They might not farm in the garden spots of the Cotton Belt, but that's not stopping this year's winners of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Awards from growing good crops while doing their best to protect their soil, water and wildlife.

The Tidewater area of Virginia, northeast Mississippi and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas are not the first places most cotton people think about when you talk about prime production areas. But this year's High Cotton winners like their land just fine, thank you.

The recipients of this year's awards, which are sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation, will be honored at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio being held this week. They include Cliff Fox, Capron, Va.; Joe Bostick, Golden, Miss.; Lawrence Braswell, Raymondville, Texas; and Wally Shropshire, Blythe, Calif.

Beltwide Cotton Genetics, Croplan Genetics Brand Cotton Seed, Delta and Pine Land Company, John Deere, Helena Chemical Company, Monsanto, Syngenta, The Seam and U.S. Borax are co-sponsoring the 2006 High Cotton Awards.

“We are very proud of this year's winners and the conservation ideals they represent,” said Greg Frey, publisher of Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press, which are published by Farm Press Publications. “Each of them is dedicated to taking care of their land and the environment, and leaving both better than they found them.”

That's not always an easy task in the areas where Fox, Bostick and Braswell farm. (Western Farm Press is honoring the California Cotton Pest Control Board and Shropshire, its chairman, for its successful efforts in keeping the pink bollworm out of the San Joaquin Valley for almost four decades.)

Southampton County, where this year's Southeast winner, Cliff Fox, farms, went out of the cotton business in the 1960s due to better prices for peanuts, the peanut quota program and losses to the boll weevil.

But what nature and the government gave and took from Southampton County farmers has come full circle with boll weevil eradication and the demise of the peanut program. Cliff and his brother, Clarke, planted their first cotton crop in 1994.

They quickly learned the advantages of strip-tillage and other conservation-tillage practices such as growing cover crops to protect their soil from erosion. They have also installed drainage tiles and grass waterways.

The brothers have learned to combine spraying trips to reduce their costs of production and are involved in container, oil and tire recycling programs.

Farmers in northeast Mississippi sometimes say they wish their ancestors had traveled a few more miles west — to the Mississippi Delta — before clearing land to farm. But growers like Joe Bostick have learned to make the best of their situation.

Bostick cannot irrigate because the water table lies so far below the soil surface; his soils are thin and not always forgiving; and the only rain he received in 2005 came from the three hurricanes that buffeted the area. But Bostick is using reduced-tillage and a number of other practices to boost his soil and improve yields.

He also got out of cotton in 1978 because of decreasing yields and growing insect problems. But he returned to the crop in 1991, “back to his bread and butter,” according to consultant Homer Wilson.

Since then, Bostick has been focusing on conserving soil and water resources by building and maintaining terraces, grass waterways, improving drainage and converting to no-till to save soil, fuel and labor.

Lawrence “Buck” Braswell had done some conservation-tillage in Mississippi before moving to the lower Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. He grew his first reduced-tillage crop there in 1992 and harvested yields that were “just as good as those from conventional-tillage.”

Braswell says he has learned that the better he maintains the soil through conservation-tillage, the better the cotton crop it will produce. He believes it makes economic sense as well, saving trips across the field and allowing him to farm more acres with fewer and smaller tractors, less diesel fuel and fewer man hours.

Conservation-tillage also means leaving the cotton stalks, grain sorghum stubble and other crop residue. Besides adding organic matter, the stalks and root systems keep channels open for water to penetrate the soil and for the next crop to follow to moisture.

In California, the Cotton Pest Control Board has also made significant contributions to environmental stewardship by eliminating the need for the spraying of millions of pounds of pesticides to control the pink bollworm.

The California Cotton Pest Control Board, which has been chaired by Shropshire since 1974, uses integrated pest management trapping, sterile release, crop residue destruction and pheromone confusion technology to keep PBW levels well below economic treatment thresholds.

The program, which operates with a current budget of $5.5 million, almost totally provided by growers, is considered an environmental benchmark for integrated pest management and pest exclusion not only in California, but in the United States and the world.

For more information on this year's winners and their conservation ethic, read the articles on them in this High Cotton Award special issue of Southeast Farm Press.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com