I recall two farm visits during April 1978, my first month as an assistant county agent — cotton pest management in Lawrence County, Alabama. One involved a replant situation on a cold, wet Friday north of Town Creek. The other was an informative turnrow conversation with a grower near Courtland.
I didn’t know much but was eager to learn. I was afforded countless opportunities to grow by watching and listening to producers and ag professionals too many to name. In those two years and the four that followed with a weed scientist on a Cotton Incorporated project, l learned lots and realized, “This is what I want to do when I grow up.”
My daddy was born in Hurtsboro, Alabama. After high school, he raised 7 acres of cotton using a steer, then decided he should seek greener pastures. My mother was from Monroe County, Mississippi, and her large family earned income growing and ginning cotton.
I have a vague memory of filling a pillow case used as a picksack somewhere in East Mississippi. My parents left the cotton patch, but I did not. I wasn’t born or raised on a farm, yet I yearned to be part of PRODUCING. That yearning still exists a few months short of my 64th birthday.
I left Auburn in the winter of 1984 to begin a Ph.D. program at Texas A&M. In the classroom and the field, I rubbed shoulders with talented folks, professors and fellow students. Countless times we heard Dr. Merkle respond to a student’s uncertain answer about herbicide chemistry, “If it looks … walks … and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”
I learned a lot. I departed College Station in December 1986 with a new bride from Alabama and a job in Georgia.
As an Extension weed scientist and later the cotton agronomist at the University of Georgia, I witnessed and participated in many revolutionary changes from 1987 to 2008: eradication of the boll weevil; a six-fold explosion in cotton acres; total overhaul of peanut weed control; bumps, bruises and successes of early transgenic cotton; remarkable advancements in cotton pest management; astonishing progress in yield performance; and challenges with weed resistance and fiber quality. Those were 21 satisfying years, with lots of learning and a few hard controversies.
I considered the possibility of working in industry and got a call one afternoon at Sun Belt Expo as I was emptying plot sacks. The next morning I met two Dow AgroSciences leaders for breakfast, and a short time later joined PhytoGen Cotton. The cotton seed/technology business is very competitive. Even when you have excellent products, you don’t always win.
Most fascinating were the processes of delivering varieties to growers each season and developing new technologies for the long term. PhytoGen treated me well, and I worked with some great folks. After 11 years, I retired in March 2019 with good memories.
Because I wasn’t “done” and because my family insisted I stay active, my youngest son said, “You need to die in a cotton field.” I answered the persisting question of what to do when I grow up with a new assignment.
On April Fool’s Day, I joined the ranks of Auburn University as the Extension cotton specialist and the oldest assistant professor on campus. I didn’t take the job to coast. I want to meaningfully contribute to the good of cotton growers in Alabama.
“I” and “my” fill this column, but I’ve benefitted from many wonderful mentors and colleagues over the years. The long list includes farmers, university peers and industry personnel. It’s a treasure to reflect. Since most who read this are younger, I’ll close with a few life lessons. Keep learning. Tell the truth. Act honorably. Help people. Don’t burn bridges.
— Steve M. Brown