Invariably it is the contrasts that strike Producer Information Exchange (P.I.E.) cotton farmers who travel from their growing regions to other areas of the Cotton Belt they have never seen before.

Almost 700 producers have participated in the P.I.E. program since it inception in 1989 by grants from the FMC Corp. to The Cotton Foundation.

For Southeast producers who traveled to California's San Joaquin Valley recently, it was also the diversity of agriculture that was striking. At best, they have four or five cropping options, but only a few, peanuts, cotton and tobacco, with legitimate profit opportunities. The more than 250 commercial crops grown in the valley are a bit overwhelming.

For Chester, S.C., producer Rusty Darby his trip to California's central valley was the continuation of his lifelong study of land, the mechanics of soils and history of agricultural development of various regions.

“I have talked farming all my life and it is amazing to hear the consistency of problems between regions and farmers,” he said. “The decimal point may move around depending on where you are, but the problems are the same everywhere.”

For Darby, five years of drought has made cotton farming difficult in the Southeast. It never rains in the summer in California, but the dwindling supply of water is as daunting to Darby's California peers as his lack of rainfall.

“It broke my heart to see this California crop,” said Darby. “Our crop stinks.” It was planted late, mudded it and does not look good.

See several crops

The P.I.E. producers from the Southeast paired off with various California producers to look at not only cotton, but processing tomatoes, garlic, almonds, grapes and other crops well.

“The first cotton field we went to on the Stone Land Co. farm I pulled up a beautiful cotton plant with a tap root as long as my arm. I asked someone to take a picture of me with it. Our host Tony Azevido told us it was not a good plant and they had better. I could not believe it,” said Darby.

Most of the Southeast and mid-Southern producers have used or are aware of variable rate fertilizer technology, but that is pretty well the extent of their experience with what is called precision agriculture. The trip West was the first time many had seen the utilization of Global Positioning System (GPS) in everyday farming.

“GPS now has new meaning to me after seeing how they can furrow out rows using GPS on tractors and how variable rate Pix can be done with GPS technology,” said Darby, who said the technology may be something he can use on his farm.

Virginia grower

Smithville, Va., cotton producer Philip Edwards is a relatively new cotton grower, joining the re-introduction of cotton into southeast Virginia in 1992. His farming heritage is steeped in peanuts.

“Our crop this year look pretty good, considering the late start we got with the cold, wet spring,” said Edwards. “Right now the biggest concern is running of out time in making the crop.”

Most of Edwards' 1,300 acres of cotton is non-irrigated, with a small area accessible to supplemental irrigation from traveling sprinklers fed by ponds.

“I am very interested in looking at the irrigation in the West. I don't think we can furrow irrigate like they do in California because we would have to level and with only about 12 inches of topsoil, it is not practical to cut and refill with top soil,” he said.

However, he believes drip tape for subsurface irrigation like it is used for vegetables and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley may be an option. “The big question I have with that is our water supply is very dirty and we would have to do a lot of filtering,” said Edwards.

The exchange program is often a revealing one as producers talk shop about the products they use, and problems they encounter.

“You guys don't have morningglory out here do you?” Edwards asked host grower, Kings County, Calif., producer Juvenal Rosa.

Rosa rolled his eyes and shook his head. Morningglory tangles its way around cotton plants in California just like it does everywhere else in the Cotton Belt and is a nightmare to control.

Control interest

Rosa was all ears as Edwards talked about how he controls it with a layby herbicide tank mix that included herbicides Dual, Caparol, MSMA and a defoliant, Harvade. A defoliant?

“We used a directed spray underneath the plant. Harvade is deadly on young morningglory, but you obviously have to keep it off the cotton plant leaves,” said Edwards.

It was an idea Rosa will explore.

Farmers are idea seekers and cotton and tobacco producer Max Denning of Benson, N.C., picked up an idea from California garlic harvest that may be applicable to mechanical tobacco harvesting.

“I really like the mechanical side of farming. I saw them using a pre-harvest machine in garlic that had some long rubber fingers on it that looked like would help us in mechanically harvesting tobacco,” said Denning.

For farmers who are subject to the whims of rain patterns, irrigated California farming is like a garden. Yet one Kerman, Calif., farmer who went on a P.I.E. tour last summer to the Southeast jokingly offered to trade his farm in highly regulated, farmer-unfriendly California for one in the what he perceived as a more hospitable Southeast.

The most common thread between the two groups was the issue of quality cotton. Edwards is quickly switching to FiberMax stacked gene varieties as they become available because of their lint quality.

“Stacked gene cottons work well for us and as that technology becomes available in the high quality FiberMax cottons, it becomes a perfect fit for us,” said Edwards.

Qualities compared

While California produces the highest quality uplands (Acala) in the U.S., the Southeast also produces good cotton.

Darby asked for grade lists of cottons at the Stone Land Co. gin. “We are on the low side of the Acala quality curve. I can bust California's uniformity and am right in there on strength. What I cannot do is compete with California's length,” said Darby. “We are proud of what we can do quality-wise in the Southeast.”

Taft, Tenn., Producer Steve Graham hosted California producers last year when they visited his area and has been looking forward to his California visit.

“I enjoyed talking to the California group about our farming and have always wanted to see California agriculture. The diversity is something,” he said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com