Nestled into a corner of northeast Mississippi, cotton producer Joe Bostick must sometimes feel like a forgotten man. There is no irrigation here to bump cotton yields to super-high levels. Soils are thin and not always forgiving. This year, the only rain of any consequence came on the heels of three hurricanes that blew through the Gulf of Mexico.
But success isn’t always built on what we have, or what Mother Nature doles out. Rather success is measured by what we do with what we’ve got. And Joe Bostick is doing some good things with his 1,050-acre cotton operation near Golden, Miss.
For those accomplishments, Bostick has been named the 2006 High Cotton Award winner for the Delta states. He farms with his two sons, Ryan and Nathan, who help out at harvest and planting. There is full-time hand, Dale Ray, and part-time hand, Josh Brown, who helps out after tending to his job as a football manager at the University of Mississippi. Moral support comes from Bostick’s fiancé, Teresa Singleton, who works at the La-Z-Boy factory in nearby Belmont.
Bostick graduated from Mississippi State in 1971, and taught agriculture to high school students full-time while farming part-time with his father, Charles. He took over the cotton operation when his father retired in 1982.
He had taken cotton out of his crop mix in 1978 after the local gin closed, turning his attention to grain and soybeans. “We didn’t have Pix and cotton would just get too big,” Bostick explains.
In 1991, he started growing cotton again, and he’s been at it ever since. “He came back to his bread and butter,” says his consultant, Homer Wilson, who has been working for Bostick since 1996.
The return to cotton production was made without Bostick’s father, who died in an automobile crash in 1985 at an intersection a hundred yards from the farm headquarters.
Soon after returning to the crop he loved, Bostick emerged as a conservationist and top-notch cotton manager, eager to increase efficiency on the farm. He began with water and soil — building and maintaining terraces and grass waterways, improving drainage, and converting to no-till in order to conserve soil, fuel, and labor.
“One of the greatest benefits of no-till is the increase in organic matter,” consultant Wilson says. “There was a train of thought here in the hills that the ground was supposed to do what it was supposed to do. We really never used to give much thought to how our practices were affecting our yields.”
In fact, Bostick’s topsoil is very thin — just a few inches thick before running into barren red clay. Many fields are highly erodible, making his soil conservation efforts even more important. “You have to take care of it, or you’re going to be in trouble,” Wilson says.
Trouble often came in the form of stunted plants. “We were applying so many yellow herbicides that those thin places with no organic matter couldn’t handle it. Joe tried to build organic matter with corn, but in some cases, corn would die if we tried to rotate on some of this land.”
Bostick says, “No-till has provided us with the organic matter in the soil to handle these herbicides, although we don’t have to use as many now that we have herbicide-resistant crops. But no-till was a great plus, and has boosted our overall yields. It brought yield between poor land and good land closer together.”
He continues to rotate cotton with corn on a field-by-field basis. “We notice when the cotton yields start dropping during the year, and we try to rotate it with corn the following year. The soil needs a rest from the cotton.” He can usually count on a 150-pound yield increase in cotton following corn.
No-till has helped from a labor perspective as well, Bostick says, noting that. “dependable farm labor is almost non-existent in this part of the country.” Controlling and slowing the flow of water on cotton fields is an ongoing project. During rains, he will often travel around the farm to get a better understanding of how surface water moves across his fields. His farm sits on a divide between the Tennessee-Tombigbee and Tennessee River waterways. Some land drains into the Tombigbee basin, but most drains into the Tennessee basin.
He’s built parallel terraces on larger fields, diversion channels, and wide grass waterways. Drainage pipes built into the terraces take water off the fields into a ditch, lake, or a wooded area. To keep soil on the farm, he’s installed grass turnrows on most of the field edges. The grass – some seeded, some volunteer – also does a good job of keeping down dust.
