A group of Midwest and north-Midwest farmers know their neighbors to the south a lot better today, after participating in a weeklong tour of Delta agriculture as part of the Multi-Commodity Education Program. The tour is a Cotton Foundation project funded by Monsanto and John Deere & Company.

According to tour guide John Gibson, director of member services with the National Cotton Council, the exchange program “is designed to give grain growers from other regions and producers in the Cotton Belt a better understanding of various commodity challenges across regions.”

Last year, a group of Cotton Belt growers visited Illinois corn producers as part of the MCEP tour. This year, the Mid-South hosted grain growers from Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maryland, Montana, Texas and Pennsylvania. The tour focused on agronomic practices, technology utilization, cropping patterns, marketing plans and operational structure.

Gibson says the knowledge gleaned can be especially useful during farm policy development at the association level, because many of the farmers participating in the tours are also leaders of commodity organizations. “That’s the value of having an exchange type program where we can bring in leading farmers who’ve never seen southern agriculture and help them understand it a little better.”

Gibson noted that Cotton Belt producers are just as enlightened when they visit the Midwest and other regions.

“We hear a lot about corn producers in the Midwest making 200-plus bushel corn yields, but we hear on the tour that some of them are paying $300 to $400 an acre for rent up there. The tour just creates a better understanding of those types of things. Agriculture and the population also clash more in the Midwest. We have found on tours that the Illinois corn grower also spends a lot of time educating urbanites about the role the farmer plays in the state economy.”

The tour, which originated in 2006, could not have picked a better week to tool around the Mid-South as rice, soybean and cotton harvest was wrapping up, modules of cotton and grain trucks bounced along country roads, and wheat planting had begun.

Wendell Lutz, a Dewey, Ill., corn and soybean producer, and director for the Illinois Soybean Association, said the trip confirmed big differences between grain and cotton production. “I had always heard that the farm legislators in the South were not willing to give up direct payments or go with payment limits in the past. From that, I surmised that cotton is a very expensive crop to grow, very intensive. I’m glad to see firsthand all the things they’re doing. I’m seeing a lot of tillage and fieldwork that has to be done.

“With corn and soybeans, you basically just plant it and let it go for the most part. Then you harvest it, put it in the bin or elevator and forget about it. The identity preservation of the cotton really impresses me. The product is identified and you can follow its lot number all the way through the process.”

“It’s been a great experience,” said Doyle Lentz, who farms barley, wheat, canola and soybean producer near Rolla, N.D., and is director for the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. “Cotton is a much more labor intensive crop than what we deal with. With the picking and ginning of cotton, the processes are much longer and much more complicated than any of the commodities we grow up there.”

Gordon Stoner, president of Montana Grain Growers Association, who produces durum wheat, peas and lentils around Outlook, Mont., said Mid-South producers “appear to be in the field virtually the year round. I’m a typical farmer, and I love to see equipment. We had the opportunity to run through the cotton ginning processes and see all the machinery it takes to separate the cotton. After a tour of the catfish farm and processing facility, I have a new appreciation for all the effort it takes to put a filet on my plate. It is just tremendous to see all the diversity here in the Delta.”

Chip Bowling, director of the National Corn Growers Association, and a corn, wheat, soybean and sorghum producer from Newburg, Md., said the tour “is actually a little reminiscent for me. I used to be a tobacco farmer in Maryland, which is a lot like the cotton business. You have warehousing and merchandizing. So I can kind of see where they’re coming from.”

“I was really interested in talking with the National Cotton Council and understanding how they came up with their farm bill recommendations. When we do our analysis for farm policy, we are thinking of other commodities. When we go to D.C., we’re going to get the most bang for our buck if we have the same voice for agriculture.”

“As a farmer, this is particularly exciting to me because I can relate to some of the issues, but not all of them. But a lot of farmers have similar problems,” said Garry Neimeyer, an Auburn, Ill., corn and soybean producer, and president of the National Corn Growers Association.

Neimeyer said the MCEP tour “is a great idea for how farmers can work together to accomplish things. When 1 percent of the U.S. population produces all the food consumed, we have to stick together.”

Neimeyer can’t recall too many times in the past when so many commodity groups had similar positions coming into the farm bill debate. “We’re starting to see every commodity group come together, especially on one issue, crop insurance. Now how we go about revenue assurance and transition away from a direct payment, everyone has their own idea. But for the most part, we’re pretty much on the same page. And that’s the first time I can say that in my memory that we’ve all been fairly close.”

Grant Troop, executive director and past president of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association, and a corn and soybean producer from Oxford, Pa., likes the idea of educating commodity association leaders, too. “I’m involved with policy with the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, so it’s good to have a rounded picture when you go do policy work in Washington. You have to think about everybody you’re representing around the country.”

“We always knew what cotton was, but we had no idea of all the processes involved in growing it. I never would have realized how labor intensive it was,” said Greg Kessel, vice chairman of the North Dakota Barley Council, who grows wheat, barley, sunflowers, canola, peas, dry beans and corn around Belfield, N.D.

Freddie Streit a Vernon, Texas, wheat, cotton, alfalfa and hay producer, a member of the Texas Wheat Producers Board, said, “I’m impressed with this country, the great expanse of good farmland, with 50 inches of annual rainfall. I’m wondering my grandfather didn’t decide to settle here.”

Bob Beakley, a member of the Texas Wheat Producers Board and a cotton, wheat, sunflower and hay producer from Ennis, Texas said, “What has impressed me the most is the rapid acceptance of the round bale cotton picker. It seems that before too long, everything else will be obsolete. I grow cotton in a stripper area, and I know cotton producers in my area are looking forward to John Deere putting that technology on strippers fairly soon.”

Tour stops included the National Cotton Council and Cargill Cotton, in Memphis, Tenn., Justin Cariker’s farm, Tunica, Miss., North Delta Compress, and Mill Creek Gin, Clarksdale, Miss., Monsanto Learning Center, Scott, Miss., the Delta Council, Delta Branch Experiment Station and USDA-ARS ginning lab in Stoneville, Miss., Simmons Catfish, Yazoo City, Miss., Planters Cotton Oil, Pine Bluff, Ark., and the USDA-AMS Dumas Classing Office, Dumas Ark.

Other tour guides were Will Choate, NCC member services for Mississippi and Mike Turner, NCC member services representative for Louisiana and south Arkansas.