Had it not been for the efficiencies of no-till and the advantages of genetically modified varieties, brothers Larry and Bill Coker agree they probably wouldn’t be growing cotton today.

As it is, they’re the only resident growers still in the cotton business in Union County, Miss. — and for the last 10 years they’ve grown only cotton.

“No-till, the Roundup Ready system, and the Bt gene have made a world of difference,” says Bill, who recalls all too well the 1995 season when the tobacco budworm decimated cotton in their area. “We had what promised to be a one and a half-bale crop and we ended up harvesting one-third bale.

“The following year, a lot of growers tossed in the towel. We were in a co-op gin and it got down to only four growers — we were the largest. When corn and soybean prices went up, that was a further nail in cotton’s coffin.

“Bt cotton was the salvation for us, but it came a couple of years too late to save cotton for everyone else. The boll weevil eradication program has also been a tremendous asset to cotton production.”

The Cokers have been total no-till for the last eight years, and were doing minimum-till for many years before that.

But, even with no-till and cotton seed technology, continuing a cotton-based farming operation took something of a leap of faith on their part — first, that they could hold the line on costs by running older equipment that they, for the most part, maintain themselves, and second, that they could do most of the farming labor themselves.

“We try to grow the best cotton we can at the lowest cost we can, and that has meant using older equipment and keeping it in good shape,” Larry says. “We feel we can pick cotton for about half the amount in the Extension budget. There’s no way we could do that if we went out and bought a new six-row picker; we ran two-row pickers until 2000, when we moved up to used four-row equipment.

“We do most of the farm work ourselves — from machinery repairs (right now, we’re converting a narrow-row picker we bought to conventional row width) — to planting, spraying, and harvesting.

“Bill’s wife, Susan, and his son, Steve, help with module building, and we’ll hire a neighbor or two to run boll buggies. Our older brother, Jimmy, also helps out at harvest time.

“Our consultant, Bert Falkner, makes all the recommendations for insect control, growth regulator, and defoliation, and keeps check on the crop throughout the season. Everything is ground-applied; we don’t do any aerial application — another place we hold the line on costs.