He’s built parallel terraces on larger fields, diversion channels, and wide grass waterways. Drainage pipes built into the terraces take water off the fields into a ditch, lake, or a wooded area. To keep soil on the farm, he’s installed grass turnrows on most of the field edges. The grass – some seeded, some volunteer – also does a good job of keeping down dust.
Bostick is known for rescuing some tough ground from potential ruin and making it profitable. For example, he acquired one field in 1991 where erosion “had torn it up pretty badly. I signed up with the Soil Conservation Service and we built it up with terraces and ran drainage pipes.”
He has dramatically improved yields on the field, too. “In the long run, you make more cotton with the terraces.” In 1995, Bostick took advantage of USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help pay for converting to no-till cotton production on a couple of 50-acre fields. The cost-share program helped him purchase no-till equipment, and helped launch a 100 percent conversion to no-till.
A conservationist and a good farm manager have a lot in common, says consultant Wilson. “One thing that impresses me most about Joe is that he carries out recommendations quickly and accurately. From time to time, I might see a low spot that might need some drainage or some dirt work, and I’d tell Joe about it. It wouldn’t be long before it got done. He doesn’t put things off.”
“Conservation can be aggravating sometimes,” says Bostick, who does his own dirt work,“but in the end, it’s worth it. If you have a weak spot in the field and you let it continue to wash, it gets worse. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, it will pay.” He has won several local awards for his conservation work, serves as chairperson of the FSA county committee, and has also served as commissioner of the Tishomingo County Soil and Water Conservation District.
In nominating Bostick for the award, Wilson noted, “He has many fields with a 50-foot, fringe wildlife area that also catches runoff and prevents stream pollution. He uses these practices to protect the land for future generations, specifically his sons’ future livelihood.”
Phillip A. Horn executive director of the Alcorn/Tishomingo County FSA office, noted, “Joe has set the benchmark on all aspects of hill farming, and through his example, showed others that it can be done.”
There is no age limit on the beneficiaries of Bostick’s efforts. One afternoon in late September, he hosted a group of first graders from nearby Tishomingo Elementary School. Each had a small sack for picking a few bolls of cotton. He and his hands stopped the cotton harvesting operation long enough for the kids to fill their sacks and ask a few dozen questions about the crop. It was hard to tell who was having more fun — the kids, or Bostick.
For Virginia growers Cliff 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. winners of the 2006 High Cotton Award.
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 — peanuts. Add to the increase in peanut production, continued cotton losses to boll weevils, and by the 1950s cotton was no longer king and 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 the first 100 acres we planted was done with very little knowledge about the crop,” he said.
“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,” the Virginia grower explains.
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 over did 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 seed bed for cotton. “We handle our cover crop a little different from some growers,” Fox says. “We have found that when we kill the wheat 2-3 weeks prior to running the strip-till rig, the stubble tends to go away before we plant,” he said.
They use a burn down 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 affect 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 costs more in herbicide costs in some crops, 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” (Holland, Va, is about 30 miles from Capron, Va.), 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 said.
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 said.
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 said.
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.
Buck Braswell walks through stalks left standing from last year’s cotton crop, stopping occasionally to kick up remnants of grain sorghum stubble, residue from 2004. He stoops, digs his hands into the loose, grayish-black soil and sifts it through his fingers, like a miner, panning for gold nuggets.
No shiny stones turn up here but Braswell picks out bits and pieces of rich organic matter, decomposing and adding value to his South Texas fields. He points to a tractor and bedding rig running across the far end of the field and explains how he’s rowing up a bed, through last summer’s cotton stalks, for next spring’s grain sorghum crop. He says soil erosion will not be a significant problem in this field.
Braswell values soil and does all he can not only to conserve it, but also to make it better than he finds it. Conservation makes sense. He contends that the better he maintains the soil the better cotton crop it will make. It makes economic sense as well, saving him trips across the field, allowing him to farm more acreage with fewer and smaller tractors, less expensive diesel fuel and fewer man hours.
