Matthew Turner learned at an early age that cotton is a very special crop in his family. Raised on a fifth generation cotton farm in Mer Rouge, La., his first view of a cotton field came while sharing a tractor seat with his father, Dan.

At home, his family preferred to decorate their walls not with portraits of vacation trips to Disneyworld, but with photographs of family in white, open cotton fields.

But Turner knows that pride alone doesn’t get the job done in today’s cotton economy. It takes agronomic skill and an understanding of what drives the bottom line. For his eloquent grasp of this concept, Turner was awarded $2,500 as the undergraduate grand prize winner in the Future of Delta Cotton Student Essay Contest, sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection and Delta Farm Press.

“History teaches us the rewards of past successes and steers us away from the sting of failures,” Turner wrote in his essay. “But relying on the historical fact of cotton’s glorious history in the Delta won’t ensure cotton growers a profit for the future. Other commodities are muscling cotton out of the crop mix at an alarming pace.”

To gather information for his essay, Turner cobbled together information from interviews with area farmers, retailers, consultants and equipment dealers and his own recollections of growing up on a cotton farm.

“Struggling with thin margins has forced growers to do things differently than their parents,” Turner said. “Becoming better informed, spending energy dollars wisely, investing in improvements to the land, and marketing cotton with a goal in mind were points of agreement” with all who Turner interviewed.

Turner’s easily identifies with farmers’ concerns because despite his young age, he has seen significant changes in cotton production. “When I was growing up, we were still hand-hoeing and spraying with backpack sprayers. I’ve seen the change to herbicide-resistant crops and to no-till. From that, I’ve learned the importance of keeping up with technology and being open-minded about trying new things.

“There is a future for cotton in the Delta,” Turner said. “But young farmers can’t just say they’ll follow in their father’s footsteps. They have to stay educated. Technology changes, and they have to stay up with it.”

Farmers have to understand influences on cotton that come from beyond the farm gate, too, Turner says. “Staying abreast of changing trends in market demands may greatly improve a grower’s profit picture. Overseas customers such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc., have goals in mind concerning fiber quality. We need to stay informed as to what the customer wants if we are to excel in the future.”

That’s where a sense of pride can help, according to Turner. “With grains, a grower delivers his bushels into a vast pit, receives his check and goes home. With cotton, it’s different. A grower’s identity goes on his bale of cotton from places like Mer Rouge and travels with it to its final disposition, possibly on the other side of the world. Pride in the product a cotton grower delivers distinguishes him from those growing other commodities. Pride will be the driver that carries cotton production far into the future.”

Turner is the son of Dan Turner and the nephew of Barry Turner, who farm together in Mer Rouge, La. Barry and Dan also do entomology consulting for other farmers, and Matthew has been involved in the business. Currently, he is studying plant and soil systems at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Turner is undecided on what he’d like to do after graduation — sort of. “I’m taking other classes in school on soil and horticulture, just trying to see if something clicks. But I think I’ll probably want to take over my dad and uncle’s operation when they retire. My older cousin, Justin Turner, is already getting into that role.”

Don LaBonte, Turner’s faculty advisor, and an LSU professor in plant, environmental and soil sciences, said Turner’s field of study “takes a lot of skill in both business and in understanding plant growth and development. He’s a relatively new student, but he takes his coursework very seriously, and is very excited about it.”

No matter what happens, Turner will have a wealth of information to contribute from college and the farm. “My father and uncle have taught me everything I know, and Justin, my cousin, has helped push me along the way, too.”

To read Turner’s complete essay online, visit www.FutureOfDeltaCotton.com.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com