ISLE OF WIGHT – Surrounded by surf and sand, Jimmy Oliver thought about cotton.
As he vacationed on the Outer Banks in late 2011, the Isle of Wight County farmer said he mapped out where he would plant his 2012 cotton crop. Beginning on a sunny, warm morning in late April 2012, Oliver and cousin J.V. Oliver – partners in the family farm operation – spent nearly three weeks planting 575 acres of cotton in Isle of Wight County and Suffolk.
Cotton germinates in three or four days and by mid-May, thousands of green sprigs – which became the bumper cotton crop of 2012 – were poking out of the ground.
"Some varieties of cotton do better than others depending on soil types," said Jimmy Oliver, who planted six varieties this year. Although the last of the Olivers' 2012 cotton crop wasn't harvested until Nov. 22, they are already planning ahead, looking at where to rotate the 2013 crop and placing seed orders.
Virginia farmers planted 85,000 acres of cotton in 2012, a 26 percent drop from the 115,095 acres planted in 2011 when prices spiked at historic levels, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Cotton was selling for 73 cents per pound on Dec. 7, significantly less than its record high price of $2.27 per pound in March 2011.
With declining prices and demand, cotton acreage in Virginia is expected to drop further next year, said Gail Milteer, sales and market development specialist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. By acreage, Virginia ranks 14th among the 17 states in the United States that grow cotton.
Agriculture is the commonwealth's largest industry, with an annual impact of $55 billion, according to state agriculture figures. Of that, cotton contributed $48 million in 2011 and is on track to generate $62 million in 2012, said Milteer.
Jimmy Oliver returned cotton to his family's Longview Drive farm in 1995 after a 36-year absence. He was able to reintroduce the crop because of the successful eradication of the boll weevil and the introduction of herbicide-tolerant seeds, commonly called Roundup Ready cotton, in the late 1990s.
Less than two miles away, farmers Joseph and Shelley Barlow began growing cotton at Cotton Plains Farm, the family's farm on Cherry Grove Road North, in 1995 for the first time in a generation. Despite surging prices in 2011, the Barlows kept their cotton acreage at around 345 acres this year.
"Cotton is an excellent bread-and-butter crop," Joseph Barlow said.
The overinflated value of cotton prices in 2011 did not significantly fatten the pockets of farmers as much as people think, added Barlow. While some farmers were able to book future crops as high as $1.20 per pound, few were able to contract crops at selling prices upward of $2 per pound last year.
Milteer said she doesn't know of any Virginia growers who netted more than $1 per pound last year.
Between the price of genetically-engineered cottonseed and soaring fuel and fertilizer costs, farmers realistically need to receive between 90 cents and $1 to make a "good crop," Barlow said. He estimates that he spent $500 an acre on seed and $100,000 for fertilizer and defoliator in 2012.
Cotton prices that dip below 80 cents "aren't good" for farmers. When prices drop to below 62 cents a pound, farmers become eligible for government-support programs under the current federal farm bill, Barlow said. Congress is currently debating a new version of the farm bill, which is likely to change the existing support program, Milteer added.
"But when prices get too high, demand drops off and mills turn back to synthetics," Barlow said. Both Barlow and Jimmy Oliver say their success is heavily dependent on the Chinese.
The threat of a looming nor'easter or a hurricane near the end of an otherwise successful growing season is a nightmare for cotton farmers in Western Tidewater, the rural areas of Hampton Roads which includes Suffolk, Franklin, and Isle of Wight and Surry counties. Although Hurricane Sandy didn't leave nearly the damage that was expected, it pushed local farmers into high gear to beat the Oct. 28 storm, Barlow said.
Wind and rain could have flattened the cotton crop, leaving open bolls wet and hard to pick, said Isle of Wight extension agent Janet Spencer. But fortunately, Sandy did little damage to Virginia's crops, she said.
In their rush to beat the storm, J.V. and Jimmy Oliver — along with Jimmy's wife, Pam, and son, 14-year-old son, Tyler who assisted part of the time — logged a 16-hour day picking cotton on Oct. 26. The cousins worked until 3:30 a.m. harvesting their crop.