And yields remain equal to or better than many farmers who continue to follow conventional tillage methods. Braswell’s dedication to conservation, along with his unselfish willingness to help other growers learn about and adopt conservation practices, earned him the 2006 Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southwest.
Braswell will accept the award in January at the Annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, Texas. He made his first reduced-tillage crop in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1992. He had done some conservation tillage in Mississippi before moving to Texas. “Yield on that first con-till crop was just as good as conventional,” he says.
He’s refined the system since and follows the same basic procedures in both cotton and grain sorghum. “We’re producing crops as good as anyone around us,” he says. Braswell plants cotton in grain sorghum stubble and grain sorghum in cotton stalks. “We never pull stalks,” he says. “It’s important to leave those stalks.” He says, in addition to adding organic matter to the soil, stalks and root systems keep channels open for water to penetrate and for the next crop to follow to moisture. “I always follow the same rows, every year. Controlled traffic is a key for conservation tillage.”
Braswell follows a fairly simple procedure. He uses a John Deere Max Emerge planter. “I just add a disk on the front to move dry soil,” he says. “I put out seed, no insecticide hoppers, no herbicide tanks. I just plant. And I use bulk seed, so we don’t have to lift bags anymore.” Braswell doesn’t use a total no-till system. “I put up a little row,” he says, “and use the same ones every year.”
He likes to “bed up the land” in the fall, after September rains. “I don’t want to bed up too early, because all rain water will run off when the middles are clean of debris,” he says. “I leave the stubble in the beds to hold that moisture and will put up beds in October. Then I hope we get rains before planting to replenish moisture.”
He manages residual stalks with a Prep Master before planting. “I kill cotton stalks just after harvest with 2,4-D to prevent boll weevils from reproducing late in the year. I may hit it three times. I get checked a lot on stalk destruction, but this system works better than mechanical destruction. Often I can’t find any (stalks) alive after spraying. I can get near 100 percent stalk destruction by spraying. I can’t do that well when pulling stalks.”
He says growers have to be meticulous about spraying to assure proper coverage. He runs the Prep Master over grain sorghum stubble too, usually a week before planting. “I have no trouble getting a stand with minimal-till cotton,” Braswell says. “That was a concern back in the early 1990s but since 1995 and 1996, we’ve gotten excellent stands. But we will do whatever it takes to get a cotton stand. We only get that one shot at it, so we make certain we get it up. I rarely have to replant.”
Weed control has posed few problems either. He uses all Roundup Ready varieties and will apply Prowl pre-emergence only to irrigated acreage. “I may use some Diuron in a rainy summer. “I’ll plant as many Roundup Flex, stacked varieties as I can get in 2006,” he says. “Roundup Ready has made a big difference in farmers’ acceptance of reduced tillage systems.” He expects Roundup Flex, with a broader application window, will be even more useful in reduced tillage systems.
The current system has worked well. “I have no serious weed problems but I realize that Roundup is not good on some weeds, and I could run into some trouble down the road.” He uses a hooded sprayer to take care of in-season weeds. He’s careful with spray application, for either weed or insect pests. “Spray drift can cause a lot of damage and ill will,” he says. “But we can spray without drift if we do it right. We have to be aware of the wind.” He uses a high cycle and a hooded spryer for spraying insecticides and herbicides. He is careful with either.
“We have to be mindful of people’s property,” he says. “Folks spend a lot of money on their yards and they don’t want their plants damaged. If we’re careful, we can draw a fine line with a sprayer and keep drift from being a problem.” Cultivation plays no part in his weed management system. “I own no disks or field cultivators,” he says.
He recently took in a 500-acre farm and had to run a chisel plow to get it ready to plant. “Even when I chisel, I leave residue on the surface,” he says. That residue is important in the Valley. “We get a lot of wind erosion down here.” Rotation keeps yields up. “We simply can’t plant cotton after cotton here,” he says. “Cotton yields will drop by half if we don’t rotate.” He says milo responds to reduced tillage even better than cotton. “Yield improvement seems better with the grain,” he says.
