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Journey returns Mr. Jay to his roots

It's not that Jay Lawhon was seeing cotton for the first time. Lawhon or “Mr. Jay,” as friends and co-workers call him, saw plenty growing up and when he first went into the farm supply business in the 1950s.

But the cotton Mr. Jay was viewing this particular day was special. Spread over fields in a large portion of the Coastal Bend area of south Texas, the cotton had been grown from seed marketed by a new company launched by his son, Noal, and grandson, T.J. Lawhon.

After being in the soybean, rice and wheat seed business for a number of years, the younger Lawhons decided to branch off into cotton in 2001.

The fields Mr. Jay was observing in the Corpus Christi area of south Texas were planted with some of the first bags of seed sold by the new company, McCrory, Ark.-based Beltwide Cotton Genetics, in its first full year of operation.

“These fields are much larger than the ones we used to see back in McCrory before cotton left that area in the 1950s and 60s,” said Mr. Jay, marveling at a 480-acre block near Taft, Texas, that had 81 modules lined up along the turn row. “The harvesting equipment has changed considerably, as well.”

It was a long way from his home in McCrory to south Texas, which is why the elder Lawhon and Noal flew. But this journey was nothing compared to the one that brought Mr. Jay from the mountains of northwest Arkansas to college, to the Navy and eventually into the farm supply and seed business and later to a ministry in Bangladesh and Haiti.

Mr. Jay was born on a small farm near Harrison in northwest Arkansas in 1919. A book written about his life says that his mother was hoeing cotton when she began having labor pains and delivered him at home.

A football star at the University of Arkansas in the late 1930s and early 40s, Lawhon could have had a career in the professional ranks. But, after a stint in the Navy in World War II, he moved to Desha in southeast Arkansas and became a vocational agriculture teacher.

In 1959, he opened the farm supply business in McCrory.

“When we went to McCrory in the 1950s, everything was in cotton,” he said. “A few landowners controlled everything in the town, including the businesses that supplied fertilizer and farm chemicals.

“We began selling things like cotton poison for $7.50 per hundred while they were selling it for $10.50 per hundred. I just didn't think it was right for those people to have to pay such high prices when I could make a living selling it at lower prices.”

Lawhon tried growing cotton on a small scale. “I had a little farm with 30 to 40 acres,” he said. “It was a dry year, and I irrigated it on Aug. 15. Then it started raining. It got taller than my head. I couldn't get it to open and wound up picking a third of a bale an acre. That was the last of my cotton farming.”

On the day Mr. Jay flew to Corpus Christi, the growers there were in a better frame of mind than he was when he left cotton farming more than 40 years ago.

“In previous years, our best yield was just over two bales an acre,” said Joel Hoskinson, who farms 3,000 acres of cotton and another 3,000 acres of grain crops near Taft. “This year, we're averaging over two bales over the whole farm.

“This is the best crop I've had in 14 years of farming,” said Hoskinson, who like many growers in the Coastal Bend, has suffered through prolonged periods of dry weather in recent years.

Hoskinson planted 1,000 acres of Beltwide Cotton Genetics' new BCG 30R variety in 2003. While happy with the yields from the new variety, he also liked the grades he was receiving. “Most of the bales are coming back 3 and 4 cents above the loan,” he noted.

When Noal and T.J. Lawhon decided to launch Beltwide Cotton Genetics, they had no idea they would be selling 50,000 bags of cottonseed in their first full year of operation.

“The business plan evolved differently than we anticipated,” said Rick Rice, director of marketing for Beltwide Cotton Genetics.” We envisioned starting out in the Mid-South. We looked for two or three varieties that were developed like those for Delta King for the Mid-South.

“Instead, we found there was a cottonseed business in south Texas that was available. So we acquired the varieties that were developed by Tom Kilgore of Harlingen under the Texas Originator Cottonseed brand.

