For Virginia growers Cliff Fox and Clarke Fox, cotton is something new, but soil conservation and good stewardship are generations old.
The Fox brothers, with some sage help from their father, Trent Fox, grow 950 acres of cotton, 200 acres of peanuts, 325 acres of corn and 150 acres of soybeans at Foxhill Farms in Capron, Va.
Though Cliff and Clarke Fox have developed Foxhill Farms into a diversified agricultural business, farming is a multi-generation operation for the Fox family.
Cliff and Clarke Fox got an early introduction into farming from their father Trent. Their grandfather was a banker, who worked closely with farmers in Southampton County. Both Clarke and Cliff graduated with degrees in agricultural economics from Virginia Tech. Both their father and grandfather also attended Virginia Tech.
After graduating from college, Clarke returned to the farm and began the process of converting his father's part-time farming operation to a modern, diversified operation. When Cliff graduated from college, he chose to work with Southern States Farmer's Cooperative in the southeast region of Virginia.
In 1991, he joined his brother in the farming operation and Foxhill Farms became a corporate entity. Since that time, the farming operation has diversified away from a dependency on peanuts to cattle (for a few years) and on to cotton in 1994.
Located about 70 miles south of Richmond and 75 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, Foxhill Farms is in the heart of Virginia's historic Southampton County.
For over 200 years cotton was king in Southampton, but WWII and the need for domestic oil from peanuts brought a new crop to the area. Add to the increase in peanut production, continued cotton losses to boll weevils, and by the 1950s cotton was no longer king, By the 1960s it was gone from Southampton County.
Ironically, what nature and the government gave and took from Southampton County farmers has gone full circle. The boll weevil eradication program brought cotton back to the county and the end of the government supported peanut program has dramatically reduced the popularity of the crop to area growers.
“We planted our first crop of cotton in 1994,” notes Cliff Fox. “My dad started farming this land in the mid-1960s, but he didn't remember much about cotton, so we planted the first 100 acres with very little knowledge about the crop,” he concludes.
“For our first cotton crop, we broke the land and ripped and bedded it,” he recalls. “It didn't take us but one crop to figure out we needed to do something different,” the younger Fox brother stresses.
“My father was one of the first to use strip-tillage equipment in the county in 1969 for some of his corn fields, so he knew a great deal about conservation tillage — all we had to do was adapt it to cotton,” Fox laughs.
For their second crop of cotton in 1995, they bedded the land in the fall and planted a wheat cover crop. They killed the wheat a couple of weeks prior to planting cotton in the spring.
“The second year was better,” the Virginia growers remember, “but even with a cover crop, the bedded land is flat, and when it gets water on it, the water doesn't have a place to go, so it makes it own way, causing us a lot of erosion problems.”
Though growing dryland cotton in Virginia has been a challenge, the Fox brothers have consistently topped two bales per acre. This year is likely to be in the 1,000 pound per acre range, with some fields topping three bales per acre. One of the keys to keeping yields high, they agree, is taking care of the land.
Growing cotton has been a work in progress for the Virginia farmers. Cliff laughingly recalls his first experience with Pix. “I overdid the Pix a little bit and the cotton never met in the rows. We had a good crop of cotton, and a real good crop of weeds — that's a battle we don't want to try again,” Fox muses.
In 1998, the Fox brothers bought a KMC strip-tillage rig, which has been good for both cotton production and conservation practices. The eight-row rig has a ripper shank in front, followed by four fluted coulters and a two basket configuration behind that. Though they continue to tweak the rig, it produces an excellent seedbed for cotton.
“We handle our cover crop a little different from some growers,” Fox says. “We have found that when we kill the wheat two to three weeks prior to running the strip-till rig, the stubble tends to go away before we plant,” he explains.
They use a burndown herbicide, either glyphosate or paraquat, depending on the weed history of the field and time of application. “If we don't have a real strong stand of wheat, we wait until the first true leaf of the cotton crop to kill the wheat,” he says. By waiting until the first true leaf of the cotton crop, he saves one pass over the field and glyphosate has no negative effect on Roundup Ready cotton.