Braswell says current high energy prices may encourage other Rio Grande Valley farmers to cut back on tillage. “We’re saving a lot of diesel fuel with minimal tillage. I haven’t bought diesel since mid-season,” he said in mid-October. “My neighbors are buying it every week. And at $2.23 a gallon, it’s a big expense.”
Steel price jumps also add up. “Steel cost is a big issue for a farmer,” he says. “Sweeps are up 40 percent since last year, but we only put up that little row so we only use a sweep once a year.” He figures equipment lasts 30 percent to 40 percent longer because of reduced tillage. “I don’t go to the shop for repairs nearly as often as I used to. We spend very little money on equipment repair. “We use less equipment, probably 60 percent to 70 percent less than we did with conventional tillage. And we use smaller equipment. We just don’t need the high horsepower.”
In addition to fuel, soil, labor and equipment savings, Braswell believes his nutrient program works better. He’s participated in a variable rate fertility program and says his soils show more uniform nutrient distribution than conventionally tilled fields. “Also, I have higher organic matter content.” He says the organic matter provides a “distinct difference during drought. At planting time I see an obvious difference in the amount of planting moisture available. That’s an established fact.”
In addition to his minimum till conservation program, Braswell also keeps soil out of the Arroyo Colorado River that runs by one of his fields. He’s built a buffer between the field and the river, built low berms to divert water away from the river and is planting grass to help hold the soil. He thinks precision farming will be the next step in improving farm efficiency. Global Positioning System (GPS) agriculture “is the way to go,” he says. “I intend to work on it in the next few years. It will improve farming. The technology is amazing and will allow us to be more accurate with spraying, planting and the other practices we do on a farm. We will be able to apply chemicals with GPS and save $4 to $5 an acre because of improved accuracy. We will save on seed, too.
“Every application on the farm, within five years, will be adaptable to GPS. A lot of us said we would never use a computer on a farm. Now, we all have them. It will be the same with GPS.”
Braswell has been a willing teacher for other farmers interested in learning about reduced tillage systems. He speaks at five or six meetings a year, sharing what he’s learned about reduced tillage. “And hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t call asking for information,” he says.
He provides that counsel willingly because it’s a production philosophy he believes in. “In this area, we now have thousands of acres that have not had a plow in 10 or 15 years,” he says. “A lot of neighbors who have adopted reduced tillage have been able to make a crop when some with conventional systems could not. And conventional farming has higher production costs.” Braswell says the percentage of reduced till acreage goes up every year, he estimates by around 10 percent. “Five yeas ago, very few were into reduced tillage, but we see a lot of it now. We don’t have as much bare land in the fall as we used to see. And landlords are beginning to request that we use reduced tillage methods on their land. They have seen the advantages.”
Buck Braswell drives the back roads of Willacy County, showing us the bare autumn landscape where the country’s earliest cotton crop was harvested back in mid-summer. He points out fields with cotton stalks still standing and tells how one farmer or another recently switched to conservation tillage. He’s pleased at how much better these farmers like the system than what they had done before, many for decades.
He doesn’t say so, but other observers contend that Braswell may have played a key role in encouraging the change. Calling him an evangelist for no-till may be a bit over the top but it somehow seems appropriate. He’s not a pushy type, but given the opportunity to talk about what conservation tillage will do, he’s more than willing to share what he knows.
Wally Shropshire of Blythe and famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille of Hollywood share a lot more in common than just calling California home. They both are epic creators -- gathering together casts of thousands to attract millions: Wally even more so than the late Cecil.
Shropshire has been orchestrating — with a supporting production ensemble of hundreds — a cast of trillions that saved millions from a horde of lurking evildoers. Wally’s legacy over the past 38 years would make Hollywood proud. However, Wally’s work will never get him invited to Oscar night, but there are thousands of cotton growers who would be more than willing to dole out statues by the truckloads for the accomplishments of the band Wally leads.
