Life's Lessons

By Jay Mahaffey
Scott, Miss.

As I get older and more sentimental, lessons learn-ed in my experience become a bit clearer. I have spent time in cotton fields since I was a very young boy in northeast Louisiana. Many of these experiences resulted in hard work, frustrations, satisfying learning experiences and, generally, a good time when considered as a whole.

The triumphs and associated tragedy from these experiences has led me to believe that many life lessons can be gleaned from a little time in a cotton patch. If you will permit, I would like to share a few of the ones that really stand out. They involve a cast of characters including insects, cotton plants and, of course, the good folks of the cotton industry.

Persistence – This one was best taught growing up in the shadow of the boll weevil. All involved remember the monumental effort required to deal with this insect pest. Thorough weekly scouting, numerous pesticide applications and generally a belief that we would win were all parts of the system. Ultimately, we learned many lessons that remain with cotton, science and society in general as a result of explorations into how the weevil could best be managed. Our society owes the boll weevil a great debt for this contribution. We learned things about insect ecology, pheromones, population dynamics and insect management that spill into many areas of our lives today. Ultimately, we developed a body of knowledge that allowed the successful eradication of the weevil from much of the United States.

Curiosity – Being curious to the point of distraction at times, I have a great and growing respect for this lesson. The urge for me to know and learn was truly established in a cotton field. My consulting mentor had tobacco budworms teach me a lesson that I will never forget. I can take you to the spot in the field where I was standing when this harsh lesson (oddly, the lesson was that I didn’t really know everything) really dug into my psyche. The conversation afterwards (it all worked out) led me to a career in entomology, which has taken me around the world and offered more opportunities to learn than I could have ever dreamed existed beforehand. Throughout grad school and my professional career, I have only grown to learn more and more about almost everything that I encounter. For that, I give genuine thanks to the tobacco budworm. I bet you never heard anyone say that.

Hope – No person who lacks hope should ever attempt to manage a cotton field. While the occasional tragedy does occur, cotton is generally a forgiving crop. It overcomes much adversity and gives me the feeling almost every time that there is hope for the future. Fields that are severely insect damaged or suffering from the ravages of Mother Nature most often recover and produce a crop at some acceptable level. This, many times, only comes with skilled management, good decision making and a determination to see it to the end. Personally, I find this to be the magic of participating in cotton production.

The history of the modern cotton industry is overcoming adversity. Think of the things that have limited cotton production in the past. Boll weevils, resistant budworms, agronomic management and low prices have all threatened the industry in the last few decades. With persistence, curiosity and hope, the industry has dealt with each of these in its unique way. Boll weevil eradication, Bt cotton and various increases in productivity have helped to counter each of these difficulties. For this reason, I believe that our industry will continue to confront and overcome difficulty to make cotton business more sustainable, productive and profitable into the distant future.

As a wise man once said, “Hope springs eternal.” I take that to heart.

– Jay Mahaffey, Scott, Miss.
   jay.s.mahaffey@monsanto.com

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