This year marks the 20th anniversary of the High Cotton Awards. And Farm Press Publications and The Cotton Foundation are proud to announce another crop of outstanding High Cotton Award winners.

This year’s winners, who will be honored at a breakfast at the newly reconstituted Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans Jan. 7, include:

  • Danny Darnell, Hillsboro, Ala., Southeast
  • Kenneth Hood, Gunnison, Miss., Delta.
  • Steven Beakley, Ennis, Texas, Southwest.
  • Clyde Sharp, Roll, Ariz., Far West

“The High Cotton Awards continue to identify producers who are the best of the best when it comes to producing a high quality, profitable crop in an environmentally responsible manner,” says Greg Frey, publisher of the Farm Press Publications, which sponsor the High Cotton Awards through a grant to The Cotton Foundation.

“It has been a privilege for us to sponsor the High Cotton Awards for the last 19 years. We have had some memorable moments and met some great cotton producers through this program. And we have come to better understand how much growers care about the environment.”

The High Cotton Awards were initiated by Farm Press and the National Cotton Council as a way to demonstrate that cotton growers and their families are concerned about the environment and are the true stewards of their land, air and water.

Since 1995, 79 cotton producers from across the four regions represented by the Farm Presses (Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press) have received the bronze Cotton Boll awards that are handed out to the winners each year. (There were two winners from the same regions three different years.)

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“When we began the High Cotton Awards, we had no idea how long it might be before we began to exhaust our supply of conservation and environmentally-minded farmers,” said Forrest Laws, content director for Farm Press.

“But each year we receive another group of nominees who have great stories to tell about what they are doing on their farms and in their communities to protect and preserve the land for future generations.”

Through the years, the Farm Presses have had a number of partners who have helped spread the message about conservation in agriculture. This year’s sponsors are Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers, All-Tex Seed, Americot/NexGen, AMVAC, Deltapine, Helena Chemical Company, John Deere, PhytoGen and Syngenta.

Meet this year's winners

Southeast

Danny Darnell didn’t begin his career in farming, but he soon realized there was no other place where he would rather be. After finishing high school, he got a job at a local plant, but it soon became apparent to him and to his wife, Pat, that farming was his true calling.

Darnell literally started with nothing, baling hay for the public and working his own farm whenever there was time — whatever it took to make a living. “Basically, we’re still doing that now, but it’s just a little better living,” he says.

Darnell’s love for the land was passed on to his sons Jared and Heath, both of whom were eager to return to the farm after finishing their educations at Auburn University.

Today, the Darnells farm about 5,500 acres altogether, split between cotton, corn and soybeans followed by wheat.

Delta

Kenneth Hood has been farming — and innovating — most of his life. Hood, who farms in partnership with three brothers, Howard, Curtis and Cary, in the Mississippi Delta., grew his first crop when he was a junior at Mississippi State University.

Neighbor and fellow farmer Maury Knowlton offered to rent 620 aces to Hood for $15 an acre or 20 percent of the crop, whichever was larger. But Hood’s father wasn’t about to let his son quit college.

So Hood hired one of Knowlton’s farm managers, Pete Sanders, to run the farm while he was away. Hood changed his major from engineering to agricultural business and for the next two years, came home on weekends to farm.

Later in his farming career, Hood was at the forefront of a huge leap in technology that connected the dots between the Global Positioning System, Geographical Information Systems and Hood’s curiosity about the allocation of cost in agricultural production.

Southwest

Steven Beakley knows first-hand how important water and conservation are to farmers in the Southwest. Having little control over the former, Beakley has devoted much of his effort to getting the most use out of the water resources he has in his farming operation near Ennis, Texas.

Drought this year rivaled conditions of the last two seasons. “We had enough rainfall to make a crop, just not enough to finish it. Grades may be off a little.”

He attributes much of the farm’s success with cotton variety selection, rotation, ample fertility, plant management and timeliness. And a timely rain or two never hurts. This year he’ll add harvesting with a round baler to that list.

“We never follow cotton with cotton,” he says. “We may have planted cotton back-to-back once about three years ago when the price went to $1 and more per pound. But we stick with a cotton, sunflower and wheat rotation.

“We like to plant cotton back on sunflower ground. Some folks say it’s not a good idea to plant two taproot crops back-to-back but it has not been an issue when we get some rain. We harvest wheat and fallow it all summer.”

West

Clyde Sharp has also learned how to deal with a decided lack of moisture in the 50 seasons he has farmed near the community of Roll in Arizona. The Sharps farm in the arid Arizona low desert at about 250 feet above sea level about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In this desert region, annual rainfall totals a mere 2.5 inches. A combination of surface water irrigation and the desert heat combine to create excellent conditions to grow quality cotton with good yields.

Despite a short growing season due to the competition for winter produce ground this past season, Sharp grew four-bale cotton per acre. The green paint round-bale pickers plucked 3.66 bales and rood machines collected another one-third bale per acre from the bottom of the plants and lint on the ground.

Sharp credits lower humidity during the summer monsoon season, cooler summer nighttime temperatures, the NexGen variety, and farming skill for the bale-buster crop.

In addition to service to the agricultural industry, Sharp and his brother, David, embrace environmental stewardship practices on the farm. The Sharps were the first growers in the Wellton-Mohawk Valley to plant Bt cotton to reduce insecticide and herbicide needs.

The Sharps viewed Bt as the potential future of cotton. They were right.

They use 100 percent GPS guidance systems in farm equipment which reduces fuel use and dust. The specialty equipment reduces the number of passes up and down the fields. Also, the switch from laser-based land leveling to GPS leveling improves efficiency.