Former California Department of Food and Agriculture director Jack Parnell called the epic Wally has directed since 1974 “The Greatest Story Never Told.” Western Farm Press and the Cotton Foundation are telling the story this year with its Far West High Cotton Award for 2006. Rather than honor a farm family for producing cotton with a commitment to environmental stewardship, this year’s Far West High Cotton award goes down a different path. The honor goes to the California Cotton Pest Control Board or as it is better known, “The California Pink Bollworm program,” and its chairman Shropshire is accepting the High Cotton Award at this year’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, Texas.
Why? The answer is simple. It is undoubtedly the world’s most successful and longest running area wide integrated biological pest control program, and the program with a current budget of $5.5 million has been funded virtually with 100 percent grower funds almost from its inception nearly four decades ago.
It is a program that has negated the use of millions of pounds of pesticides. The California San Joaquin Valley pink bollworm exclusion program is an environmental benchmark for the ages.
There have been at least 38 million acres of some of the highest quality cotton produced in the world in California’s San Joaquin Valley since growers banded together and opened their checkbooks to keep the pink bollworm — the world’s most destructive cotton pest — out of the San Joaquin. Using a conservative 2.5-bale average, this acreage represents roughly 100 million bales of cotton.
And Wally’s entourage has succeeded longer than anyone imagined in the beginning, using an integrated pest control approach, relying on trapping, sterile release, crop residue destruction, and pheromone confusion technology to keep PBW infestations below economic impact levels for decades.
Since 1968, at last 20 trillion irradiated, sterile pink bollworm moths have been aerially distributed over the San Joaquin for 38 years this to keep PBW at bay. “Bottom line is that the California cotton industry would not be here today without the pink bollworm program,” said Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. Williams has logged 40 years in the California cotton industry and added, “We would have run out of options a long time ago and likely would be where the Imperial Valley and other desert cotton growing areas are today had growers not formed the cotton pest control board and funded out of their own pockets the pink bollworm program.” In 1977 there were 140,000 acres of cotton and 12 cotton gins in Imperial Valley. Today there is one gin and less than 12,000 acres, and the pink bollworm is largely responsible for that.
At the height of the pink bollworm infestation, desert cotton producers were spending annually an average of $125 per acre in Palo Verde Valley and $175 per acre in Imperial Valley trying to control pink bollworm. It was not uncommon at the height of the pink bollworm problems for a grower to spend $300 per acre on pesticide sprays.
Not one SJV cotton producer has spent a single dime to apply a pesticide to control PBW. It costs SJV producers about $2 per bale or about $5 per acre annually for that rare privilege. At four or five bales, it is still a bargain at $8 to $10 per acre.
PBW became a major problem for Arizona and Southern California cotton producers in the mid-1960s. Jack Stone, Stratford, Calif., cotton producer, like Shropshire, is one of the two original board members still serving, recalled a group of SJV producers going to Arizona and Southern California to see first hand what type of threat they were facing.
Less than 300 miles separate Blythe, Calif., where the PBW was wreaking havoc at that time and Bakersfield, Calif., where there were no pink bollworms. Growers and researchers were convinced it would only be a matter of time before PBW would reach the San Joaquin without an area wide exclusion effort, recalled Stone.
“We realized early on that it would jeopardize our livelihoods, and we decided to form the cotton pest control board to develop a plan to address the problem,” said Stone. The producers went to the legislature to get the authority to levy an assessment to support the use of sterile insects to overwhelm native populations.
Surprisingly, it was not a novel idea 40 years ago. It had been used since 1953 to control screwworm, an insect that feeds only on the living tissue of warm-blooded animals. It was a major problem for American livestock.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) entomologist used the technique first to eradicate screwworm in the Southeast and then the program was expanded to eventually eradicate the screwworm from the entire United States, Mexico and most of Central America.
