Kenneth Hood will tell you he is just an ordinary Mississippi cotton producer –  pushing through the daily grit and grind that comes with farming, with his feet always firmly planted in Mid-South Delta soils.

But his view can also drift high above the earth, where he sees farming in an entirely different light, literally and figuratively. Call them dreams, or call them flights of fancy, his high altitude musings have led to practices that have defined concepts of modern precision agriculture and its role in sustainability and stewardship.

But precision farming is just a snapshot of Hood’s accomplishments. He has worked tirelessly to improve profitability and reduce the risks of cotton production, while leaving the soil in good shape for succeeding generations. He’s given his time and land to research and development of new products and technology. He’s worked beyond the farm gate as a leader in numerous farm organizations.

The Gunnison, Miss., cotton producer, ginner, innovator, and entrepreneur is the 2014 High Cotton award winner for the Delta states.

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   2014 High Cotton Award Winners

   2013 High Cotton Award Winners

   2012 High Cotton Award Winners

   2011 High Cotton Award Winners

Hood produces 12,000 acres of cotton, wheat, soybeans and corn in partnership with three brothers, Howard, Curtis and Cary, on Perthshire Farms, just north of Gunnison. The Hoods also run H.B. Hood and Sons Gins, Hood Equipment Co., a dealer for Case IH and New Holland, and InTime, Inc., an aerial imagery-based precision farming service. Typically Hood plants about 3,500 acres of cotton, but this season, Hood’s 53rd, he harvested fewer than 1,000 acres after wet weather forced three replantings.

Hood is the ultimate, bleeding edge innovator and found out early in life that such an approach to farming can raise more skepticism than accolade.

When Hood was a freshman at Mississippi State in 1958, he and his father designed and built an 8-row planter, an 8-row roller and an 8-row buster with hippers, at a time when most farmers were just starting to move from 4-row to 6-row equipment.

Hood submitted a term paper on 8-row equipment for a mechanics class, but his professor, considering the concept nothing short of fantasy, gave him a failing grade. Hood, needing a passing grade in the course, took Polaroid photographs of the implements in the field and brought them back to Starkville.

After showing them to the professor, he lobbied for a grade change to at least a “D.” The professor, amazed that the Hoods were actually making 8-row work, gave him an “A.”

Start in farming

Hood started farming on his own as a junior at MSU. Neighbor and fellow farmer Maury Knowlton offered to rent 620 aces to Hood for $15 an acre or 20 percent of the crop, whichever was larger. But Hood’s father wasn’t about to let his son quit college.

So Hood hired one of Knowlton’s farm managers, Pete Sanders, to run the farm while he was away. Hood changed his major from engineering to agricultural business and for the next two years, came home on weekends to farm.

Early on, Hood’s experience with bookkeeping hooked the young producer on the crucial importance of cost analysis in farming, a concept that has never left him. “I looked at all that data and wondered why this money went there and why.”

Later in his farming career, Hood was at the forefront of a huge leap in technology that connected the dots between the Global Positioning System, Geographical Information Systems and Hood’s curiosity about the allocation of cost in agricultural production.

In the 1990s, Hood was attending an American Farm Bureau, cotton committee meeting in Denver, Colo. On a side trip to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, in Colorado Springs, Hood had the opportunity to meet the leader of the unit who was conducting the tour of NORAD that day. He pulled Hood aside to ask him if any of the technology he had seen might have an application in agriculture.

Hood was intrigued with the resolution and light reflectance values of NASA’s satellite imagery and how it might be used to assess crop condition and variability. But agriculture needed timely imagery. Anything older than a week would not be helpful.

“If it was cloudy, and you miss two or three weeds of satellite imagery, it’s too late, you’ll miss a fruiting cycle,” Hood said. “He asked me what I needed. I told them I wanted the satellite camera on an airplane. That’s how I ended up with the imagery. That’s when we got started with NASA, and that’s how InTime got started.”

InTime, Inc., based in Cleveland, Miss., provides producers with imagery and variable-rate prescription writing capability.

The tour also led to a serendipitous meeting with NASA administrator Daniel Goldin who later visited Hood’s farm to actually see the technology being used in production agriculture.

