To say it has been a challenging and turbulent career as W. Bruce Heiden gins the 2010 seed cotton from his 58th harvest is an understatement.

The Buckeye, Ariz., producer who is this year’s Far West Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton award winner, is closing in on his sixth decade of growing cotton in an environment unlike that of any other U.S. Cotton Belt state.

Arizona’s year-round subtropical arid climatemakes it seemingly an ideal place to grow cotton — it rains less than 10 inches per year, but with irrigation water, the crop thrives in the dry climate.

But … no other Cotton Belt state has had to deal with the consortium of pests that has plagued Arizona: boll weevil, pink bollworm, whitefly and assorted other plant bugs, nematodes and lepidopterous pests…often one or more in the same year.

The weather is so mild, it is the only state where cotton, a perennial plant, can be grown as a recurrent crop — called “stub,” or ratooned, cotton. In the past, Arizona growers have left stalks of one year’s harvested crop in the fields over winter, mowed the stalks in the spring, irrigated, and produced a new cotton crop on last year’s roots.

Stub cotton is also cotton boll weevil’s dream: an early breakfast and a late supper. The last time Arizona producers grew stub cotton, the boll weevil took up permanent residence in the state. Growers were getting four-bale cotton yields from stub crops in the 1970s, but were paying dearly in insecticide bills. Eventually, Arizona initiated a boll weevil eradication program, and stub cotton is now banned.

The boll weevil is just one of the cotton-loving insects that have challenged Heiden and his fellow Arizona cotton growers for decades.

He has not only survived the challenges, but has been a state and national industry leader, bringing growers together to cope with problems such as destructive pests.

Peter Ellsworth, University of Arizona IPM specialist, is one of those who nominated Heiden for the High Cotton award. He has conducted many trials on the Heiden family’s 7,000 acre H Four Farms at Buckeye.

The UA entomologist says Heiden not only managed to survive the challenges, but excelled during those periods. “Even in the years when we struggled to control pink bollworm, or later to control whitefly, Bruce’s production was always among the highest.”

Heiden does not shy away from using the inputs necessary to “take germplasm as far as it can go.”

Moving through technology changes

Ellsworth notes that Heiden was a leader in helping the industry move through technology changes, including Bt cotton, which was first grown commercially in Arizona. He was instrumental in getting new insect growth regulators registered to turn back the whitefly, a pest Heiden sats was the most devastating insect to plague Arizona cotton producers.

“Bruce was an early adopter of many of the key innovations that have moved production forward,” says Ellsworth.

Larry Antilla, director of the Arizona Cotton Research and Production Council, calls Heiden “one of the real stalwarts of the industry — if anyone deserves the High Cotton Award, it is Bruce Heiden.

“He is an absolute gentleman, a class act, one of the finest people I’ve ever known, and one of the best growers in the state. He has always had the best interests of the cotton industry foremost in his mind.”

Rick Lavis, executive director of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association uses three words to describe Heiden: quiet, calm, and leadership.

“In the 30 years I have known him, Bruce has always been the foundation of sound decisions within the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. He listens carefully, takes other viewpoints into consideration and is able to articulate the right decision and the right approach.”

Heiden served as National Cotton Council president during a federal farm bill renewal period, and Lavis recalls that he was a “very effective agent” in working with the seven Council segments to create a unified cotton position on the legislation.

Ted Pierce, the 1998 Far West High Cotton award winner, grew up in Buckeye with Heiden.

“As president of the National Cotton Council and chairman of the Calcot board, Bruce was a consensus builder. Bruce Heiden and Bill Scott are the two stalwarts of the Arizona cotton industry.”

Like Heiden, Scott has farmed in Arizona for more than 50 years. They have collaborated on many challenging issues that have faced the industry over the years.

“Bruce is a statesman and an excellent farmer,” says Scott, who is at Stanfield and is Heiden’s good friend. “He has demonstrated those qualities repeatedly when contentious issues are deliberated. Bruce is invariably the last one to speak  — he sits back, thinks the issue through and then expresses his opinion. I’ve never known him to fail to be on target.”

As a long-time Calcot director and later the cooperative’s first chairman from Arizona, Heiden is well respected by his California peers.

John Pucheu, Tranquillity, Calif., cotton producer, has known Heiden since the mid-1980s and has also served as NCC president and Calcot chairman.

“Bruce is an outstanding person and super farmer,” he says. “He is totally dedicated to this industry.”

“It has been a pleasure working with Bruce,” says Kern County, Calif., cotton producer Charlie Fanucchi, immediate past chairman of Calcot’s board. “He is a totally honest person, soft spoken. But when he speaks people listen.”

Heiden and wife Helen’s four children — sons, Art, Les and Hal, and daughter Holly — grew up on the farm, and they continue as partners. Les’ two sons, Paul and Richard, have also joined the operation.

Diversified operation

About half the family’s 7,000-acre operation is cotton; the rest is alfalfa hay, wheat, barley and corn. They also have a cattle feeding operation.

Heiden is a native Arizonan. His mother and father, Louise and Walter, along with Bruce’s two older brothers and a sister, moved to Arizona from Massachusetts at the height of the Great Depression.

“The doctors back east told my dad he had to get out of the cold and damp weather and move to a drier climate for his health,” Bruce says.

Walter Heiden went to work as an auto mechanic in Buckeye and eventually for the local International Harvester farm equipment dealer. Bruce’s father leased about 340 acres in the early 1940s and grew the family’s first cotton crop. In 1947 Walter Heiden bought the home farm where Bruce now lives.