Screwworm eradication from the U.S. began in 1962 under the direction of ARS labs in Kerrville and in Mission, Texas. Shropshire said it was from the work at Mission that the California sterile release pink bollworm program had its beginning.
“The amazing thing to me back then and still today, is how very few cotton growers objected to the bale assessment we used to start and maintain the program,” said Stone. “Growers have always willingly paid it and it has been a tremendously successful program over the years. It has exceeded my expectations by far.
“I am almost certain that the pink bollworm program is why we are still growing cotton in the San Joaquin Valley today,” said Stone. Bill Tracy, partner in the family-owned Buttonwillow Land and Cattle Co. in Kern County, was introduced to the idea of releasing sterile moths to control native pests when he returned to the farm after Army Reserve active duty in the late 1960s.
Informational meetings were being conducted in the valley at that time and “you can imagine the initial reaction of pre-bio engineering farmers when state bureaucrats (from the California Department of Food and Agriculture) were suggesting releasing the most devastating cotton critter in the world over the San Joaquin Valley.” It took some convincing that there would be no non-sterile moths inadvertently released as part of the sterile drops.
Fortunately, said Tracy, Shropshire was at those early meetings telling SJV growers, “Gentlemen, the Palo Verde Valley is already infested, and I’d give a million dollars to be in your shoes with the opportunity to prevent the pink bollworm from getting into your valley.”
In 1967 the state of California paid to spray every acre of cotton in the Palo Verde Valley 13 times with Sevin to prevent the pink bollworm from getting into the desert valley, recalled Shropshire. And the state even mandated that cotton trailers crossing into California from Arizona across the Colorado River had to be fumigated before going to the gins on the California side. Attempts to keep pink bollworm on the Arizona side of the river failed and desert cotton growers have had to live with the pinkie ever since.
‘We were naive’
“We were naive to think the pinkie would not cross the Colorado,” he said.
“There was no question in my mind had we not had the sterile program all these years, we would have a hellacious pinkie problem in the San Joaquin today,” said Shropshire. Jeff Hildebrand of Bakersfield, Calif., recently went off the cotton pest control board after having served since 1984. His family has farmed in California since 1937.
“The pink bollworm program is one of the least known, most environmentally sound pest control programs in the country. It has saved California growers millions of dollars while costing them next to nothing. Just the environmental significance of the amount of pesticides it has saved growers is staggering,” said Hildebrand.
One of the key people in the success of the program has been USDA entomologist Bob Staten who has been involved with the program since 1970. He has been an adviser to the board and has conducted numerous PBW research projects both in the San Joaquin and in the desert valleys. "The success of this program is huge,
(See CALIFORNIA, Page 30) you just look at what hasn't happened in the SJV. In the history of the program, there has only been one incidence of a measurable infestation in the SJV. (Buttonwillow). No grower in the SJV has ever had to apply pesticides for pink bollworm control,” said Staten. CDFA brought that Buttonwillow infestation under control. CDFA has managed the program since its inception. Bob Roberson was branch chief of the CDFA Integrated Pest Control branch and worked with the program from 1977 until he retired in 2000.
“It was amazing how visionary the board was in seeing the importance of keeping pink bollworm out of the valley — how growers and ginners like Wally and Jack and others had the vision to see what was needed,” said Roberson.
“And these men followed the direction of an outstanding group of scientists like Bob Staten, Fred Stewart and Tom Miller. Dr. James Brazil was another entomologist who was a key part of the program, especially when the board got involved in eradicating the boll weevil in Arizona and from Southern California,” said Roberson.
Working with the cotton pest control board and these scientists “was the highlight of my career,” said the retired CDFA administrator.
Jim Rudig is program supervisor for the program. He began his CDFA career as a temporary employee working on the new technology of releasing sterile PBW moths to overwhelm any native populations in 1967. When a sterile moth mates with a native, there is no offspring and it breaks the generation cycle.
