My Arizona Cotton Journey

By Jeff Silvertooth

My path to the cotton world really began in the wheat and alfalfa fields of southern Kansas and northwest Oklahoma. In 1966, when I was 12 years old, I began working on local farms, starting out with hay baling operations. I continued to work on local farms, particularly the Richardson Farm near Valley Center, Kansas, until I was 22 and graduated from Kansas State University with a B.S. degree in agronomy in 1976.

After leaving K-State, I worked for five years as an agronomist — crop consultant in southwestern Kansas, based in Montezuma. Following those excellent formative experiences, I started graduate school at Oklahoma State University under the direction of Dr. Robert L. Westerman in soil fertility and plant nutrition.

I applied for the University of Arizona cotton specialist position in the fall of 1986 when I was finishing a Ph.D. program in soil science at OSU. At that time, we had a 1 ½ year old son and another child due in April 1987. Very simply, I needed a job, and I cast a rather broad net in search of one.

In January 1987, I interviewed and then accepted the offer to serve as an Extension agronomist — cotton, aka the cotton specialist at the University of Arizona. This was not at all premeditated nor was it a specific goal. In truth, I was fortunate to have a good job in my area of expertise as I was leaving graduate school.

After completing the spring 1987 semester teaching a soil chemistry class for the OSU Agronomy Department, we loaded up and headed west to Arizona a little over three weeks after our second son was born. This was kind of like the Clampetts leaving Texas and heading west to California in the “Beverly Hillbilly’s,” except we were certainly not wealthy, and we had to spend about everything we had to make the move. Then, upon arriving in Arizona, my cotton journey began immediately.

One might expect someone coming in as a new cotton specialist to have a wealth of experience and know-ledge in cotton production. I did not. My only exposure to cotton production had been as a child visiting my great-grandparents (my father’s maternal grandparents) farm in Dodson, Texas, where they were sharecroppers.

During my time at OSU, I worked directly with cotton production in southwest Oklahoma with Dr. Westerman’s program. One of my colleagues, Randy Boman, was frequently extolling the marvels of the cotton plant. I trusted Randy’s wisdom on this, but I did not fully appreciate the nature of his passion for cotton at the time.  Collectively, that was the sum of my direct exposure to cotton production before I arrived in Arizona in the spring of 1987.

My immersion into the cotton industry began immediately, and it was an intense experience, like drinking from a fire hose. Farming is a generally intense operation, and growing crops in the desert is extremely intense by the very nature of working to counteract the huge environmental forces — heat, salinity and extremely dry conditions — that can destroy a crop very quickly.

My work in Arizona has provided many rewarding experiences that include numerous students who have graduated and developed successful careers. Some of them have worked internationally, and many of them have been working in the cotton industry.

I was the UA cotton specialist for 15 years. Then, I became the head of the Soil, Water and Environment Science Department for 12 years and continued to work in the cotton fields in research and Extension. In 2012, I accepted the position as the associate dean and director the UA Cooperative Extension System. I served in that capacity for 10 years. Three years ago, I stepped out of the Extension director job and have returned to the field, literally and figuratively. I am delighted to be able to get back out to the cotton fields and the continually changing landscape of crop production in Arizona and the region.

I came to Arizona in 1987 in need of a job and I found a life-long relationship in the cotton fields and industry. Two more of our children were born in Arizona and all four of my children have graduated from the UA. Cotton production brought us to Arizona and has provided a good livelihood.

I have been very fortunate and continue to be. I am still working and trying to contribute in a productive manner in cotton and desert-crop production systems, and I am most certainly still learning!

      Jeff Silvertooth
University of Arizona

Cotton Farming’s back page is devoted to telling unusual “farm tales” or timely stories from across the Cotton Belt. Now it’s your turn. If you’ve got an interesting story to tell, send a short summary to We look forward to hearing from you.

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