“We grew the old Acala cotton — it never yielded much above a bale and a half. We nearly starved to death growing that cotton. Deltapine introduced smoothleaf upland here in the 1960s, and it increased yields by a bale. The old Acala went away.”

All the children grew up on the family farm, hoeing cotton and working around the farm and feedlot. Hal became a pilot and eventually an aerial applicator, treating more than one million acres of cotton. He later became a commercial pilot and now spends part of his time on the farm when he’s not flying jet charters, including ferrying the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks sports teams.

Les manages  the feedlot, and Art works  primarily on the farm. They’ve all shared in the cotton growing challenges, and all agree the whitefly crisis almost brought down the Arizona cotton industry.

“It was unbelievable how bad it was,” says Hal, who was an ag pilot then. “We had to clean the plane’s windshield before every pass — they were so thick, you would almost suffocate.”

The whitefly put Arizona cotton on the brink of extinction. But salvation came with a couple of new insect growth regulators (IGR). “They saved us,” Hal says, “and they are still effective today because of product stewardship.”

Arizona growers and local congressmen lobbied hard for a special use permit from EPA to use the materials. Their effectiveness was enhanced by manufacturers’ insistence on one application per season of Knack and Applaud (later renamed Courier) to ward off any resistance problems.

“The whitefly and pink bollworm hit us at the same time,” Hal says. “We were spending up to $350 per acre on insecticides. The insects were putting us out of business.”

The IGRs turned back the whitefly and insect resistant Bt cotton varieties controlled the pink bollworm.

Saved Arizona cotton industry

“Bt cotton saved the Arizona cotton industry,” Bruce says. “When we were treating for pink bollworm, we were creating more problems with other insects — often sterilizing fields and killing beneficial insects.”

Art Heiden was heavily involved in the whitefly crisis as the industry mustered forces to control the pest. He notes that the crisis introduced a new technology into Arizona agriculture — the cell phone.

“Most farmers did not have cell phones, but when the whitefly started creating chaos, everybody got one so they could call around to their neighbors to find out what was happening with the whiteflies. Growers were very frustrated with the whitefly, and they were calling everyone to see what people were using to try to control it.”

The hordes of insects not only caused yield loss, Bruce says, the honeydew they secreted created sticky cotton — which was all the more devastating because growers couldn’t sell their cotton. Textile mills refused to buy Arizona cotton, sticky or not.

The stickiness issue all but shut down advance contracting of Arizona cotton and placed a severe financial strain on growers, he says.

“We used to be able to forward contract, but when the whitefly came in, no one would buy Arizona cotton unless it was tested in the warehouse and certified free of stickiness.”

Heiden, Scott and many others even went to Asian mills to talk with buyers and explain to them that not all Arizona cotton was sticky and to outline what growers were doing to control whiteflies.

Bob Norris, retired Calcot president, recalls the effort to remove the stigma from Arizona cotton.

“They were successful, but it took a lot of time and work by Bruce, Bill Scott, Ron Rayner and others. The whitefly and sticky cotton just about decimated the Arizona cotton industry. If the leaders of the industry hadn’t put together a program to control it and then communicate with the textile mills, I am not sure cotton would have survived. It took a lot of time, but the stigma went away.”

Pink bollworm — the world’s most destructive cotton pest — started damaging Arizona cotton in the late 1960s. Today, however, it is on the verge of eradication in Arizona.

This remarkable accomplishment is due to a combination of 100 percent Bt cotton, sterile PBW moth drops, and the use of PBW pheromones. One more year of a mandated PBW eradication effort in cotton areas along the Colorado River should put PBW on the extinction list.

“Growers in West Texas and New Mexico have been successful with the eradication of the pink bollworm,” says Bruce

Key to the program

Mexico has been key to the program, says Art. “They have not only agreed to participate in the eradication program, they have pushed it. I think they were ready for it before we were.”

There have been two key elements to banishing PBW: one was convincing the EPA to allow 100 percent Bt cotton with no refuges, and a provision to economically include non-Bt cotton growers in the program. Growers who don’t plant biotech cotton pay the same per acre price as the Bt technology fee ($32 per acre); in return, the program supplies pheromone ropes as a confusion technique and applies pesticide when necessary.

New technology like Bt cotton and IGRs will help Arizona cotton growers stay in business, the Heidens believe.

The farm already has two GPS tractor guidance systems used for listing out and cultivating. They have increased efficiency 10 percent to 15 percent for those field operations, Art says.

The same technology will be utilized in a study with UA cotton specialist Randy Norton, using variable rate technology to reduce the cost of pre-plant Telone for root-knot nematode control. Variable rates will be based on soil types.

“We hope this work will tell us where the nematodes are and where they aren’t, so we can vary the rate and not be forced to blanket the whole field,” Art says, who notes that per acre cost of the material has increased from $50 to $77.

“Work like Randy is doing is vitally important to us. Cotton has a future in Arizona, and technology will be a major part of that future — but, it will cost money.

“The cost of water in many areas is very high, and other input costs keep going up. We saw $1 cotton in 2008 and are seeing it again now, but overall the price has been low the past three or four years. It hasn’t been high enough to sustain cotton in Arizona,” Bruce says.

“How long will it stay at $1 is the big question,” says Art. “We’ve seen the market go crazy this year because of the limited supply of cotton in the world. The cure for limited cotton is $1 cotton, but everyone in the world will be planting cotton now.

“I feel good about the tools we have now to grow cotton. The ongoing issue is their cost.”

hcline@farmpress.com

cblake@farmpress.com