Several years ago, Bells, Tenn., cotton producer Jimmy Hargett took a piece of soap stone and with the concrete floor of his shop as his canvas, sketched the rudimentary elements of a cotton harvester that would revolutionize the cotton industry.

When his design for a cotton harvester with an on-board module builder hit the market a few years ago, Hargett’s goal to significantly reduce the labor required for cotton harvest was accomplished. The Case IH 625 Module Express Harvester, with much of Hargett’s design intact, is now on the market. Hargett runs three of the harvesters on his cotton operation.

The irony is not lost on Hargett that today — due to high grain and soybean prices — much of the labor that Hargett removed from his cotton operation is now firmly entrenched in his grain harvest. But that’s beside the point.

Hargett takes it all in stride, and true to form, wonders why somebody isn’t working on a design for a combine with an on-board grain-bag maker that deposits 12-foot-long bags filled with grain and sealed against the elements.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the job eventually fell to Hargett, a hands-on, hard-working farmer whose unconventional mind, dedication to the cotton industry and quest for efficiency, profit and conservation make him the Mid-South High Cotton Award winner for 2010.

Hargett “is genuinely dedicated to the cotton industry,” said Peter Peerbolte, with Bayer CropScience, who nominated Hargett for the award. “He’s an engineer with an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Hargett farms about 1,700 acres of cotton, along with soybeans, corn and milo on the rolling hills of west Tennessee. Hargett and his wife Pat, have a son, Stoney, who is also a farmer, and two daughters, Darla and Jennifer.

Like most Mid-South cotton producers, Hargett sees profitable cotton production as any favorable combination of price, yield and production cost. But there are limits. “I believe that every time cotton gets past 80 cents a pound, it hurts us. I’d like to see 70-cent to 75-cent cotton. That would bring back some consistency in the cotton industry.”

Hargett also believes there’s a “magic number” each year in west Tennessee for cotton profitability, “and I think it’s probably around $500 an acre. Before you ever put a penny in your pocket, you have to pay out that much. Making 800 pounds at 60 cents won’t do it, but 800 pounds at 75 cents and you’ve done something.”

Hargett aims for yields of 800 to 1,000 pounds on non-irrigated ground, and 950 pounds to 1,400 pounds on irrigated fields. Almost a third of Hargett’s acreage is irrigated, all with center pivots.

Most of Hargett’s focus through the years has been on reducing his production costs without impacting yield or quality. Practices he’s implemented on the farm include no-till, skip-row cotton, various implement guidance systems, precision farming techniques and a string of innovative picker designs that were eventually commercialized.

Hargett’s conversion to no-till cotton did not come easy. “Every acre I used to work — I used a moldboard plow. I thought you had to break ground 10 inches deep to make a cotton crop.”

The resulting gullies were so deep “you had to have a tractor out there to fill the ditches in so you could cross them with a cotton picker. I was the hard headedest person in the world about no-till. I always said, ‘no till, no yield.’ But I found out the hard way that in west Tennessee, it’s by far a whole lot better.”

Today, the farm’s soils are protected by terraces, diversions, grass waterways, buffer strips and silt basins, all built by Hargett during his 47 years of farming.

A silt basin is a conservation practice which consists of a small berm built between a low spot in a field and a ditch which drains the field. A pipe running through the berm allows water to drain slowly from the field. It not only keeps sediment in the field, but prevents water from washing back up the hill.

Saving soil is an ongoing battle for Hargett. “In the Delta, they fix ground to keep it level. In west Tennessee, we fix ground to keep it from washing away. We have to fight erosion every day. We have so many fields and hollows. You don’t realize how much erosion is there until you look a silt basin. I’ve seen them fill up with over 8-10 feet of sediment. We put 6-foot pipes on them and have to come back and put extensions on them.”

Hargett was one of a few growers who continued to spray Cotoran behind the planter and use hooded sprayers in his cotton crop, even as herbicide-resistant crops were coming in vogue.

