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High Cotton winner innovator, role model

Sonny Hatley is one of those folks who, within 15 minutes of meeting, you say, “What's not to like about this fellow?”

Maybe it's the easy smile and quick laugh.

Maybe it's the bright, white western straw hat (the preferred headwear for all Arizona cotton growers) that, tilted slightly back, looks as if it authoritatively belongs atop the 73-year-old with the given name of Aubrey, but known to his peers as Sonny.

The hat's crown says “cattleman” — the wide brim is shaped down smartly in front, with the sides rolled smooth out and up. It's the kind of hat ropers wear.

The hat is new, likely bought for the Western Farm Press interview and photo session for this year's Western High Cotton Award recipient.

Sonny was a bit uncomfortable being interviewed, but very accommodating and straightforward with his answers. Like all farmers, he's proud of what he does and it's obvious he enjoys talking about how he farms and why — but, he's no bragger; it's not his nature; the limelight is not what he wants.

But his peers who nominated him for the High Cotton award say he is more than an innovator: He's a role model for cotton growers, especially those of the younger generations. And they all say he deserves the High Cotton award.

Hatley is the kind of person you'd want for a neighbor — and he has plenty of them. His neighborhood, Maricopa County, Ariz., is bigger than Mister Rogers' by a long shot, totaling 4 million people. They aren't all next door or down the street, but there is a better than even chance that most have passed by his farm; some 150,000 vehicles per day drive by his family's 4,000-acre farm on Freeway Loop 101, paralleling the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Scottsdale. Hatley has farmed on the reservation since the mid-1970s.

Texas-born and Arizona-reared, he has been farming for 45 years, all but about 10 in the Grand Canyon State. That other decade was spent farming cotton in the broad expanses of West Texas, near Ft. Stockton.

When the Texas farmer he worked for ran into financial trouble, long-time Arizona producer Gilbert “Shag” Rogers asked Sonny to come and manage his farm on the Scottsdale Indian reservation, and Hatley and his family eagerly returned to the Valley of the Sun. He became Rogers' partner in 1976, and when Rogers retired the Hatley family became sole owners.

Associated Farms, the Hatley operation, includes his wife, Diane; son, Adam, and his wife, Michelle; and daughter, Stephanie Vasold Hatley, as partners.

This past year, they had 2,130 acres of cotton, 600 acres of alfalfa, and 450 acres corn silage. The alfalfa acreage will increase to 150 acres in 2008. About 1,000 acres of cotton each year is for planting seed; Hatley is a longtime seed producer for Delta and Pine Land Company.

They literally farm in a fish bowl, surrounded by millions of urbanites and subject to both state and tribal government regulations. They answer to two environmental watchdogs, the state of Arizona, and Indian environmental protection agencies.

From any field on his farm, Hatley can see Scottsdale (population 250,000), just across Loop 101, and Indian tribal member houses abut everything he farms.

Arizona's air quality/dust regulations are among the most stringent in the nation. “If the dust starts blowing toward 101 and Scottsdale, we have to shut down tractor operations,” Hatley says. “Fortunately, that doesn't happen too often.”

One reason for that is that Sonny and Adam cultivate far less now than they once did; all their acreage is in herbicide-resistant cotton varieties. Adam says Roundup Ready technology has eliminated the need for pre-plant herbicides, resulting in not only less dust, but production cost/trip savings.

“We used to cultivate maybe six times a season, and it costs at least $10 per acre every time we drive a tractor through the field. Now, we cultivate just once and that's basically to make good irrigation furrows early in the season.”

A pair of early over-the-top Roundup applications, then two more with hooded sprayers, take care of weeds.

“We dry plant everything and irrigate every other row so we can get around with the first two herbicide applications in a timely manner,” Sonny explains.

His primary varieties have been Deltapine 655 and 555, 449, all stacked gene Bt and Roundup-resistant varieties.

The Hatley farm participates in the statewide pink bollworm eradication program by planting 100 percent Bt cotton. He grew 120 acres of the new Deltapine 164 Bt/RF in 2007 and expects to plant more of it as Deltapine phases out the 655 and 555 varieties.

“There was a lot of 164 planted in the state because it yields well and has good staple length,” Sonny says. “We need quality to market Arizona cotton.”

Since it is where a large acreage of planting seed is produced for the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt, Arizona was the first state to commercially grow Bt cottons.

While that technology is commercially little more than a decade old, it seems ages ago, he says, when they treated cotton with insecticides every 14 days for pink bollworm — as many as eight times per season. Last year only two-thirds of the acreage was treated for any pest, and that was only for whitefly.

“At most, we will spray maybe once a year, thanks to Bt cotton,” Adam says — and that's important, since the Indian tribe no longer allows aerial applications on his farm.

Ground rig applications require more management to schedule around irrigations, “but I think we do a better job with ground rigs than by air,” Sonny says.

Herbicide-resistant transgenic traits have been a big money-saver for the Hatleys. “Morningglory is our biggest weed problem,” Sonny notes. “We used to keep 60 to 70 people busy in hoe crews, trying to chop it out. Now, we treat with Roundup and that not only takes care of the problem, but we save money by no longer having to apply pre-plant herbicide.

“I'm not sure we could even get people to hoe cotton any more, so that makes the new technology even more important to us. I'm not sure I'd want to try farming today without transgenics.”

Sonny and Adam do very little plowing, but they do try to rip cotton fields 18 to 20 inches deep — tough going in the caliche soils.

“I started renting tractors for ripping,” Sony says. “If something breaks, the rental company brings out a new tractor. It saves a lot of wear and tear on our own equipment and downtime repairing and rippers.”

He has returned to using urea fertilizer, applying it with Valmar spreaders in every water furrow. He modified the spreaders with drop tubes to deposit the fertilizer.

“We can cover 500 acres a day with the spreaders; they save a lot of time,” he says. The urea goes on twice, after the second and probably third irrigations.

His first GPS tractor guidance system came on a used Caterpillar Challenger tractor he uses to furrow out; a second system was installed on a new John Deere 7930 he purchased last year. Both systems are AutoFarm.

“The guidance system eliminates the guess row,” Sonny says. “We used to list six rows, and with four-row pickers those guess rows could get too wide or too narrow if we didn't have a good driver listing out. GPS eliminates the guess row; we can pull as many rows as we want, and they will all match up.”

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