Western growers tour Southeast farms What do flue-cured tobacco, hogs, and low grain prices have to do with the expansion of cotton acreage in eastern North Carolina? Gerald Warren and his brother George explained how all of these commodities fit together when cotton growers from California, Arizona and New Mexico visited their farm in late July.

The Far West cotton growers were in North and South Carolina as participants in the National Cotton Council/FMC Producer Information Exchange (P.I.E) program. The growers visited Cotton Incorporated in Raleigh as well as six cotton farms, a cotton yarn mill and a paper manufacturing plant in the two states.

"The overall aim of the P.I.E. program is to help American cotton producers become more efficient by speeding up their adoption of proven technology and innovative farming methods," says Cotton Foundation President David Burns, a Laurel Hill, N.C., one of the cotton producers who hosted the western growers.

The Warrens spent half a day talking with the 11 western growers and showing them around their diversified operation near Newton Grove, N.C. They grow cotton, tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat and soybeans as well as hogs, cattle and coastal bermudagrass hay. Gerald was a P.I.E participant back in 1992. He traveled to California with other Southeastern cotton growers.

"That was one of the most interesting trips I've ever been on," Warren says. "I learned a lot and I still stay in touch with four or five of the people I met on the tour. When you need to know something from across the country, it's good to have someone you know who you can call."

Warren told the group his 4,000 acres of cotton is planted in fields averaging 12 to 14 acres each. Back in 1990, there were only 7,000 acres of cotton in all of Sampson County. Today there are around 60,000 acres, most in small fields.

"We spend so much time moving from field to field the brake peddles, steering wheels and tires are the first things to wear out on our equipment," Warren says.

Like many eastern North Carolina farmers, the Warrens depend on flue-cured tobacco as their primary cash crop. Before the last three years of quota cuts they grew as much as 300 acres of tobacco. As they leased farms to acquire tobacco quota, they accumulated additional farmland. For years they planted corn, wheat and soybeans on the land that was not needed for tobacco.

"We were subsidizing a lot of grain with our profits from tobacco," Warren says. "That's what got me interested in cotton. That was when cotton was selling for 80 cents a pound or higher and we were making 70 bushel corn and 35 bushel soybeans."

As tobacco quotas have been cut, grain prices have dropped and hog farm growth has been restricted, cotton has become more and more important to the Warrens and other Southeastern growers. The problem with cotton production prior to 1990 was finding a place to get the cotton ginned. Warren and four partners pooled their resources and built the Sampson Gin Company. That opened the cotton growing opportunity to more farmers.

"That's pretty much the story of cotton in eastern North Carolina," Warren says.

"The successful boll weevil eradication program has helped us be competitive. I believe we have about 940,000 acres of cotton in the state this year. Not so many years ago we were down to around 30,000 acres for the whole state. We still depend on tobacco and hogs, but cotton has become a major part of our business."

He told growers he grows 100 percent Roundup Ready and Bollgard cotton. He has tried ultra-narrow-row cotton, with success. He strip-tills most of his cotton land, no-tills some and plants some with conventional tillage.

Now in its 12th year, the 2000 P.I.E. program includes four tours. In addition to this tour, Southeastern producers traveled to the Far West. Mid-South producers traveled to Texas and Texas producers were scheduled to travel to Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee during August.