The High Cotton Award honors outstanding cotton production, coupled with exceptional stewardship of the land. But people are at its core.
Five cotton farmers, representing the diverse landscape of the U.S. cotton belt, delivered poignant words as they accepted the 2018 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award in a breakfast ceremony at the recent Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis.
The awards are sponsored by Farm Press through a grant to The Cotton Foundation, and highlight the conservation and environmental practices used by winners on their farms. But their acceptance speeches this year were about more —family, pride, and dedication to cotton.
TRUE COTTON FAMILY
Nick McMichen, the Southeast winner who farms with his family at Centre, Ala, interjected some humor in his speech: “In being chosen for this award, I’m kind of like picking the dog with the least fleas. There are a lot of people I think are more deserving than I am.
“But,” he said, “for over 100 years we have been a true cotton farming family. Cotton is more than just a crop for us — it is interwoven into our families, our farms, our communities, schools, and our churches. We live and breathe cotton.
“We are very fortunate to do this,” McMichen said, “and to take care of the land, because they don’t make any more of it, and if you don’t take care of it, it’s not going to take care of you. I’m one of the luckiest people on the face of this earth. I’ve never had a job in my life. I get up every day thankful I’m able to go to work on the farm. The Lord blessed us more than we deserve, and there is no more pride in any crop that we grow than in cotton. We cotton farmers are a unique group — we identify with each other.”
COTTON SUSTAINED US
“When I talk about cotton and cotton farmers, I get emotional,” said Joe Huerkamp, Macon, Miss., fighting back tears and pointing to his brother, Jack, who shared the High Cotton award for the Mid-South states.
“If it hadn’t been for cotton, I can tell you right now: Jack and I wouldn’t be here today.” The brothers farmed in partnership and together built what they now have, but recently divided up to begin farming with their immediate families.
“Most of y’all are old enough to remember the ‘80s and how bad those years were,” Joe told the audience, “and if it hadn’t been for cotton and getting back into cotton, we wouldn’t be farming today.”
From east to the west and in between, Joe said, “Cotton farmers are a close-knit group,” and he encouraged each person in the industry to “get in the game” by supporting cotton organizations at the local, state, and national levels. “If we can’t keep our political status, we’ll lose it,” he said. “There are so few of us cotton farmers left.”
His brother, Jack, said, “I want to leave my land better than I received it. I want to leave it more productive; I want to leave it with less erosion; I want to leave it with more organic matter. My goal in this life is to leave my land to my sons,” he said, choking back tears.
“I’m kind of like Joe: I love cotton. I love growing cotton. And I love talking about cotton. So, I get emotional about it. And to stand up here and get an award for something I love? It’s like, why give me this award? I’d be doing it anyway.”
A PRIVILEGED STEWARD
“First of all,” said Merlin Schantz, Hydro, Okla., “I really believe that it’s only by the grace of the Good Lord that we have the privilege and opportunity to be stewards of the land.” Pointing to his wife, Lillian, he praised her “for the hard work she has done on the farm, alongside me and our family, through some tough times.”
He now works in partnership with his sons and their wives, along with grandkids (and more grandkids soon to arrive).
Much like all this year’s winners, Schantz has been actively involved with on-farm cotton research for more than 25 years, cooperating with many Oklahoma Extension researchers. “They have truly made a significant difference in how we farm and operate,” he said.
“I don’t know where reports from this morning’s meeting will go, but I want to take this opportunity to say to our legislators: ‘We still need on-farm research, and our Extension Service is a valuable part of who and what we are. We need continued funding for that important research.’”
COMPLEXITY OF COTTON
“I truly appreciate the cotton industry,” said Ron Rayner, Goodyear, Ariz., “and I’ve had the opportunity to serve in a number of positions through the years, such as being chairman of the National Cotton Council. “It was thanks to the support from our family that I was able to take the time to do that service. If you don’t have some backup on the farm, you can’t be doing that.”
Serving in leadership positions, he said, offered the opportunity to better understand the complexity of the U.S. cotton industry. “Cotton is the most social crop that I grow,” he said, noting that the complexity includes the marketing arm, which for their operation is the marketing cooperative Calcot.
“Then there are the cotton gins, which are the processing arm of the industry; the seed companies that supply products; the Extension Service that provides information that’s useful to us on the farm; the National Cotton Council that’s the government relations arm for our business and for every other cotton business in the United States as well; and Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion arm for our industry.
“We all have a buy-in in every one of those areas, and it has taken all of them to make the cotton industry what it is today. I’ve been very proud to be a part of it.”
The High Cotton awards program is co-sponsored by Americot, AMVAC, Bayer FiberMax/Stoneville, PhytoGen, Dyna-Gro, John Deere, and Netafim.