On their farms in the rolling prairie land of east central Mississippi’s Noxubee County not far from the Alabama line, the Huerkamps are racing a Good Friday witches’ brew of weather to get corn planted.

To the west, thunderstorms are building, some “possibly severe,” the weatherpersons say; 125 miles to the north, a fast-moving cold front is generating 2.5-inch hail and tornadoes. Rain is forecast for the weekend and into next week.

“Yesterday was the first time it’s been dry enough to get back in the field since we started planting,” says Joe Huerkamp. “This spring has been every farmer’s nightmare. We got about 40 percent of the corn planted and the weather went to pot, and now we’re faced with replanting a lot of it.”

Joe, his son, Tyler, his brother, Jack, and Jack’s son, Brandon, collectively and individually have six farms in the area, some as much as 15 miles apart, encompassing 3,600 acres. All are Mississippi State University graduates, with either ag economics or ag business degrees.

And while all their energies this day are concentrated on corn — Jack and Brandon are running spray rigs applying burndown herbicide, and Joe and Tyler are planting — the Huerkamps tell you right up front that they’re first and foremost cotton farmers.

“We plant corn for the cotton,” says Joe, taking a short break from the morning’s frantic activity. “We carry out a 50-50 cotton/corn rotation year-in, year-out. We didn’t back off that even when corn prices went sky high. Grains just don’t pay the bills the way cotton does. Cotton is in our blood.”

They’re a minority, though; this year, indications are there’ll probably be only 7,000 to 8,000 acres of cotton in the entire county — a far cry from the late 1800s, when Noxubee County was the largest cotton-growing county in Mississippi, with more than 100,000 acres.

“In the 1970s, when budworms and bollworms were eating up cotton and couldn’t be controlled, cotton was pretty much driven out of this area,” says Will McCarty, retired Mississippi Extension cotton specialist. “Farmers moved to soybeans, corn, livestock, or other ventures.

“Then, after the soybean bust in the early ’80s, some farmers began going back to cotton, and it has treated them very well, particularly in a cotton/corn rotation. These are very progressive growers, very innovative; they’re competitive with growers in the Delta in terms of yield and quality.”

“We started growing cotton in the early 1970s,” says Joe. “We got out for a while in the 1980s to grow soybeans, but we just couldn’t get the yields we needed, even with irrigation, so we went back to cotton. Ever since, we’ve been on the 50-50 rotation with corn, and that program has been good for us. The shredded cornstalks help build soil organic matter, and the cotton benefits from any residual nitrogen from the corn.

“We plant a cross-section of 10 different AgriGold, DeKalb, Terral, and Pioneer corn varieties. All are good, and we match a variety to a specific field. We’ll get around 125-150 bushels on the dryland corn, and 180 bushels or so on irrigated land. Last year, we averaged a bit over 170 bushels.”