Kilgore had established a reputation for conventional picker varieties that consistently offered superior yield and fiber quality to the growers in the Rio Grande Valley and Coastal Bend areas.

“We found that the Kilgore program was ready to go,” said Rice. “It helped sling shot our entry into the market, so to speak.”

“We won't be missing three bales by much,” said Randy Harwell, a cotton producer from Kingsville, Texas, who grew 630 acres of Beltwide Cotton Genetics' BCG 30R variety in 2003. “We made 100 modules on those 630 acres, all of it dryland.

“We have a real devil's claw problem out here,” he said. “That's the reason for the 30 R.”

Robertson also was happy with the fiber quality he was picking with a number of his bales averaging strength readings of 31 grams per tex.

A beaming Mr. Jay seemed pleased with the comments about the new varieties. But he had decided years ago that Noal was fully capable of running the family business. In 1975, after 25 years of building Lawhon Farm Supply, Mr. Jay turned the business over to Noal and climbed on a plane to fly 12,000 miles to Dacca, Bangladesh.

A lay leader in his Methodist Church in McCrory, Mr. Jay had seen TV news footage of the devastation that occurred when floods and famine struck the people of Bangladesh in 1974.

“I made a mistake and asked the Lord what He would have me to do in this situation,” he said. “I think this is where the Holy Spirit works with us. A lot of people don't think God talks to us, and he doesn't audibly, but He has his Word, and He has his Holy Spirit who lives in every Christian.

“I talked to Lillian, my wife, and she suggested a good contribution, but the Lord wouldn't let me be satisfied,” he said. “It's not that I'm so religious, but I am a Christian, and God kept reminding me that I should go, so I went.”

Mr. Jay made several trips to Bangladesh, working with Baptist missionaries there. On one trip, he accompanied two tons of Marin milo seed that had been grown in Arkansas and helped Bengali farmers plant it. He also took 100 pumps and the pipes that were necessary to install wells in the same area.

He found he could install a well in about three hours, using a 5-horsepower engine and a sharpened pipe. It took three or four Bengalis all day using bamboo poles, but Mr. Jay decided that was a better method because it allowed the Bengalis to help themselves. He also began a project that helped Bengali farmers learn how to assemble small, diesel engines.

Later, Mr. Jay began traveling to Haiti, both because it was closer and because he felt he could have more impact in a small, island nation than in one with 128 million people. Before long, Haiti replaced Bangladesh as the primary recipient of the World Christian Relief Fund Mr. Jay founded.

Mr. Jay and World Christian Relief helped a Haitian doctor who was working in Arkansas build a hospital in the doctor's home town of Pignon, Haiti. He also began helping the Haitians learn to drill wells for water.

He estimates he and drilling crews made up of volunteers from the United States have put in between 800 and 1,000 wells. They have turned over the drilling work to Haitians with mixed results because of the periods of unrest following the fall of the Duvalier government.

The Haitian physician, Dr. Guy Theodore, returned to McCrory for the celebration of Mr. Jay's 80th birthday. At services honoring Mr. Jay and Miss Lillian at the McCrory United Methodist Church, Dr. Theodore talked about the impact of the Lawhons.

“Jay teaches that you cannot give health care without integrating efforts involving water, sanitation and nutrition,” he noted. “That is why we marry all these programs together. Diarrhea and typhoid are the No. 1 killers of Haitian children under five. When you give them clean water, they don't have these diseases.”

He said Mr. Jay has not only helped them drill water wells but taught Haitians to repair the wells and plant trees, which enrich the soil. He praised him for supplying money, medicine and volunteers and providing trucks for the mission center, as well as establishing a system for warehousing spare parts.

“It's all by the grace of God,” Mr. Jay said in the service. “If it hadn't been for Him, we wouldn't have done it. It kind of walked up to me one day that God doesn't have anyone but us to do his jobs. He could do things like He used to, but He's got enough kids down here that if they'll just work, they would get the job done.”


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