Hood has little doubt that precision farming is destined to be the way that farmers farm. But for now, there are too many impediments. “Precision agriculture has moved way too slow for me. And the reason is that there is not a standard of the industry. Everyone has their own yield map. Even in grain, there is no standardization there. Everything is proprietary and they lock in all their formulas. When you have that kind of situation, it kind of slows things down.”

On-farm research

Hood’s philosophy, on the other hand, is to remove obstacles. This includes opening up his farm to research by NASA, USDA-ARS, Extension, private industry and regulatory agencies. The first Bt cotton grown on a large scale basis in the world was grown on Hood’s farm in 1994. “The EPA practically lived here.”

But it paid off big for U.S. cotton. In 1995, tobacco budworms nearly wiped out the Mid-South cotton crop. Average cotton yields dropped over 200 pounds an acre in Mississippi that year. Some fields were almost zeroed out. But Hood knew then that the Bt technology was going to work when harvested the Bt cotton. “They were on the right track.”

These days, the threats to cotton are much more complex. But Hood believes that technology holds the answers.

“A lot of the seed companies are putting all their emphasis in weed control and insect control. But the key for cotton is to have the same kind of yield advancement we’re seeing in corn. We’ve been raising corn four or five years in Mississippi. We’re already at a 200-plus bushel plateau. We’ve been raising cotton for 100s of years, and we’ve just barely broke the 1,000 pound threshold.”

Hood sees progress, however. “Last year and this year, I see the potential for cotton yield growing to 1,500 pounds to 2,000 pounds. If you get 3-bale cotton at 80 cents, you’re at a $1,200 per acre gross income. All of a sudden, cotton becomes more affordable. Cotton will come back if we can get our yields up. Varieties have to be able to withstand stress, whether it is drought or heat.”

Input costs are also contributing to the decline in Mid-South cotton acres, with weed control, fertilizer and irrigation among his biggest expenses. “My chemical costs went up 25 percent this year, and there are technology fees for planting seed. I used to spend $25 an acre to buy planting seed. This year, it cost me $118 an acre to plant cotton, with technology fees and seed treatment. And I planted over three times.”

Irrigation is also a key to higher cotton yields for Hood. Over the last decade or more he’s increased his irrigation capacity through land-forming, while paying close attention to conservation practices.

Land-forming, irrigation

Hood, who was recognized as the Delta Council’s Outstanding Conservation Farmer of the Year in 2000, places just as much emphasis on getting water off the field as he does getting it on the field. And as cotton acres have given way to other crops, Hood is focusing on land-forming to irrigate a more diverse crop mix, including rice.

Hood is working on two tailwater recovery systems for the farm, and installs extra drop pipes to reduce the speed at which runoff enters sensitive streams.

Looking ahead, Hood believes precision farming can create more efficiency in irrigation scheduling, across multiple crops.

“We have to pull all the data together, irrigation, nitrogen, trips across the field and match them to the crop. “To make the best decisions, we need to be able to see what we’re doing,” said Hood, who uses an InTime software program called CropSite to record every activity his tractors make.

Hood said farmers today aren’t using precision farming enough. But he understands why. “We farmers stay too busy doing other things rather than using the data mining that it’s out there. That’s why the technology needs to be invisible to the farmer.”

For example, after Hood realized that physically moving data cards from tractors to other devices or networks was taking up too much of his time, he worked with MSU to design and install a high speed wireless network on his farm that moves information between tractors, office computers, consultants and growers at the touch of a button.

Hood was the 2007 recipient of the Harry S. Baker Distinguished Service Award, presented annually to an individual who has provided extraordinary service, leadership and dedication to the U.S. cotton industry.

In 2002, he was chairman of the National Cotton Council and is past president of the National Cotton Ginners Association, Southern Cotton Ginners Association and the Delta Council. He was recognized as the National Ginner of the Year in 1997.

The support of his family has been crucial in Hood’s involvement beyond the farm. “That’s why we have such a close knit family farm operation today. I’ve been active in the Delta Council, the National Cotton Council and Farm Bureau, but I couldn’t do all that without family. The secret is communication, always letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing.”

Hood and his wife, Betty, have been married for 48 years. They have a daughter Lou Ann Petro, who is involved in the farming operation, and three grandchildren, Meri Alan, Drew and Ann Carter.