Farming In The Florida Panhandle

Reaping The Benefits Of New Technology

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
ASSOCIATE EDITOR

J

ames and Nick Marshall, a father-son team in Baker, Florida, aren’t new to the world of cotton farming. James, setting off on his own in 1972 after seeing his father farm before him, originally began in Jay, Florida, before moving over to the Baker area. They have a primarily dryland, 2,700-acre cotton and peanut farm sitting on sandy-loam soil where 2,000 of those acres are planted in cotton.

James (left) and Nick Marshall discussing their 2022 cotton crop on their farm.
COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Deltapine NPE Program

Marshall Farms is a 100% Deltapine cotton farm, and both James and Nick are members of the New Product Evaluator (NPE) program. They’ve been part of the program since 2009 — NPE’s second year in existence — and have now entered their 14th year as members.

“Here, in our area, we just cannot beat Deltapine,” Nick said after noting their multiple attempts at growing different companies’ varieties.

Four out of the five NPE varieties the Marshalls grew this past season were Deltapine Bollgard 3 ThryvOn XtendFlex cotton varieties as part of the stewarded groundbreakers program.

“We are very excited about the technology,” Nick said. He added that thrips control was the biggest benefit they’ve seen from ThryvOn. “From the highway, you can tell what fields are ThryvOn and which ones are not; it’s that big of a difference.”

James said they’ve also seen a noticeable difference in fruit setting.

“It seems to start setting fruit a lot earlier because it’s saving the fruit, and that’s beneficial for us. We’re right here in the path of where all the hurricanes like to come, so anytime we can get our crop out earlier, the better,” James said.

In 2022, the Marshalls planted a mix of Deltapine’s DP2020, DP2012, DP2239, DP2141, DP2131 and DP2211 alongside the Class of ’23 NPE trial varieties. Three out of the five NPE varieties they planted were recently released as part of the NPE Class of ’23.

“Looking forward to those new releases — for two of them, we would try to get all we can get of them,” Nick said of DP2333 and DP2328.

The Farm Operation

In splitting up responsibilities on the farm, the Marshalls don’t typically have any set plan since they’re both able to do anything they need to do. Nick said his dad will usually be in the cotton planter in April while he’s in the peanut planter, and they generally try to finish planting around the same time in May — and treat harvest in a similar manner.

The Marshall’s farm is in Baker, Florida, around 30 miles north of Destin, Florida.
COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

As third and fourth generation farmers, James and Nick make use of technology upgrades they’ve added over the years. This includes using John Deere’s highspeed ExactEmerge planter and ExactApply targeted sprayer system, grid sampling, grid spacing and strip tilling. They also invested in a roller picker the first year it became available in 2009.

“That’s made the operation a lot more streamlined,” Nick said, emphasizing its benefit with the current labor situation across the country.

“Pretty much anything new that comes out — we’re quick to try something,” he added.

As far as weeds go, crowfoot grass, morningglory and sicklepod are their biggest culprits. Added insect pressure comes from nearby soybeans and corn, and stinkbugs and thrips remain the major players there.

They spoke on the added benefit from ThryvOn in not having to switch things over to spray thrips during the season as well.

“With peanuts in the mix, there’s always something in the sprayer that doesn’t mesh very well with cotton, or vice versa, so the less I have to be out there and washing chemicals out, that’s much easier on me, too,” Nick said.

Disease isn’t a huge issue for the farm, and the pressure is never high enough where they feel as if they must treat it. There’s some bacterial blight and a little bit of leaf spot due to the humid area they’re in. They attempt to mitigate these potential diseases in their variety selection.

At the end of the season, the Marshalls gin their cotton at Golden Gin in Jay, Florida. With some late rain and a potentially record-setting early freeze, Nick said they still had a good year as far as yields go and great as far as grades go.

Changes Overtime

Nick noted how, prior to their involvement with NPE, they were a full-season-variety-only farm and used to be hesitant of planting early varieties

“Now, we don’t plant any full-season varieties. It’s all early to mid-season varieties as they seem to have a higher yield potential. These new varieties have got a lot of horsepower, and we’ve been really tickled with them.”

“They’re so good about trying to pinpoint these areas for the variety of cotton. Everything they’ve done has always really been a big help because it always seems like it’s progressing forward instead of backward,” James said before later adding, “The ThryvOn is just a game changer in our area.”

Progressing forward is nothing new for the area the Marshalls farm by any standard. Being a mere 30 miles north of Destin, Florida, they’ve seen an explosion of people. The population has been encroaching the farm area more and more over the past decade, and the land around them isn’t getting any cheaper.

“It’s getting harder and harder, if you don’t own land, to find land to rent,” James said, including the logic of it being another input cost.

“We’re in a very non-agricultural area where a lot of state forests surround us with their pine trees, so there’s not a lot of land available around here — especially in our county, so we do what we can to keep what we’ve got,” Nick added.

Looking past the storms, the Marshalls discussed some highlights they’ve witnessed on the farm in their lifetimes.

“All of the equipment [upgrades] have helped out with having a lower population [planted] and less chemicals — that’s all a plus,” James said. “We couldn’t grow 2,000 acres of cotton just the two of us if we had to grow it like we did 15 years ago.”

Overcoming Obstacles

As prevalent as hurricanes are in their area, there’s not much that can be done in preparation of the destructive storms.

When asked how they do their best to prepare, Nick readily affirmed “You don’t.”

“When we get that September or October hurricane, you’re all in at that point,” James said, noting also that crop insurance is their only real protection.

Both James and Nick spoke about the uncertainties that lie with hurricane season, commenting on how one could come in the middle of July or October.

“It does seem like the trend lately has been pushing toward those late-season — late September, early October — ones,” Nick said. 

While seemingly dismal, Nick was quick to say how ThryvOn helps in this arena with its early fruiting ability to get the crop out of the field earlier around the end of September now. “That’s a beneficial thing and a very big positive we’re looking at with these ThryvOn varieties.

(From left to right) Nick, Landen, Emery and James Marshall stand in their field after the 2022 cotton harvest.
COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

“We can make as good of cotton as anyone in the country; we just have a hard time keeping it on the plant with the humidity here and the late rains and hurricanes,” he said.

Both James and Nick remarked how they keep planting every year, regardless of hurricane potential, and emphasized how they also have their wives’ help as a part of the operation.

“She’s always there,” James said of his wife Helen. “She’s always stacking the round modules as quickly as they hit the ground.”

Nick’s wife Maryann helps as well, and they have two children, Landen and Emery.

Benefits Abound

As a longtime NPE grower, Nick said one of the beauties of the program is the result of making friends across the Cotton Belt and being able to communicate with them on what varieties they’re liking in their respective areas to tell whether they want to plant those varieties as well.

“Some of the varieties we plant, we never really thought about. We’ll try it, and sometimes we don’t like it; sometimes we do. That’s a lot better than going out there blind and not knowing anything about it.”

“That’s what we’re here for — to test them and see,” James added, noting everyone’s different ideas and thoughts that are shared amongst NPE growers. “Just the little tidbits of information that get passed along — it’s stuff like that that brings us together.”

Nick marveled at the thought of farmers never finding a year that’s the same. 

“From environmental issues, new seed changing the game, new chemicals here and there — it’s fun to get up every day and see what happens this year versus another and the gains we’ve worked toward every year.”

“It’s never the same. I know I’m going to see something different today than what I saw yesterday, and I know it’s going to be different than what it was last year,” James said.

“I want to get better. I’m 68 years old don’t know how much longer I can farm, but I wish I could farm another 50 years. I like putting seed in the dirt and watching it grow — that’s what gives me joy, right there.”

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