130 years. Between them, that’s how long this year’s High Cotton Award winners have been farming. But, while they may have had a lot of opportunities to become set in their ways, these farmers rarely shy away from trying new technologies that will help them grow cotton profitably and in an environmentally friendly manner.

Since Farm Press Publications and The Cotton Foundation began the High Cotton Awards in 1995, we have chronicled the environmental stewardship efforts of 71 cotton producers. Since then, we’ve found that environmental stewardship and a willingness to try new technology go hand in hand.

That is certainly the case with this year’s winners:

• Ronnie Lee, Bronwood, Ga., Southeast Region;

• Ray Makamson, Itta Bena, Miss., Mid-South Region;

• Eric Seidenberger, Garden City, Texas, Southwest Region;

• Bruce Heiden, Buckeye, Ariz., Far West Region.

“These are some of the most environmentally conscientious producers we’ve featured in our 16 years of presenting the bronze Cotton Boll awards,” said Greg Frey, vice-president for the Penton Media Inc. Agricultural Group, which publishes the Farm Presses.

“Some of them have been farming for a while, but they always put the environment and taking care of their land and water first.”

The High Cotton Awards are made possible through a grant from Farm Press to The Cotton Foundation. The winners receive an expenses-paid trip to the National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences, which will be held in Atlanta, Jan. 4-7.

Co-sponsors of this year’s awards are Ace Pump Company, All-Tex Seed, Americot/NexGen, Arysta LifeScience, Deltapine, Helena Chemical Company, John Deere, Rio Tinto Minerals — U.S. Borax and Syngenta.

The winners and their families will be introduced by the editors of Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press during a breakfast at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta.

Southeast winner Ronnie Lee has successfully combined the concepts of stewardship and profitability to build Lee Farms into one of the premier cotton farming operations in the Southeast, Southeast Farm Press Editor Paul Hollis wrote in an article about Lee.

While Lee oversees the farming of about 6,200 acres and multiple business enterprises, he also takes time to work on perfecting the use of such conservation practices as strip-till and no-till farming and modifying them when unexpected hurdles arise.

Benefits of conservation-tillage

“We were one of the first in Terrell County to adopt strip-till and no-till planting practices, eventually helping educate and inform neighboring growers about the benefits of those practices,” says Lee. “Now, however, we’ve had to modify our system somewhat due to glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed.”

Lee believes strongly that farmers need to set the example when it comes to environmental stewardship. The adoption of conservation-tillage practices on his farm had a ripple effect, with other growers in the area soon taking notice and trying it successfully in their fields.

Mid-South Region winner Ray Makamson, a veteran of 38 years of farming, produces 3,050 acres of cotton and 700 acres of soybeans on his farming operation near Itta Bena, which is located in the middle of the Mississippi Delta.

Observers say Makamson’s attention to detail in conservation practices is evident in the appearance of his farming operation. “The one thing that strikes you is Ray’s meticulous nature,” Trey Cooke, executive director of Delta Wildlife, told Delta Farm Press’ Elton Robinson.

“He is probably the most esthetically-astute farmer that I’m aware of in the Delta. His shop is clean. The grass is clipped, there are no piles of containers or irrigation pipe lying around. If you were to ever want to take somebody to a farming operation to see one of the best actors in the farming community, Ray’s farm would be one you want them to see.”

“Ray runs one of the cleanest operations of almost anyone I know,” said Jerry Singleton, area Extension agent, LeFlore County. “From the shop floor to his equipment, it always clean.”

“My shop, my equipment, my tractors, that’s all the money I’ve banked through the years,” Makamson explains. “I’m invested in it. The people who work for me take pride in it, too. We take good care of things. I like things neat and orderly.”

Makamson’s conservation efforts mesh perfectly with his forward-looking style.

As a member of Delta Wildlife, Makamson participated in the Monsanto Mississippi River Partnership Project, created to determine the effectiveness of conservation measures on improving wildlife habitat and water quality. He installed numerous water control structures for use in reducing nutrient and sediment loss from his cropland to benefit water quality in adjacent water bodies.

Southwest winner Eric Seidenberger has also been working to handle water more efficiently on his 2,950 acres, 2,150 of them in cotton and the rest in wheat and grazing land. He is working toward installing drip irrigation on much of his acreage.

Drip irrigation, reduced tillage, terracing and grassed waterways all are critical parts of his production and conservation programs, which are aimed at achieving the highest yields at the lowest costs while protecting the land and water.

Seidenberger installed his first drip irrigation in 2003, a 45-acre block. He says drip offers at least three advantages: Consistently, high yields; improved water efficiency; and cost savings through reduced-tillage.

But the main advantage, he told Southwest Farm Press Editor Ron Smith, is labor savings. “We were moving pipe all day long for furrow irrigation. We’re also using less tillage on drip irrigated fields. We’re not cultivating four or five times in the summer as we do with furrow irrigation. We cultivate one time. We spray Roundup early and cultivate once.”

Forward thinking producer

Although he has more years of experience, W. Bruce Heiden, who finished his 58th crop in 2010, is still one of the most progressive and forward thinking cotton producers in the Far West, according to Western Farm Press editors Harry Cline and Cary Blake.

Heiden has faced numerous challenges, ranging from multiple insect pests that threatened not only to reduce yield, but to take markets from Arizona cotton to urban encroachment that has only slowed down with the recession in the national economy.

Peter Ellsworth, University of Arizona IPM specialist, one of several who nominated Heiden for the High Cotton award, said Heiden has 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.”

Ellsworth said Heiden was a leader in helping the industry move through technology changes, including Bt cotton. He was instrumental in getting new insect growth regulators registered to turn back the whitefly, a pest Heiden said was the most devastating insect to befall Arizona cotton producers.

The whitefly not only caused yield loss, it created sticky cotton from the honeydew secreted by the hordes of whiteflies. That was more devastating than the pest because Arizona growers could not sell any of their cotton. Textile mills refused to buy Arizona cotton…sticky or not.

“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 said. He and other growers took an Asian mill tour to talk with buyers and explain to them that not all Arizona cotton was sticky and what growers were doing to control whiteflies.

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

flaws@farmpress.com