Good farm labor in the Missouri Bootheel is about as scarce as a tobacco budworm in a Bt cotton patch. But Hornersville, Mo., cotton producer Tim Jamerson and other farmers in the area keep finding ways to adjust.
For example, in 2001, a labor-strapped Jamerson traded his two, 4-row pickers for one John Deere 9976, 6-row picker “and picked 2,000 acres by myself. I did it again the next year. The third year, I traded for the Case CPX 610 Case 6-row picker and picked 2,200 acres with one picker.”
In the spring of 2009, Jamerson purchased a John Deere 7760 cotton picker, a demonstrator equipped with an on-board module builder. The unit dramatically reduces the labor requirement for harvest and allows the picker to spend more time on the row than conventional pickers.
Wet weather during the 2009 harvest season would severely test the new picker and Jamerson, who produces 2,700 acres of cotton with the help of his son, Aaron, and three other hands. But by the end of the season, Jamerson had discovered that sometimes Mother Nature is no match for machines and generosity of fellow farmers.
Harvest of the 2009 cotton crop was marred by rain from almost Day 1, with the skies opening up for picking only a few days at a time. Jamerson scrambled his picker to the field whenever the opportunity arose. He lost two days when the picker got stuck in the mud. “It took an excavator and a D-9 Cat to get it unstuck.”
Despite the hardships, toward the end of November, most of the Jamersons’ cotton was harvested, wrapped in round bales and protected from the elements. Only 186 acres remained.
Like many cotton-producing communities in the Mid-South, farmers around Hornersville swap out picking for one another. “If I have cotton ready, and they don’t, they might come pick a couple of hundred acres for me,” Jamerson said. “Whenever I’m through, I go and pay them back. The way it works is if you don’t get them paid back 100 percent one year, then you catch up the next year.”
But 2009 was different. As harvest wound down, and fields remained soaked from lack of sunshine, there just didn’t seem to be enough time, labor or machines for anyone to finish. It was quickly turning into a fall of every man for himself.
Jamerson had no problem with continuing to run his picker 24 hours a day in shifts to get the last few acres, but wet ground and high humidity were limiting his picking to daylight hours. With more rain expected any moment, Jamerson was looking at a week or more delay before wrapping up harvest. That last 186 acres might as well have been a 1,000.
Little did he know that Christmas would come early that fall.
During the season, Jamerson had remained in close contact with Alan Jones of Parker and Jones Farms in Senath, Mo., who was very familiar with the John Deere 7760, having run several of the units for the past three years.
“Whenever we had a question, we’d call him for advice,” Jamerson said. “We were running our picker in shifts and running all night long when we could. My son, Aaron, and Alan would text message back and forth. They were also communicating as to how much cotton each of us had left to pick.”
On Monday, Nov. 30, Jones called the elder Jamerson. “He asked us if we were going to get the cotton out before the rain. I said, ‘If the Lord will hold it off, we will.’”
At that time, Jones had finished picking his own crop and was helping one of Jamerson’s neighbors, Greg Harris on nearby Harris Farms, who was running two John Deere 7760s. Jones said he would try to help Jamerson that afternoon, if everything went according to plan.
But Jones ran into some problems himself, and they made plans to try again the following day, Dec. 1. The morning of Dec. 1, a Tuesday, the Jamersons were picking hard and fast, but the rain clouds were starting to gather.
Then, at about 1 p.m., came a sight worthy of rubbernecking from farmers and non-farmers alike — a convoy of four John Deere 7760s, two from Jones and two more from neighbor Greg Harris, rolled up State Hwy. K and into Jamerson’s field.
In minutes, five John Deere 7760 harvesters were picking half-mile long rows at 10 acres per round. They made quick work of the field and finished up around 4:00 that afternoon. “Two of the pickers went home and the other two went with us to finish up 30 acres of cotton at another location.” Jamerson said. “At 5:30, we were all going home and Aaron and I both had a greater appreciation of the term ‘friends.’”
The picker drivers were Alan Jones, Chad Payne, Greg Harris and Nick Gates. Aaron Jamerson drove the fifth picker.
Jamerson hardly knew what to say to his friends. “This wasn’t a deal where they said I could pay them back next year. It was just the goodness out of their heart to help us get it done. But next year, if we get done before they do, we’re going to show up in Senath and call one of them and say, ‘Where you want us?’ Then we going to go there and start picking.”
On Dec. 2, two inches of rain fell on Hornersville, and halted harvest of crops for a week. Jamerson figured he would have lost a half a bale per acre if his friends hadn’t been there to help get his crop out. “I would have not only lost yield, but I would have had to tear those rows up, run a land plane over it and started fresh.”
Instead, the field, planted to DP 0935 B2RF, made almost 1,000 pounds of cotton.
Looking back, 2009 was a season that seemed to go south from the get go for Jamerson and other farmers in the region. But it was also a year in which friends, despite trying circumstances, still found time for each other.
Jamerson will remember two things from the experience. “It was amazing to see those four big pickers coming down the road and getting all lined up in the field. Brand new, you’re looking at around $2.7 million out there. It was a sight. And when we were done, it gave me a good feeling that people were so willing to help out. I’ll always remember that.”