my office, and they want to visit cotton fields. I can’t find anyone else. Can you help?”
How graduate students ended up in the bookkeeper’s office was baffling, and curiosity got the best of me. (To quote author Dave Barry, “I swear I am not making this up.”)
I was introduced to two men who attend a noteworthy university out west. Neither was originally from “around these parts” and both had been participating in a national meeting in Atlanta. At the conclusion of the conference, students were charged to reach out to farmers across America to better understand the problems they face. These two students, each to be commended for personal initiative, had tried to find contacts willing to introduce them to cotton farmers. Their e-mails went unanswered. Undeterred, they drove their rental car south on I-75 after being told, “If you want to find cotton in Georgia, head south towards Tifton.”
As the pair reached Dooly County, they saw cotton fields. They figured the best plan would be to take the nearest exit and look for farmers harvesting cotton. Finding none, as it was getting late in season, they knocked on doors of houses near the fields, assuming farmers lived there. (Again, I am not making this up, and, to their defense, such would be logical assumptions in their own countries.)
The students told me that no doors were opened. Blinds were lowered. Dogs barked. At least one farmer spotted them on surveillance cameras and came hurriedly to investigate. Beleaguered when even farm workers refused to speak to them in their native Spanish, the students packed it up and drove to Tifton.
Re-inspired the next morning, the pair found their way to the administration building of the UGA Tifton Campus. Seeing an open door and a sympathetic smile, the students spoke with the bookkeeper. A few minutes later, and after repeating the story about knocking on doors at least 10 more times to me, they were in my truck and headed to see cotton. I continually watched my rear-view mirror, half expecting Ashton Kutcher to be following me to tell me I'd been 'punked.' (He had a TV show kind of like a more-abrasive version of Candid Camera.)
I quickly realized that these students were extremely sincere; they wanted to talk to cotton farmers and to understand the greatest problems our farmers feel they face. Never shy to offer an opinion, I told them I figured the farmers would say, “commodity prices, production costs, weather, and water.” I assured them that this would be the response of the farmers.
We were able to speak with two cotton growers that morning. Though busy with harvest, both willingly agreed to speak at length and patiently answered questions. (It was not clear to me if the farmers struggled more with the accent of the students, or the students struggled more with the accents of the farmers.) The biggest surprise of the day for me was when asked his greatest challenge, the first farmer replied without hesitation, “tractors."
The farmer went on to say that while he understood the obvious value in use of advanced technologies, one must be able to grow and harvest the crop above all else. He pointed to the tractors working his field at that moment; they were all older models. “Yes, I have newer tractors, and yes, they have amazing features. But we can’t fix them ourselves when something goes wrong and the expense and the downtime are big risks for us as we fight to get through harvest.”
When asked about specific production costs, he noted the following. “Yes, the price of cottonseed is a burden, but I see the return value as I harvest the crop. Contrast that with a piece of equipment that is expensive but is less reliable than I would have hoped. Both seed and equipment is expensive. I am confident I will recoup the value from the seed; I am less confident in the newer equipment.”
Both farmers agreed that commodity prices and weather are significant problems, but there is little they can do about either. Weeds, diseases and insects were also recognized as troubling; however they were optimistic that the tools available to them were effective and generally protected yields.
As they headed back to Atlanta to catch their flight that evening, the young students expressed their appreciation for the time and candor given to them by Georgia’s farmers. They had learned much in their brief time in the South. I shook their hands and told them they were always welcome, but next time to let me knock on the doors for them. “I don’t want to have to explain one day all of this to your mothers…..”