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SJV dairies eyed by Mid-South growers

It was the hottest week of the year, but Marksville, La., farmer Craig Laborde didn't mind at all the 110-degree weather that greeted him on his first visit to California's San Joaquin Valley.

“Back home this time of year when you walk out of the house at 5 a.m. you need oxygen it is so humid and hot. This is not bad,” said the young Louisiana cotton producer on his first look at Western agriculture.

“Haven't seen but one mosquito since we started our trip, and he was on the mirror in one of our hotel rooms. He'll breed no more,” commented Laborde in a Louisiana accent rare to hear in Riverdale, Calif., where Laborde was enjoying a lamb barbecue at the Errotabere Ranch on his farm tour through the heart of California farming.

The Louisiana cotton farmer was one of nine Mid-South cotton producers taking a close look at California and Arizona agriculture courtesy of the FMC Corp.-sponsored Producer Information Exchange (P.I.E.) program in conjunction with the National Cotton Council.

The lack of humidity and mosquitoes were not the only differences between the Mid-South and the Far West.

“It is a totally different agricultural world here. Back home we have to work at getting water off out fields (from heavy rains). Out here they don't have enough water to grow all the crops,” said Laborde.

However, it doesn't rain all the time in Louisiana, and Laborde must irrigate some seasons.

“I thought the only alternative we had was poly pipe, but we saw a lot of drip tape on cotton and other crops. That is an alternative I think we can look at back home,” said the Louisiana producer.

Diversity amazes

The diversity of California agriculture amazes visiting P.I.E. producers each summer. Unfortunately much of it like tree and vine crops cannot be duplicated in most other areas of the country.

This year, though, there was a crop that would fit the Mid-South and it was mentioned more than once by producers. It was silage corn.

David Wallace Jr. of Marion, Ark., was taken back by the thousands of acres of silage corn he saw flourishing in mid-summer to supply the rapidly expanding dairy industry not only in the San Joaquin Valley, but Arizona as well.

“I am going to call a few of the dairies out here and see if they'd like to move to the Delta,” laughed the young Arkansas farmer. “Silage corn is definitely something we can grow in the Delta. We grow grain corn now.”

Clark Cater of Rolling Fork, Miss., also made note of the dairy industry. “The cows do not seem to be hurting in the Arizona heat. Obviously, the dairymen have learned how to make it comfortable for them,” he said.

“We'd like to have some of those dairies in the Mid-South…silage corn would give us another cropping alternative,” said Wallace.

Cotton was what bonded the Mid-South producers with their California farmer hosts, but there are obvious difference between cotton in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas and California and Arizona. One is Pima cotton, which is not available to producers in the Mid South because of the wet weather and short season. It was tried in Mississippi several years ago when Extra Long Staple cotton reached more than $1 per pound. It's no longer there.

Upland holding fruit

“What I noticed about the (upland) cotton here is that it was holding the fruit and right now we are throwing fruit off. Our cotton is not holding fruit like it is here,” said Wallace.

“This cotton is so loaded up in California and Arizona, and it is not shedding,” said Carter. He said producers in his area spend a lot of money each year spraying pesticides to stop shed. However, he is not convinced plant bugs are the problem as much as weather is the cause.

Nevertheless, Carter said his 2002 crop is in good shape so far. “Maybe not as tall as the cotton we have seen in California and Arizona, but it is close.”

Carter also irrigates his crop and noticed the rows are taller in the West than in the Mid-South. “We have trouble sometimes with the water breaking over the rows. Maybe we out to make our rows a little taller,” he said.

“Listening to what the farmers have to face in California and Arizona because of the politics makes us appreciate what we have,” said Tunica, Miss., producer Buddy Allen.

“It is important for us in the cotton industry to understand the problems in the West. We need to make sure the West continues to have a viable cotton industry for the good of the entire Cotton Belt,” said Allen.

Water efficiency

“One thing is for sure, California cotton growers are very efficient in using the water they do get,” added Wallace.

The trip West also opened Laborde's eyes as a consumer.

“When we go to the store and buy garlic, we never think about where garlic comes from. We don't grow it in our part of the world, but we saw it growing here,” he said. “You can bet the next time I buy garlic, I'll think a lot more about the fellow farmer who grew it and what it takes to produce it.”

For most of the Mid-South group, this was their first trip West to see agriculture.

“I have wanted to go on a P.I.E. tour for several years and everyone I talked to told me I wanted to go west,” said Clark. “I don't mean to slight other parts of the Cotton Belt, but the West is so different. I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to see it.”

“The people in California and Arizona have been wonderful hosts,” said Wallace. “They have shown us so much — not only cotton, but all the other crops. We also visited some of those dairies I'd like to tell about the Delta.”

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