Cotton varieties stacked with herbicide and insecticide genes have changed the way cotton is grown — for the better, according to the Fox brothers. “For one thing, these varieties have allowed us to grow cotton with no cultivation. If we need to get into our cotton for escaped weeds, we use a directed, hooded sprayer,” Fox points out.
In some years strip-tillage herbicide costs more, but being able to use glyphosate on cotton has greatly reduced the need for herbicides. “For our operation, the big increase in cost has been the technology fee,” Fox says.
Some savings come from application of Orthene tank-mixed with the first true leaf application of glyphosate. Thrips are a constant problem for young cotton in the Tidewater area of Virginia.
They typically come back in the fifth true leaf with another application of glyphosate, which usually takes care of most weed problems. “If problem weeds come back later in the growing season, we go back with a hooded spray application, usually Suprend, which has worked well for us,” Fox contends.
Loss of the peanut program has created problems for Virginia farmers, regardless of other crops grown. For the Fox brothers, it has meant a decrease in peanut acreage, which affects their rotation program for cotton. Ideally, they rotate cotton with corn and peanuts. They have replaced some of their peanut acreage with soybeans, which works well in the rotation, but doesn't have the profit potential of peanuts.
Always innovative, the Virginia farmers would like to take advantage of many of the new high-tech farming systems that are available. “We farm about 2,000 acres of land, but we have over 200 individual fields,” Clarke Fox points out. “Some of the new, high-tech, precision agriculture systems are just not practical for us,” he adds.
“When we first went to module builders to replace bale wagons, people would stop on the side of the road to watch and often ask us what the contraption was,” Cliff Fox recalls. Now, he says, virtually all the cotton picked in Southampton county is moduled.
One of the biggest changes in cotton production over the past 10 years for the Fox brothers has been with varieties. “Of the cotton varieties we started with in 1994, only Deltapine 51 is still available, and it's being phased out,” Cliff Fox points out.
“We do variety tests with pesticide companies and with Virginia Tech researchers at Tidewater Research and Education Center in Holland,” Fox says. He points out that being in the northern end of the Cotton Belt has meant fewer varieties that are bred for Virginia growing conditions.
Farming on land that is prone to washing and erosion problems has likewise been a challenge for the Virginia growers. Cover crops on all their land, strip-tillage and drainage tiles on most of their land have proven to be successful for both erosion and crop production.
“On land with bad wash problems, we have installed grass waterways,” says Cliff Fox. “Some we do ourselves, but on some land we have a company from nearby Suffolk come in and construct the waterways,” he explains.
The grass waterways are typically 60 feet across, with the bottoms of the drainage ditch at least 8 feet wide. These waterways are graded back to natural levels and seeded with grass. The concept is to provide a gentle grade, not a ‘V’ shape.
“We are trying to create a way for water to get off the land,” says Fox. Critical to these grass waterways being efficient is to clean off the banks periodically, because dirt builds up in the grass, creating multiple pathways for water to run across the field.
“If you don't keep the banks of the waterways clean, you get two or more ways for water to get off the field, creating a bigger problem,” Fox explains.
Another key to the conservation system is to place heavy rocks at the end of the waterway. Otherwise, Fox says, the volume of water will be so heavy it will break the end of the waterway.
Conservation practices are an everyday part of the operation at Foxhill Farms. The Fox brothers routinely triple rinse chemical containers and place these in a trailer. Once the trailer is filled, they take it to a warehouse, where the plastic is picked up, ground into pellets and reused in the plastic industry. They also recycle all the used oil from the farm. These services are provided through the local Virginia Tech Extension Service.
They also participate in a used tire program with the Soil and Water Conservation District. “We recently bought a farm that had thousands of used tires discarded on several sites on the farm. Working with the Department of Environmental Quality, we found a regional company that would pick up these tires for a fee. Since that time, we have recycled all the tires from our farm,” Fox explains.
Foxhill Farms has several miles of drainage tiles — another holdover from the conservation practices of Trent Fox. “We spend a lot of time keeping drainage tiles working. In the winter that is one of Cliff's biggest jobs,” Clarke Fox notes.
For Cliff and Clarke Fox, cotton is becoming a part of the tradition that includes Virginia Tech, conservation, good stewardship and strong family support.