“Everything we did in the beginning was new technology and it was not very sophisticated,” said Rudig. One of the challenges initially was find how to effectively release the sterile PBW moths.
“In the screwworm program, they irradiated and released larvae. They found you could not do that with pink bollworm. We had to release the moths,” recalled Rudig. The first releases were done by hand with moths inserted into toilet paper tubes stuffed with excelsior—“bunny grass. Yea, the stuff you find in Easter baskets. I remember going to the drug store in Bakersfield and buying all the bunny grass in the store to stuff in toilet paper tubes. We would walk the cotton fields putting out the moths in those paper tubes,” said Rudig.
That quickly gave way to the successful development of aerial release equipment to blanket the valley weekly with sterile PBW moths during the growing season.
“In the beginning it amazed me how careful the members of the cotton pest control board were to protect the cotton industry. In the 60s, most of the leaders were young men yet they have always exhibited a vision into the future for their industry,” said Rudig.
Rudig brings a unique perspective to the program because interspersed with his work on the PBW program have been stints eradicating Medfly infestations from urban areas. “It has been extremely gratifying to work on the pink bollworm program because of my experience in using pesticides to eradicate Medfly,” he said.
“I am not against the use of pesticides. They are important to control insect pests if done properly, but when you can do what cotton growers have done working with CDFA for almost 40 years, it is truly amazing,” said Rudig, who was a leader in moving the PBW technology to the fight against Medfly.
Rudig said it is almost impossible to keep Medfly out of California’s urban areas like Southern California, and CDFA now aerially drops sterile Medfly over the Los Angeles area to minimize infestations.
Using sterile insect releases to keep a pest at bay is a numbers game, but those numbers can be deceiving, pointed out Rudig. Trapping to capture both sterile and native PBW is an integral part of the program.
“In 2005 we released 231 million steriles and captured 231,000 in traps. Because we are trapping only males, that represents only two-tenths of 1 percent. We trapped only 116 natives at the same time,” said Rudig. However, if you use the same trap percentage as sterile moths, “it is easy to recognize that a native population can quickly get away from you without a sterile release program. Just because you caught one native moth does not mean it is the only one out there.”
Early on in the program there were doubts expressed that the pink bollworm could overwinter in the San Joaquin Valley. Staten researched the issue with caged cotton plots in the middle of Kern County cotton field one season. He recorded five generations in those cages; end of debate about overwintering.
Williams has high praise for the board and the CDFA crew that runs the program. In recent years the board has approved funding for CDFA trapping for silverleaf whitefly, a potentially devastating pest that can cause severe damage to cotton lint and the valley’s high quality cotton reputation.
The California growers and ginners groups have conducted an aggressive campaign to prevent sticky cotton caused by whitefly. “The trapping by CDFA has been very extensive and very informative. It gives us a clue as to where sticky cotton issues may arise and allows us to address it quickly,” said Williams. With cotton acreage declining, revenue for the cotton pest control board PBW program has been declining.
“The board was facing budgetary constraints and were looking to cut back whitefly trapping. We encouraged them to stay with the program and they accommodated us. Every cotton grower in the San Joaquin appreciates that very much.
“And, I might add Jim Rudig has done a fantastic job with the program,” he said. Another critical element in keeping PBW at bay is a mandatory plowdown regulation to reduce overwintering habitat for the pest. Conservation tillage is a new technology several SJV growers are trying and in that system, complete plowdown may not be possible.
“The board and the CDFA people did not stonewall these efforts. Instead they adopted some rules that will allow growers to experiment with conservation tillage without compromising the integrity of the pink bollworm program,” said Williams. “That is the kind of flexibility and continued support for the cotton industry that has been repeatedly displayed by CDFA and the board.”
While the majority of the funds collected have been to support SJV pink bollworm suppression, Southern California cotton growers have not been ignored. The board has funded research there over the years.
