Cotton Links


West Texas Oil Fields Turn Into ‘White Gold’

By Tommy Horton

A cotton producer sometimes has to take chances and go against conventional wisdom to succeed in today’s volatile economic environment. In other words, he might have to become a risk taker. And, he should probably trust his own judgment and “push the envelope.”

Those may sound like wishful ideas, but in the High Plains of west Texas not far from the New Mexico state line, it takes that kind of philosophy to survive in agriculture – especially if you’re a cotton farmer.

Such is the strategy of producer Steve Newsom who farms 2,000 cotton acres and another 1,000 acres of grain sorghum and wheat near Levelland, Texas, due west of Lubbock. This is where you’ll see oil wells and telephone poles everywhere – not the best environment for having irrigated cotton production.

Some farmers view this area as having serious limitations for cotton because of competition from those oil wells. Newsom, however, viewed this land differently when he farmed his first crop there in 1990.

He saw opportunities where other farmers obviously didn’t. It all came down to a simple philosophy for this innovative farmer. If he couldn’t aggressively pursue high yields, superior cotton fiber and a love of technology, then why even go to the trouble of being a farmer?

In Search Of Big Yields

Having just completed his 18th cotton crop, Newsom is now on a mission to “stretch his farm as much as possible” in search of those lofty goals. That kind of attitude came in handy in 2007 when the entire High Plains cotton crop was drowning in early spring rains. It kept raining and and didn’t stop until around July 10.

To say that the outlook was bleak doesn’t really describe how Newsom felt.

“When I walked into our fields in mid-July, that was the turning point for our crop,” say Newsom. “Up until that time, I thought I was living in Seattle. It rained nearly every day, or so it seemed.”

But, starting in mid-summer, the perfect season began to unfold. A late crop started catching up in a spectacular way. The crop had already set a lot of fruit, and the necessary heat units and growing conditions continued throughout August and September.

Newsom remembers waking up every morning in August and September expecting the weather forecasts to change drastically. He kept thinking cool, wet weather would return. But it never did.

“It seems like it was a high of 85 degrees every day in the fall,” he recalls. “The humidity was low, and it stayed that way for a long time. It was perfect weather for harvesting a cotton crop.”

Numbers Tell The Story

The minimum-till cotton farm has a drip irrigation system on nearly all the acreage. This kind of system requires excellent management and is an expensive investment, but it has paid off in the long run. When the numbers came in after harvest, Newsom says yields averaged between three and four bales. Staple length was between 37 and 40. In one field, micronaire averaged between 38 and 42, and strength was between 31 and 33.

“We were off the charts in our grades,” he says. “We were getting 59.22 cents in our loan premiums. It was absolutely unheard of to get this kind of fiber quality.”

Newsom had an assortment of seed varieties planted on his cotton acreage, including All-Tex, FiberMax, Stoneville and Delta & Pine Land. The FiberMax workhorse variety was FM 9063B2F.

Aside from an aphid problem during the season and the occasional verticilium wilt outbreak, it was a memorable season except for the late start and early rains.

How did it happen?

Newsom says he has always been a firm believer in earliness and an intense crop management style. Combining that strategy with better-performing picker varieties quickly produced some record-breaking numbers.

As for the outlook in 2008, Newsom doesn’t hide his enthusiasm. After going through such a rewarding roller coaster ride of a crop season in 2007, he believes he can handle anything.

“I’ll say this much,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s nice to feel like this after the low points we’ve gone through in previous years.”

Contagious Enthusiasm

Two of Newsom’s friends – consultant Geron Jeffcoat and John Deere equipment dealer Dayvid Cole – aren’t surprised at Newsom’s success. They always knew he loved farming.

“Let’s put it this way,” says Jeffcoat. “I’ve never seen anybody who was more passionate about being a cotton farmer. It isn’t easy farming over there on that land where the oil fields were located. He’s turned some barren land into a real ‘Garden of Eden.’ It’s just amazing.”

Cole echoes those remarks.

“He’s such an enthusiastic farmer that you wind up being persuaded by him very easily,” he says.

Newsom, his wife Cindy and two children – son Keegan (13) and daughter Raenee (15) – are at the core of the family operation. Even though the children spend part of their day at school in the fall, everyone has a job.

“I can always tell how much my children contribute to the operation when they go back to school,” says Newsom. “I always miss them when we move into the fall and head toward harvest.”

No matter what happens to this year’s crop, Newsom figures he’s seen it all. Even a bad hailstorm might not dampen his outlook.

“When you hit bumps in the road, you just have to deal with the situation, and then move on,” he says. “That’s just part of farming.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.

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