Passion For Cotton

Dr. Tom Kerby

Iwas incredibly fortunate to enjoy a career in cotton. I was born in Douglas, Arizona, but moved to Farmington, New Mexico, as a toddler. A small family farm consisted of dairy cows and fruit trees. My parents grew up in the Depression, were hard workers and didn’t want us to be bored. 

During the school year, there was milking morning and evening, with a few chores thrown in. Summers were long days. We raised our own alfalfa and corn for the dairy cows. Herbicides were not in common use. When we weren’t milking or haying, we were chopping weeds in the corn. There was no time for sports and hobbies, and little time for homework. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew how to work, and I knew I didn’t want to farm as a career. Yet I found I liked seeing a crop grow. 

I took my time becoming acquainted with the cotton plant. I served a 27-month mission for my church in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, then followed that up with  three years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war. This gave me time to mature and set in motion a desire to be my best. During this time, I met and married my sweetheart, June (we are now in our 56th year together). 

My educational journey started at Brigham Young University with a major in soil chemistry. Two life changing events led me to cotton. I intended to get a Masters in fruit physiology at Utah State. I asked Dr. Laren Robinson (Dept. Chair) for a reference letter, and he replied, “No!” I was shocked. I had the best GPA in the department. Why? After a long pause, he smiled and said, “If you want me to write a letter of recommendation for you to pursue a Ph.D., I’d be happy to, but it will be a waste for you to only get a M.S. degree.”

BYU hosted the Western Collegiate Soils Judging Contest my senior year. The only soil pit where I finished judging early was the one the University of Arizona coach supervised. I won the high individual score at the event. A week later, a detailed description of Dr. Buxton’s research arrived, along with a graduate fellowship offer. Provo, Utah was cold. Logan was even colder. I thought of my mom’s stories of picking cotton. I remembered my Arizona roots, and June and I changed our plans from fruit physiology to cotton. 

My M.S. documented how the cotton plant responds to row spacing, plant density and varieties with a range of leaf shapes. I came up with a system to “map” boll set or fruit shed. It took a page per plant, and my six-year-old daughter was my plant map recorder. Analysis and summary were with a hand calculator. All five of my children were plant mappers at one time. My Ph.D. research used radio-active carbon dioxide in enclosed field chambers to document photosynthesis by different leaves, and where those sugars were translocated. I became very acquainted with cotton in those years.

My career continued at University of California. We improved capacity of plant mapping and tools to summarize results. We documented DD60s for the growth stages. About 1985, we realized we could use in-season measurements (boll retention, height, internode length between the 4th and 5th node below the terminal, and nodes above white flower) to adjust inputs to optimize the remainder of the season. 

We advanced and applied these concepts during my years with Deltapine. DP555BG/RR would have never made it to market without it. Plant mapping demonstrated right away that it was different. It was a slow starter. Nodes, height and internode distance at early bloom suggested limited growth. Yet three weeks after flowering, even with a good boll load, it didn’t slow down like other varieties. We worked closely with our seed production growers and told them they needed to apply PIX early even though it didn’t appear necessary. They didn’t believe me then but did after the first year.  

I was blessed to work with great institutions and associates. My learning to “observe” and “listen” to the cotton plant blessed my career. I was honored to be named a Fellow in the American Society of Agronomy for my research and honored to receive the two big cotton awards (Extension Education and Cotton Physiologist Research). I look back with satisfaction for the years of treasured interactions with researchers in academia and equally with growers and consultants. Cotton is a marvelous plant, and the industry associated with it is the best. I am a blessed man and cherish my memories with so many involved with cotton. 

— Dr. Tom Kerby, retired cotton physiologist 

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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