Ironically, the next and possibly final chapter of pink bollworm story in the Western U.S. and Mexico may be written in Southern California along with Arizona, New Mexico, Far West Texas and Northern Mexico where the pink bollworm has been a constant threat since the mid-1960s.
Growers in these area have been able to stay in the cotton business with the use of pheromone confusion and reduced pesticide use. Now eradication may be possible.
“Bt cotton could be the final piece of the puzzle that will allow us to truly consider eradicating the pink bollworm from the U.S. and Mexico,” said Shropshire. Pheromones and Bt cotton have reduced pink bollworm populations in many areas to levels where massive sterile release drops like are done each year in the San Joaquin can possibly eradicate pink bollworm by overwhelming native populations.
Bob Hull is a long time Palo Verde Valley cotton grower who was a young man just out of college when pink bollworm greeted his return to the family farm near Blythe, Calif. “There were airplanes flying all over the place when I came back to the farm. I did not know what was going on,” he said. He quickly found out and also found himself in a leadership role of talking to growers about area wide programs to keep the PBW at bay.
Bt cotton value
“Bt cotton is keeping us in the cotton business today. Without that technology, cotton would be little more than a rotation crop,” said Hull is a member of the National Cotton Council Pink Bollworm Action Committee, which has been the focal point of the emerging eradication program.
“I was so pleased to make the motion to support an eradiation effort. If we can use the same technology to eradicate the pink bollworm as has been used to keep it out of the San Joaquin Valley — Wow!”
Sterile moths for this eradication effort will come from the rearing facility built in Phoenix 10 years ago with California cotton grower money.
"Wally and the board came through in 1994 with support to build a new state of the art 60,000-square foot rearing facility in Arizona that has allowed us to exponentially increase our rearing capacity and scientific knowledge,” said Staten.
“At that time we were hoping to rear 8 million to 10 million insects per day. Today because of that resource, we expect to turn out 22 million insects per day. It's all been possible because San Joaquin Valley growers had, and continue to have, the foresight to invest in the future. It was a huge unleashing of energy, and the board made it happen," said Staten.
If the eradication effort in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Far West Texas and northern Mexico is successful, sterile moth drops would likely end in the San Joaquin. However, trapping would continue.
“The combination of Bt cotton, pheromones and sterile releases is a pretty bright light at the end of the tunnel toward that elusive goal of eradication,” said Shropshire. “Eradication may put me out of a job, but I would not be happier.”
Shropshire began his California cotton career in 1954 when he moved to Palo Verde Valley to manage a cotton gin. He farmed cotton from 1955 to 1992. Today he’s “semi” retired, but keeps official ties to the industry as a business associate with Hull Farms. Shropshire is known as a joke teller. He always has a new one to share, but make no mistake he takes seriously the job of pest control board chairman. Tracy credits Shropshire’s leadership in always keeping the future of the cotton industry on the table in making visionary decisions.
Pink bollworm bull
“Every successful organization or program has their share of worker bees, but there is always one old range bull whose unflagging energy, through good and bad times, keeps everything heading in the right direction,” said Tracy.
“I know the intention of Western Farm Press and the Cotton Foundation is to salute the whole cotton pest control board program and the many state and university staff plus the myriad of current and past board members, but Wally Shropshire is that old bull in the pink bollworm world.”
And, everyone knows you don’t mess with an old range bull. If you don’t believe that, ask Wally about the time he called the governor of California a “thief” for “borrowing” $4 million of cotton grower money to fund a state budget shortfall.
He got the money back — with interest owed — and then led a legislative effort to allow state boards funded with grower money to deposit funds in a private bank, safe from greedy bureaucratic hands. Now most state boards keep funds in private bank accounts. Along the way, the governor refused to re-appoint Wally to the local fair board. It didn’t faze the old range bull. He collected interest from the governor.