Jimmy Hargett is a busy man as he drives a cotton picker through a field near Crockett Mills, Tenn., on a sunny, late fall afternoon.

Besides keeping an eye on the six rows of cotton he's harvesting, Hargett is watching a TV camera trained on the picker basket and glancing at a yield monitor readout that tells him how much cotton he's putting in the machine.

When the basket is full, Hargett turns the picker off the row and into an area of freshly cut stalks and unloads the module on the ground.

As you watch Hargett and another six-row picker operator repeat the process 15 to 20 times in the course of two hours, you can't help but think that you may be looking at the future of cotton farming in the United States.

“I really think you could harvest cotton by yourself all day with this machine if you wanted to,” says Hargett.

As it is, Hargett is operating two six-row Case IH pickers equipped with on-board module builders with five men — himself and the driver for the other picker; two men in a pick-up truck who put covers on modules and write down the module ID numbers; and a man driving the tractor pulling the stalk cutter.

Contrast that with conventional harvesting operations — four to six men to drive the two cotton pickers and one or two boll buggies per picker; one or two men to operate the module builder, two or three men to help pick up cotton along the sides of the module builder and put covers on the modules and the guy cutting stalks.

“I believe I can get by with five or six people with two six-row pickers with on-board module builders,” says Hargett. “That would compare with eight to 10 for conventional harvesting with two six-row pickers, boll buggy drivers, module builder operators and the support guys needed to keep all that running.

Add in the savings from not having to use $80,000 tractors to pull the boll buggies and operate the module builder and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

“The labor situation will sell this,” says Hargett, referring to the system he laid out for Case IH engineers with a piece of soapstone on the floor of his farm shop five years ago. “A lot of farmers simply can't find all the labor they need to harvest their cotton these days.”

Hargett, who along with Gunnison, Miss., producer Kenneth Hood, has been testing prototypes of the on-board module builder, hasn't had much to say publicly about the innovation until now.

“I would say we're getting closer with these machines,” he says, referring to the prototypes being operated on his farm. “They may not look exactly like these when they become commercially available, but they will be close.”

Case IH representatives who have been working with Hargett and Hood recently took the unusual step of issuing a statement about future technology that has not been officially introduced.

“The prototype harvester we're testing is based on the foundation of our current Case IH CPX620 and CPX Cotton Express designs, which already offer the industry's best picking efficiency,” said Trent Haggard, marketing manager for Case IH cotton harvesting, in the statement. “This new type of harvest technology will take efficiency to the next level, providing time, labor and machinery savings.”

Asked to elaborate, Haggard said he has been receiving two and three phone calls a day about the new technology and felt he had to provide some information. “On Jimmy's place alone, farmers came in from seven states at one point last year.”

On this sunny afternoon, with the end of harvest only three days away “if everything holds together,” Hargett talks about the dramatic change this latest turn in harvesting technology could represent for cotton farmers.

“When I first started farming, we would drive to Humboldt (about 15 miles away) and gather up all the cotton pickers we could find and take them to the field. We would work all day and maybe pick one bale.”

Hargett, who was growing 20 acres of cotton then, bought a one-row picker not long after he started farming on his own and was able to pick an acre an hour. From that, he went to 4 to 5 acres an hour with a two-row picker, 10 to 12 with a four-row and 20 to 30 acres with the six-row picker.

“With two six-row pickers, we have gotten up to 400 bales a day,” he said. “So, in my career — this is my 41st crop — I've gone from one bale to 400 bales a day.”

For the casual observer, it's something of a shock to see the half-size modules (each module can hold six to seven bales of cotton, compared to 12 to 14 for conventional-sized modules) lined up along the side of the fields Hargett farms in Crockett and Haywood counties in west Tennessee.

Asked if the smaller modules will require more trips for module-hauling trucks, Hargett shakes his head. “We just pick up two modules at a time,” he says. “The truck driver backs up and picks up one and goes to another module and picks it up as well. They come off at the gin like a regular module.”

Because of the lack of any measurable rainfall in more than a month, Hargett and the other picker operator were simply dropping their modules in the nearest open space when they reached the desired weight.

“It's been so dry, the trucks can get in anywhere in this field and pick up the modules,” he said. “But the yield monitor will tell you where you need to turn around in the field so that you can place them all on one end of a field when we're getting more rain.”

Hargett believes the on-board module builder could be as revolutionary to cotton farming as chemical weed control and genetically engineered cotton varieties.

“I think I'm sitting on the future of farming,” he said. “Farmers are going to have to look at something like this because of the financial pressures we face. We can't afford to keep spending this much money on equipment or labor.

He recalls a conversation with an Extension cotton specialist two years earlier.

“He told me, ‘Jimmy, I know what you're doing, and I hope you won't give up on it,’” Hargett said. “I told him I really couldn't talk about it. ‘I know that,’ he said, ‘but you've got to stay with it. I have talked to farmers this week who are keeping five or six guys on their payroll year-round just to make sure they will have them at harvest.’

“I really don't care what the final product turns out to be,” says Hargett. “But I know our farmers need something like this if we're going to stay in the cotton business.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com