Cotton on Allan Baucom's farm begins in the bottoms, ascends to the top of the hill and then back again. On the clay, hilly soils of Union County, N.C., in the shadows of Charlotte, the cotton crop provides a living metaphor for the cotton industry.
Baucom, who's been farming these hills and hollers for more than 30 years, has adapted practices to his small, irregular shaped fields covering more than 3,000 acres over the years. He was using no-till long before it became an issue. He's been a steady proponent of ultra-narrow row for almost a decade. He and is son, Chad, farm together.
While yield plaques on his walls attest to his success in the field, Baucom is thinking more than a year into the future on this rainy day in November.
“We've heard that each farm bill is going to be the most important to date, but for this one coming up, it's even more true,” Baucom says. “It's becoming more and more important to have a farm bill that protects the infrastructure of the U.S. agricultural community.”
Baucom fears that if “dramatic steps aren't taken, we will see the demise of cotton production in the United States as we have seen the balance of all the segments of the industry go.”
He points to the inevitable World Trade Organization ruling against the U.S. cotton program, but says the current farm bill is a good one that isn't burdensome to the non-ag community. “I would have been surprised if the WTO had not ruled against the U.S. cotton program,” Baucom says.
Program safeguards against price shifts allow the market to operate, he argues.
“I don't know any person in cotton production who would not prefer to get their income from the price per pound, but the truth of the matter is, that's not possible in today's world,” Baucom says.
“We can talk about a level playing field all we want to, but that isn't going to happen,” he says. “The only thing we'll do is we'll pull ourselves down where we are no longer a factor in the world's agricultural economy.”
That's the message he would give to legislators as farm bill talks begin to crank up for 2006.
“The truth is, we couldn't be producing cotton if it weren't for the cotton program,” Baucom says. “It just wouldn't be in the cards.”
Production is different in some ways for Baucom than it is for other farmers. “What we do doesn't work with many people,” he says.
He raises cotton on rows of 7.5 inches to 30 inches. He takes a “simplistic” approach to fertility, using poultry and by-products to boost the soil. Soil testing is a yearly event.
He made the switch to ultra-narrow-rows after a trip to visit a farmer in north Alabama in the late 1990s. “Cutting right to the chase, it was a bottom line decision,” he says. “I was looking for a way to improve yields without being detrimental to the quality of the fiber.” He gets more first and second boll positions using the ultra-narrow patterns.
He thinks 15-inch cotton may have a nice mesh on his farm, but he has some concerns about equipment at this point.
Baucom's fields are typical of those around these parts: small, irregular and rolling. The scene is picturesque, a fact not lost on the growing population finding this out-of-the-way place in Union County.
Union County, N.C., has been the fastest growing county in the state for a number of years and ranks as one of the fastest growing in the nation. “We're losing land every year to houses,” Baucom says. “What do we do? We coexist.”
For Baucom, it's meant catering to the growing population's desire for fresh vegetables, “high-value” crops. He's grown a variety of fresh vegetables on 20 acres for the past four years. He sells the produce at a stand at a busy intersection near his operation.
“We're taking the proverbial lemon and making lemonade,” he chuckles. “We've got a volume of people who are a lot more health conscious these days.”
Baucom came back to the farm after earning a degree from North Carolina State University. He was raised up on the hill across the street from his operation. His parents and grandparents lived out their lives on the same road. “I'm home,” he says.
Looking at a Jack DeLoney print in his office entitled, “The Innovators,” Baucom is caught in a moment of reflection.
The painting shows neighbors of a bygone era checking out a cotton picker pulled by two mules.
“I look at that painting and wonder where we're headed,” Baucom says.