For Portland, Ark., ginner/cotton producer George Pugh, success is all about change. Some change works, some doesn't. But these days, you better embrace it with enthusiasm.

Here's just a smattering of the new innovations Pugh has seen or had a hand in on his family's farming and ginning operation the last few years. He's ushered in Bt cotton and boll weevil eradication, put in new cotton warehouses, became a partner in an oil mill, bought a gin, completely renovated his own gin and implemented a new service for producers.

Pugh seems to take the evolution of his cotton enterprises in stride, saying it's what he has to do to stay competitive. But there might be some family pride involved, too.

"Our family has been in the ginning business since way back when," Pugh said. "We were partners in a gin for a few years. In 1977, we built this gin, GPS Gin, which is owned by the Gus Pugh family. We started out ginning around 7,600 bales. The most we've ginned in a season is 29,000 bales."

But ginned bales will likely rise significantly this season, noted Pugh. GPS recently purchased a gin in Wilmot, Ark., with a capacity of around 14,000 bales annually. "This year, we're closing that gin down and remodeling this gin. We've upped the capacity here from 25 bales an hour to 40 to 45 bales per hour."

New equipment at GPS will include two new 170 Lummus stands. "We're keeping one of our Lummus 158 stands (for a total of three stands).

"We're putting in new lint cleaners, a new battery condenser, press and tramper and a new Samuel Jackson moisture control system, which we call 'hot lips.' It feeds steam into the lint slide and adds moisture into the cotton."

Pugh explained. "Incoming moisture from the module is sometimes around 8 to 10 percent. Sometimes you have to put heat on it to bring it to the gin and moisture will get down to 4 to 4.5 percent. This system will add moisture to give a farmer back what he sent you to begin with. And it increases weight and turnout, too. And steam doesn't cost a whole lot."

The Pughs also put in a split-flow incline cleaning system between the module feeder, and the gin stands essentially doubling the number of incline cleaners.

"This gives us the ability to get more cotton to the stands, as much as 50 to 60 bales per hour if we need it. Before what was choking us down was that we had only two incline cleaners and a stick machine cleaning cotton before it entered the gin stand.

"We also have Lummus Super-Jets behind the gin stand. That's a brush that kicks the cotton up in the air and separates some of the hulls that come out of the gin stand. We go from there into the lint cleaning. We used to have two stages of lint cleaning behind each stand. We now only have one behind each stand, but it's a state of the art lint cleaner."

All the changes are designed to maximize returns to the producer while not overginning the fiber. "The less saw type cleaning we do the better," Pugh said. "We're disturbing the cotton as little as possible, then we're putting the moisture back in.

"Our emphasis is also on turnout. We've seen turnout drop to 42 percent when it was hand-picked to 32 to 33 percent when it's machine-picked. We want to give the farmer a 37 to 38 percent turnout."

Close competition

With a number of other gins nearby, the Gus Pugh family must stay on its toes to remain profitable.

The competition from cooperatives in McGehee and north Louisiana have intensified with new technology. For example, hauling cotton from the field isn't as much of a problem as it used to be. "With a module truck, it's nothing to go 30 miles to pick up some cotton," Pugh said.

Competition also comes from the Portland Gin Co., less than a stone's throw away. But it's in the family, too, Pugh noted.

"That's my cousin Bob's gin. My grandfather and Bob's grandfather were first cousins who went into the farming business together. In 1923, my grandfather died, and they separated the businesses."

Fortunately, the competition has remained friendly due to close family ties — both sides of the family even attend the same church.

A third gin is also close by, Wilson Pugh Gin. The Gus Pugh family was an investor in the gin, but "we sold our interest."

Thankfully, there's plenty of support for the large ginning capacity in the area, including a predominance of high-yielding cotton soils.

"We dance to the tune that brought us," Pugh said. "Plus we have a certain kind of land here, it's a sandy-type soil with a history of around 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre.

"We've got all the tools to make a crop," Pugh said. "We got into irrigation way back when a lot of people didn't. All the cotton running through these gins is 100 percent irrigated.

"We can really get all the water we want right now," Pugh added. "All you read about are the water shortages out west. We believe we'll be here longer than the areas that are having a water problem."

GPS Gin consistently processes the same number of acres from year to year, Pugh notes, although the number of producers who gin there has fallen from 30 to around 15.

The gin also uses its land holdings as an incentive for producers to gin with GPS. "Many farmers today have to increase cotton acreage to pay for cotton pickers and other equipment," Pugh explained. "We'll tell a customer that we'll rent him some of our land if he'll bring us his business. That helps us keep our base. That's a primary factor in providing support for the gin."

One selling point for Pugh is that customers can pick up their checks for their cotton at the gin. "We put it in the loan for him, do all the bookkeeping. All the farmer has to do is stay in the field picking. We feel like the way we keep his confidence is give him a service and be someone he can depend on."

Other Gus Pugh family enterprises include a John Deere dealership and banking as well as cotton production. "We farm about 1,000 acres and I rent out 2,000 acres. The Gus Pugh family farms close to 8,000 acres of cotton."

While soybeans don't present much of threat for competing with cotton ground because of poor soybean yield potential, the presence of reniform nematodes has brought about more interest in rotating cotton with corn.

It's a tricky situation for Pugh. "This land will grow corn. But like my father once said, 'You can't gin corn.'"

Pugh has looked to other methods for controlling the pest, including fumigants. "We've seen a positive result of nematode control with Telone — as much as 150 to 175 pounds of lint per acre increase in yield."

Pugh has also added warehouses to his operation, again to remain competitive. "The cotton gin hasn't made any money the past few years with cotton seed so cheap. So the warehouse helps pay for the rebates.

"But as we see the soybean market moving up (pushing up cottonseed prices), the gin will start paying its own way."

The gin and Planter's Oil are also partners in a 12-year-old mill. "I think that's one reason why we're successful. We've had access to markets, whether it's cottonseed or in the warehouse working with the merchants."

Not all Pugh's ventures have been successful. A fertilizer operation just couldn't compete and had to be shut down. But that doesn't faze the ginner in the slightest. "This business is a result of us keeping up with what's going on with our customers," said Pugh, who plans to retire soon. "You have to understand what will keep the farmer in business while you're keeping up with your own business."

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.