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From picking by hand to GMOs

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Fifth generation Mississippi farmers Larry and Bill Coker have been a part of cotton's evolution, from the drudgery of picking by hand to today's GMO varieties.

One of the always interesting aspects of my visits to farmers is learning something about how they came to agriculture as a life’s work. Without exception, these historical insights provide a fascinating look at families and how their love for the land has spanned generations.

Larry and Bill Coker are good examples.They’re the fifth generation to farm in the southeast corner of Union County, Miss. Ask farmers who know the Cokers and you’ll be told, “They’re some of the best cotton farmers around.” (See No-till, GMO kept Cokers in cotton)

Their great-grandfather came to the area from the Carolinas and “farming was all there was to do here,” Larry says. “Our grandfather and father were farmers, too, and we grew up in a farming environment.”

Their late father, Kermit, worked for the Corps of Engineers until he married, then started a Grade A dairy.

“Dairying was the major ‘crop’ in these parts,” says Bill. “This was a center of milk production and there was a big processing plant at Tupelo, Miss., about 15 miles away. Now, to my knowledge, there’s not a dairy left in this county.

“In the late 1940s and 1950s, Dad had a grocery store and was out of cotton. But after that, he always grew cotton, along with some corn and soybeans. We boys remember all too well hand picking cotton.”

In 1961, Larry says, their father bought “a low drum John Deere 122 one-row picker, which came with a 3010 tractor. He paid $11,000 for both — which was a nice chunk of money in those days.

“But, it was a wonder! And it sure beat picking by hand. We’d planted some skip row cotton, which grew six feet tall or more — that was long before Pix — and we were afraid the picker wouldn’t go through the tall, dense crop. But it did. We did custom picking all over the area with that machine.”

That was during the era of cotton allotments, Bill notes. “One of Dad’s jobs was going around and measuring cotton fields to be sure people stayed within their allotments. We spent a lot of time as teenagers pulling a 66-foot measuring chain around cotton fields. Our older brother, Jimmy, also helped out on the farm, but later moved away. He has recently returned to the area and last year helped us with moduling.”

“We grew up with dairying and cotton,” Larry says. “As a youngster, I hated dairying and its 24/7 demands and wasn’t sorry to get out of it. Since then, cotton has pretty much been a way of life for us.

“But, I don’t think my children will want to continue in farming. Bill’s son might, but right now he has another career. Looking down the road, one of our concerns is whether there will be young people wanting to come into farming.”

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