Richard "Dick" Newton's picking crew spotted a homing pigeon roosting atop a cotton module at the height of harvest on an unseasonably stormy mid-October day last fall.
One man caught it easily, although it was not injured. He gave it to Newton for disposition because the crew was anxious to get a cover on the vulnerable module beneath ominous dark clouds swirling over the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. Stormy weather in mid-October is rare in the valley.
"I guess it decided to take a rest or maybe the storm forced it down," said Newton. There was a metal band on the pigeon's leg.
"I'd call someone if the band had a number on it," added Newton, holding the bird gently in weathered, farmer's hands.
He encouraged the bird to fly on, but it was exhausted and flopped back to earth. He recaptured it and placed it far from the picking activity in a safe haven to rejuvenate itself away before journeying on.
Newton's crew was in the midst of harvesting one of the farm's best yielding seasons in recent years - almost four bales per acre from the land near Kettleman City in Kings County, Calif. The pigeon was an unwanted intrusion. Rain was all-around and time running short. Newton, however, considered the pigeon worth his time. The bird was a good omen. The crew finished picking the field just before thunderstorms hit the area.
Most farmers would treat that wayward pigeon the same way Newton did. Farmers realize they share their farms and surroundings with others and want to be good stewards. Newton is a prime example of that, and that is why the soft-spoken, fourth generation farmer from Stratford, Calif., is the winner of this year's Far West High Cotton Award, sponsored by Western Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation.
Newton is a partner in Jones Farms with his father, Leonard, his brother, Bill, and brother-in-law, Allyn Beauchamp.
Successful farming is making the right decisions, but oftentimes there's more to it than just reaching correct business conclusions. There's often an indefinable sixth sense, a keen awareness of the past, present and especially the future.
Bruce Roberts, University of California Cooperative Extension Kings County farm advisor, put the High Cotton nomination package together on Newton and the Jones Farms partners. (Jones is D.C. Jones, Newton's great-grandfather who started the family farm in the San Joaquin Valley about 1900.)
In the letters of nomination, business associates and neighbors cite Newton's innovative farming practices and his community-mindedness. However, the letters also reflected personal admiration for Dick Newton the man and his family for their efforts to elevate others and share their knowledge with neighbors.
The letters from long-time Jones Farm consultant James White of Del Rey, Calif., and Chris Couture, whose family is a farming neighbor of Newton's at Kettleman City, best reflect that.
White cited many of Newton's innovative practices leading to higher yields: "improved irrigation practices, variety selection, intense field monitoring, top-notch fertility management and plant growth management."
But, White concludes with a personal and professional note, "Through my association with Richard and Jones Farms, I have become a better consultant and my other clients have benefited," said White.
Subsurface irrigation Newton is recognized frequently for converting most of his sharp fall Kettleman City farm to subsurface irrigation tape. He's perhaps proudest of that, and he freely shares his experiences with anyone who asks, like the Couture family. Chris said his family was "motivated," by Newton's example and help and installed 360 acres of buried drip for their cotton and melons. Newton's efforts were an open door to the Couture family, and he takes pleasure in helping others.
Make no mistake, farming is competitive and farmers are looking for every advantage they can in these tough economic times. Nevertheless, Jones Farms is an open book. Newton talks freely and without hesitation about his successes, but just as importantly he shares his mistakes so others might not make them, too.
Jones Farms consists of almost 4,600 acres and is highly diversified (cotton, wheat, fresh market tomatoes, honeydew melons, garbanzo beans, safflower, alfalfa, carrots, hybrid asparagus and barley. Their land straddles each side of Highway 41 with parcels from their home farm at Stratford to an isolated area called Sunflower Valley, a stretch of 40 miles as the crow flies.
Cotton is Newton's largest acreage crop with 1,800 acres.
Much of the Jones Farms operation is in Westlands Water District, the nation's largest irrigation district. This is where Newton's decision a decade ago to try drip tape turned out to be a far better one than he anticipated.
