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January 26, 2024
By Brad Robb, Southern Cotton Growers
On a clear day, Smithfield, Virginia cotton producer Philip Edwards can look across the James River and see the Newport News Shipyards where he once worked as a journeyman shipbuilder framing up the massive structures that would eventually become U.S. aircraft carriers. The work was arduous and always carried with it an element of risk.
“My son and I did our time there,” laughs Edwards. “It was good training and gave us a skillset applicable to the metal and welding work we use on the farm every year.”
The Edwards family’s farming history in the area dates back to the 1600s. In the 1930s, his grandparents started off sharecropping and later purchased the 180 acres of land now called the “home place.” Just about every farm Edwards works at meets tidal water from the James River before flowing into Chesapeake Bay.
“Our geography is relatively flat and our fields are small with wooded edges,” says Edwards, who is tapped as the next president of the Southern Cotton Growers. “We have a lot of tributaries, and water from those tributaries encroach the land, so many of our farms are bordered by either a creek, stream or the river.”
Edwards’ service on association boards is extensive. He was tapped to be a delegate on the National Cotton Council in 2007. He went through the council’s Emerging Leaders Program where he learned about the cotton industry’s infrastructure, issues affecting its economic well-being, and the council’s policy development and implementation process.
“That program also showed me how Cotton Council International, the export promotion arm of the council, develops and maintains key international cotton markets,” says Edwards. “I saw how the council carries out its mission to ensure the U.S. cotton industry can effectively and profitably compete in the raw cotton, oilseed and U.S.-manufactured product markets at home and abroad.”
He has 17 years of service on the board of Cotton Incorporated where he is the current Chairman of the Governance Committee, and past Chairman of the Pension Committee. Edwards has witnessed the benefits of having a strong program supporting the research and promotion of cotton against apparel and home furnishings constructed from unsustainable man-made fibers.
Edwards began his two-year term as President of Southern Cotton Growers at the Southern Southeastern 2024 Annual Meeting Jan 22.
“When J. W. Jones became Virginia’s first President of Southern Cotton Growers, I started as an ex-officio member and I’ve been on a rotation since then,” says Edwards. “It will be an honor serving the association whose efforts I have benefitted from for decades. The work they have done on behalf of all cotton growers in the southeast is beyond commendable. I look forward to building on that tradition of success.”
Joe Martin, former president of Southern Cotton Growers, will switch gears and move to chairman of the board.
As outgoing President Joe Martin, North Carolina cotton producer, also has deep roots in farming. Sixty acres of his farmland have been worked by his family for 200 years. His service to U.S. cotton is also steeped in training and leadership.
“I graduated from Automotive and Diesel Technical College in 1994,” says Martin. “I participated in the National Cotton Council’s Producer Information Exchange ‘PIE Tour’ in 2008, their Policy Education Program in 2009 and Multi-Commodity Education Program in 2014.”
Martin understands how factors outside of agriculture, like urban encroachment, may place farming’s future at risk. His farm is part of the North Hampton County Voluntary Ag District, which provides farm education to non-farmers who purchase property close to farming operations. The program was so successful, it has since been adopted by all 100 counties across North Carolina.
“Serving on boards takes time away from my family and farm, but the time I spend in leadership positions with organizations like North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, North Carolina Farm Bureau and Southern Cotton Growers, helps maintain the strength, continuity, and long-term viability of the cotton industry and U.S. agriculture in general,” says Martin.
Work continued during Martin’s term as President of Southern Cotton Growers by advancing a unique program designed to evaluate cotton seed lots for warm and cool germination. After the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association began the pilot Cotton Seed Quality Testing Program in 2020, they made a recommendation to Southern Cotton Growers, and in 2021, the Planting Seed Task Force was created. The task force is chaired by Virginia’s Lewis Everett.
“That task force met several times over the past two years, and we are promoting a similar program to all southeastern states,” says Martin. “We hope, ultimately, a database will be developed and assessable to all cotton producers across the southeast.”
When Edwards starts as new President, Martin will move into the Chairman of the Board position previously held by Chester, South Carolina’s Rusty Darby.
“Joe is a great team builder and industry leader. He was able to gather input and ideas from board members and move them into recommendations and action,” says Darby. “Philip understands the organizational by-laws and policies. I’m confident he will use his leadership experience to move Southern Cotton Growers and its initiatives forward over the next two years.”
This change in board leadership will occur in lockstep with a significant administrative change at Southern Cotton Growers, when Dave Ruppenicker, who had 23 years of service to the association retired. Ruppenicker was succeeded by Jim Davis, a fifth-generation farmer and long-time National Cotton Council member services representative from New Market, Alabama. Davis officially became CEO on Jan. 1.
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