Nestled into a corner of northeast Mississippi, cotton producer Joe Bostick must sometimes feel like a forgotten man. There is no irrigation here to bump cotton yields to super-high levels. Soils are thin and not always forgiving. This year, the only rain of any consequence came on the heels of three hurricanes that blew through the Gulf of Mexico.
But success isn't always built on what we have, or what Mother Nature doles out. Rather success is measured by what we do with what we've got. And Joe Bostick is doing some good things with his 1,050-acre cotton operation near Golden, Miss.
For those accomplishments, Bostick has been named the 2006 High Cotton Award winner for the Delta states.
He farms with his two sons, Ryan and Nathan, who help out at harvest and planting. There is full-time hand, Dale Ray, and part-time hand, Josh Brown, who helps out after tending to his job as a football manager at the University of Mississippi. Moral support comes from Bostick's fiancé, Teresa Singleton, who works at the La-Z-Boy factory in nearby Belmont, Miss.
Bostick graduated from Mississippi State University in 1971, and taught agriculture to high school students full-time while farming part-time with his father, Charles. He took over the cotton operation when his father retired in 1982.
He had taken cotton out of his crop mix in 1978 after the local gin closed, turning his attention to grain and soybeans. “We didn't have Pix and cotton would just get too big,” Bostick explains.
In 1991, he started growing cotton again, and he's been at it ever since. “He came back to his bread and butter,” says his consultant, Homer Wilson, who has been working for Bostick since 1996.
The return to cotton production was made without Bostick's father, who died in an automobile crash in 1985 at an intersection a hundred yards from the farm headquarters.
Soon after returning to the crop he loved, Bostick emerged as a conservationist and top-notch cotton manager, eager to increase efficiency on the farm. He began with water and soil — building and maintaining terraces and grass waterways, improving drainage, and converting to no-till in order to conserve soil, fuel, and labor.
“One of the greatest benefits of no-till is the increase in organic matter,” consultant Wilson says. “There was a train of thought here in the hills that the ground was supposed to do what it was supposed to do. We really never used to give much thought to how our practices were affecting our yields.”
In fact, Bostick's topsoil is very thin — just a few inches thick before running into barren red clay. Many fields are highly erodible, making his soil conservation efforts even more important. “You have to take care of it, or you're going to be in trouble,” Wilson says.
Trouble often came in the form of stunted plants. “We were applying so many yellow herbicides that those thin places with no organic matter couldn't handle it.
“Joe tried to build organic matter with corn, but in some cases, corn would die if we tried to rotate on some of this land.”
Bostick says, “No-till has provided us with the organic matter in the soil to handle these herbicides, although we don't have to use as many now that we have herbicide-resistant crops. But no-till was a great plus, and has boosted our overall yields. It brought yield between poor land and good land closer together.”
He continues to rotate cotton with corn on a field-by-field basis. “We notice when the cotton yields start dropping during the year, and we try to rotate it with corn the following year. The soil needs a rest from the cotton.” He can usually count on a 150-pound yield increase in cotton following corn.
No-till has helped from a labor perspective as well, Bostick says, noting that “dependable farm labor is almost non-existent in this part of the country.”
Controlling and slowing the flow of water on cotton fields is an ongoing project. During rains, he will often travel around the farm to get a better understanding of how surface water moves across his fields. His farm sits on a divide between the Tennessee-Tombigbee and Tennessee River waterways. Some land drains into the Tombigbee basin, but most drains into the Tennessee basin.
He's built parallel terraces on larger fields, diversion channels, and wide grass waterways. Drainage pipes built into the terraces take water off the fields into a ditch, lake, or a wooded area. To keep soil on the farm, he's installed grass turnrows on most of the field edges. The grass — some seeded, some volunteer — also does a good job of keeping down dust.
Bostick is known for rescuing some tough ground from potential ruin and making it profitable. For example, he acquired one field in 1991 where erosion “had torn it up pretty badly. I signed up with the Soil Conservation Service and we built it up with terraces and ran drainage pipes.”
He has dramatically improved yields on the field, too. “In the long run, you make more cotton with the terraces.”
In 1995, Bostick took advantage of USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help pay for converting to no-till cotton production on a couple of 50-acre fields.
The cost-share program helped him purchase no-till equipment, and helped launch a 100 percent conversion to no-till.
A conservationist and a good farm manager have a lot in common, says consultant Wilson.
“One thing that impresses me most about Joe is that he carries out recommendations quickly and accurately. From time to time, I might see a low spot that might need some drainage or some dirt work, and I'd tell Joe about it. It wouldn't be long before it got done. He doesn't put things off.”
“Conservation can be aggravating sometimes,” says Bostick, who does his own dirt work, “but in the end, it's worth it. If you have a weak spot in the field and you let it continue to wash, it gets worse. If you're willing to go the extra mile, it will pay.”
He has won several local awards for his conservation work, serves as chairperson of the FSA county committee, and has also served as commissioner of the Tishomingo County Soil and Water Conservation District.
In nominating Bostick for the award, Wilson noted, “He has many fields with a 50-foot, fringe wildlife area that also catches runoff and prevents stream pollution. He uses these practices to protect the land for future generations, specifically his sons' future livelihood.”
Phillip A. Horn, executive director of the Alcorn/Tishomingo County FSA office, noted, “Joe has set the benchmark on all aspects of hill farming, and through his example, showed others that it can be done.”
There is no age limit on the beneficiaries of Bostick's efforts. One afternoon in late September, he hosted a group of first graders from nearby Tishomingo Elementary School. Each had a small sack for picking a few bolls of cotton.
He and his hands stopped the cotton harvesting operation long enough for the kids to fill their sacks and ask a few dozen questions about the crop.
It was hard to tell who was having more fun — the kids, or Bostick.