"We were just coming off the drought years when I put in 50 acres of drip tape for tomatoes. I had to do something for more efficient irrigation - to grow crops on less water," said Newton. The Kettleman City farm is very sandy ground with a fall of 42 feet per half mile or 1.5 feet per 100 feet. He either had to change from sprinklers and furrow or quit farming the ground.
His investment of $600 per acre plus installation costs turned out to be a good one, although installing drip is nerve-wracking. "It's like buying the land all over again," he said. His fresh market tomatoes yields increased by 30 percent and water use went down by 50 percent.
He installed a quarter section per year of drip tape and filtration systems until he reached his current 1,200 acres of drip tape at Kettleman City.
Buried drip systems are economically justifiable only on vegetables. High value crops return the investment quicker. However, cotton has been a benefactor of subsurface irrigation. Newton rotates with cotton, planting 30-inch narrow-rows on the 60-inch tomato beds with one drip row per two rows of cotton.
Cotton yields jump His ranch cotton average has gone from 2.8 bales to almost four bales per acre, and cotton water use has dropped from 42 to 26 acre-inches. In 1999, he recorded a record 2,252 pounds of lint per acre from an Acala Maxxa GTO field on a little more than two acre feet of water.
"With $58-per-acre-foot water, which is what we have to pay now in Westlands, I could not grow cotton on the ground at Kettleman City without the drip," he said.
He anticipated that the 8-mil drip tape he installed over the 1,200 acres would last six years, but it's giving him two more years of service than that. His replacement tape will likely be 10 mil, giving him even longer service.
Newton said the decision to install drip has increased in value over the last decade because his water supply has become even more scarce, even though California has had six straight years of normal or above normal snow packs and water supplies.
"We have gone from a natural drought in the late '80s and early '90s to an environmental or regulatory drought that looks like it will never end," said Newton. "Westlands has received no more than 60 to 70 percent of its water allocation since the federal government passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) even with good rainfall and snowpacks."
CVPIA allocated more water to environmental uses and reduced water deliveries to farmers, even though that was not what farmers were told when the law was drafted and passed.
Today's farming challenges stretch far wider than water costs and availability. Newton and his family partners have met the economic challenges in other ways, too, readily adopting new technology like transgenic cottons.
Like many SJV producers, Roundup Ready varieties have become a big part of his operation. "We did not use chopping crews where we had Roundup Ready varieties," he said. However, he has not abandoned his preplant herbicide. He calls it "good insurance."
RR varieties Deltapine 6100 RR and Riata were his RR varieties in 2000. He's also grown non-transgenics like Maxxa and Maxxa GTO along with Phytogen 33.
Newton has reduced tillage by 30 percent on the subsurface drip ground with a Northwest Tiller, which combines several operations into one pass.
"We also are using an electrostatic sprayer and that does a much more efficient job of controlling insects and applying herbicides and reducing overall pest control costs," said Newton.
He is constantly looking for new crops - often ones like the carrots he can grow on contract.
Newton is a willing cooperator with Roberts and UC Cooperative Extension. He has had Delta and Pine Land Co. variety trials of herbicide-resistant cottons on his farm.
Jones Farms has had a long association with the California Crop Improvement Association.
"Dick Newton is the type of grower an Extension advisor would recognize as an early adapter," said Roberts. "These growers are essential for on-farm research cooperation and demonstration."
Roberts said as an Extension advisor "it is a real challenge to provide an educational program for the caliber of producer like Dick Newton."
"It's people like Dick Newton and the previous High Cotton award winners from California who helped develop California agriculture into the industry it is today," said Roberts.
Newton is a bit embarrassed by Roberts' nomination and the accolades from his peers. Nevertheless, Newton cannot hide his passion for farming and, unlike some of his peers, views these tough times as the storm before the good times.
"I have a strong faith in God, and that carries me through tough economic times like these," said Newton. "We've been through the cycles before, and we'll successfully get through this one as well."