Overall, 2012 was a "phenomenal" year for local cotton growers, Spencer said. The area didn't have the problems of previous years – a drought in 2010 and excessive moisture in 2011. And yield is up from around 800 pounds to 1,100 pounds an acre, she said.
"Everything just seemed to line up for the cotton crops this year," she said.
It's around mid-September when farmers defoliate fields of waist-high cotton plants laden with fat, white bolls. The chemical spray forces bolls to open and stunts the plants' growth, setting the stage for the cotton picker to begin maneuvering through the rows, said Shelley Barlow.
Harvesting is an all-hands-on-deck operation for both the Olivers and Barlows, both small family-run farms that ramp up seven days a week during peak harvest season if necessary. Shortly before noon on Oct. 20, a crisp fall Saturday, Joseph and Shelley Barlow and Barlow's adult son, Joey, who joined the family farm's payroll this year, begin picking two fields outside Chuckatuck.
Joseph runs the picker, a 2001 John Deere that picks six rows of cotton simultaneously, until the basket fills up. Via two-way radio, he notifies Shelley where to meet him in the field with the boll buggy, a cart used to carry newly harvested cotton from the picker to the module builder being operated by Joey. As she dumps the load of cotton into the module builder, Joey uses hydraulic pressure to compress the cotton into a 20,000-pound module that will be covered with a tarp until the gins picks it up.
Farming requires a costly investment in capital expenses, such as pickers and combines, said Barlow. To help combat the costs, the Barlows and Olivers – neighbors who farm a total of about 2,000 acres – united forces and formed Chuckatuck Creek Harvest LLC in 2001. The company owns a grain combine and a 10-year-old, six-row cotton picker that both families use for harvesting.
"It's a way for us to have newer, more advanced harvesting equipment … that is affordable and justifies the cost," said Barlow.
The families try to work out a schedule that accommodates both their needs.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't, said Shelley Barlow, hours after returning from an unplanned trip to a John Deere dealership in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to pick up a water pump for the broken-down cotton picker.
Between planting and harvesting seasons, the Barlows and Olivers work on their equipment. This summer, they replaced 3,360 spindles on the picker. One downside to all the computerized technology is that more equipment has to go to dealerships for repairs, Barlow said.
Beginning in late September, the Barlows harvested cotton for the first two weeks of the season, then turned the picker over to the Olivers.
"It's like a marriage. It requires a lot of give and take," said Joe Barlow. "We still had cotton in the ground when we turned it over to the Olivers but ultimately, we both got it all done."
Chuckatuck Creek's next investment will probably a used John Deere on-board picker that builds round cotton modules and covers them in plastic, ready for the gin operators to pick up before dropping them in the field, a Barlow said. The price tag for that new picker ranges around $600,000 but alleviates the need for the boll buggy and module builder.
Research and technology
Both the Olivers and the Barlows have bookmarked several websites on their smart phones, including commodity market reports that show the selling price of cotton. Jimmy Oliver says it allows him to monitor the markets several times a day, while sitting on the tractor, cutting grass or on the road.
"In a heartbeat, something big can happen in the world that affects commodity prices," Oliver said. "This keeps us informed up to the minute."
Farmers are also using more technology-driven resources in the field, including global positioning systems (GPS) on planters and precision-based agriculture that allows only the precise amount of essential nutrients and chemicals to be dispersed on fields, Barlow said.
Cotton farmers depend heavily upon the expertise from Virginia Tech's Tidewater Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Suffolk, said Shelley Barlow. Every year, researchers plant several acres of new seed varieties to determine what produces best in the region and the most effective, environmentally friendly way of dealing with pests.
"That way, we don't have to be the guinea pigs for seed companies," said Joseph Barlow. "It's also important that the information is unbiased, coming from a neutral third-party source rather that a seed company."
From Seed to Harvest
About the series:
Today: The trials and tribulations of two farm families throughout a growing season.
Monday, Day 2: The financial impact of cotton in Virginia and throughout the United States.
Tuesday, Day 3: After the harvest comes the ginning.
To see related videos and read the complete From Seed to Harvest series, go to http://www.dailypress.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times