The benefits were not as clear back then, but today, it’s obvious these practices have kept resistant weeds at bay for Hargett and helped him preserve the no-till system that keeps soil and chemicals on the farm and out of ditches.

The hoods, in combination with skip-row cotton have also saved money because he’s able to band his applications. For example, “I have a nozzle over every row putting out Centric and Envoke. The application rate for every chemical you buy is figured at 40-inches. I’m spraying 10-inches. So I’m spending 25 percent of what everybody else is doing with a broadcast application and doing the same job.”

When resistant weeds popped up on Hargett’s farm several years ago, he solved the problem by going to FiberMax varieties containing LibertyLink technology which allowed for the application of Ignite herbicide. Other cotton varieties on the farm include PhytoGen, Deltapine and Stoneville brands.

Hargett makes sure the crop has all the crop inputs necessary for high yield and good cotton quality. But when potash prices shot up to as high as $1,000 a ton in 2008, Hargett decided to take a closer look at his fertility program. “Every year before that, I had fertilized heavily. I thought it helped and secondly, if I ever did get in a financial bind, I could raise two crops of soybeans without any fertilizer.”

After potash prices rose, Hargett decided to grid sample every acre. “We came up with available potash between 300 pounds and 700 pounds. So that year, I did not buy a pound of potash, and it didn’t impact yields. I saved around $100 an acre.”

Hargett plans to grid sample for three straight years, “so I can create a ‘bible’ for me and any other farmer that tells them how much potash comes off an acre of cotton, corn or soybeans.”

On a recent Monday morning in mid-October, Hargett cranked up his cotton picker for the first time this season. As the big machine roared down Johnson Grove Rd., his engineer’s mind gave way to farmer pragmatism.

“This computer age has about drove me nuts,” he said, as he searched for a button to start the air-conditioning. “The thing that bothers me is that everything on this computer is called a task. They don’t call it a crop. Soybeans are soybeans, cotton is cotton. Why is it a task? And where do you go on a computer to shut down the computer? You go to the start menu. Does that make any sense?”

Hargett’s approach to problem-solving often defies convention or prevailing opinion. Take for example, last fall, when Hargett ran his center pivot over his cotton one night to keep the frost off the bolls. “When a man is running an irrigation system on cotton on Oct. 17, that sounds pretty funny,” Hargett said. “I ran it from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., the next morning. As crazy as that may sound, it worked.”

Hargett possesses a unique talent to not only dream the impossible, but to build the impossible. Through the years, ideas for bigger, wider pickers that did more things were sketched in soap stone and then welded into reality in Hargett’s shop.

Hargett was one of the first farmers to put a navigation system on a cotton picker in which the picking heads moved laterally to line up on rows. Hargett also designed and built the first 5-row cotton picker and 6-row cotton picker for Case IH.

Many of his ideas have emanated from simple observation. One afternoon while picking cotton, Hargett waited too long before dumping a basket, and when he did, he noticed that a large portion of compacted cotton was hanging over the edge of the basket. It was the genesis of his design for an on-board module builder.

Hargett is one of the cotton industry’s strongest advocates, and he remains optimistic that the industry will continue to flourish, even as it faces some of its biggest challenges. “I think we’ll find a way to keep growing cotton in this country. If we lose the cotton industry, how many people does that affect from seed to shirt? There is fuel we burn, chemicals we use, everything. There’s more money spent on cotton than any other crop in the world except for maybe tobacco or rice.”

The growing season of 2009 has been Hargett’s toughest in 47 years of farming, as rains delayed maturity of the late crop and harvest of the early crop. As of mid-October 2009, only a small percentage of his cotton crop had been harvested.

Even so, Hargett is grateful for the opportunity to farm. “The Good Lord has been good to me. I’ve had ups and downs, but overall I can’t complain.”

No doubt, the cotton industry owes Hargett a debt of gratitude too.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com