Mike Cox was a two-year-old toddler when his father, Don, grew the Cox family's first Imperial Valley, Calif., cotton crop in 1952, beginning a cotton tradition that has continued almost endlessly for more than a half century.

Almost only because one year the voracious silverleaf whitefly drove the Cox family out of cotton. However, they jumped right back in when control efforts were developed. Many others never returned.

The Cox family relishes the challenges of growing desert cotton and have done it well for decades, overcoming adversities that made more than a few of their neighbors sell their pickers.

Mike and his younger brother, Larry, grew up in a cotton-farming family and as youngsters earned money working on the farm. However, their father “never encouraged” his two sons to go into cotton farming as careers, “but I never discouraged them either,” said the 77-year-old Cox.

Times were good when the Cox boys were growing up in the desert valley made lush by Colorado River irrigation water.

“The Imperial Valley is the best place in the world to grow cotton,” said Don Cox. “I probably ought to say it used to be the best place to grow cotton — before the insects came in.”

First it was the pink bollworm. Before the late 1960s and the first economic flush of pinkies, Don Cox said, he yielded 4.5 bales of cotton with “one spray job and it was doubtful if even that was necessary.”

Mike grew his first crop in 1972. “I made 4.6 bales on my first cotton crop and did not know anything. I got 80 cents a pound for it, too.” recalled Mike. The year before the cotton price was about 40 cents.

“I have been trying to hit that combination of high prices and high yields ever since,” laughed Mike. He has hit those yields, recording 5.44 bales two years ago. It is the high prices that have eluded him and all other growers. Mike admits candidly that without the federal farm program, even high yields would not cover his costs.

“Dad helped me produce my first crop.” It was so big, the old John Deere 99 pickers would not make a half-mile run — the baskets would not hold the crop. Mike and his dad hand-picked the roadways and disked down stalks to shorten the runs for the pickers.

“A passion for growing cotton is the legacy my dad has left me. He is a cotton grower who knows everything about growing cotton and loves it, and he passed that on to me,” said Cox.

Mike has been well-schooled. He consistently and economically makes high yields and has earned the respect of his fellow growers. That is why Mike Cox of Brawley, Calif., is this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner.

Cotton growing was relatively simple for several decades after Don Cox grew his first crop. It is a considerably more formidable challenge today. Proof of that is in the fact that in the mid-1970s more than 120,000 acres of cotton were produced in the desert valley. In 2004 only 8,600 acres were produced. Costs have driven down the acreage with the biggest bill being the one to control insect pests.

Cox has become an Imperial Valley cotton-farming survivor by learning how to control pests economically while coaxing the highest economical yields practical. High yields have kept Cox in the cotton business.

“I have to produce 4.5 to five bales of cotton each year just to survive because of the costs we have,” said Cox, 54. It is a challenge every year when he plants the seed.

Mike does not know his final 2004 yields because it was an uncharacteristic wet fall. He has picked enough to figure he has made his 4.5- to five-bale target.

For the previous four seasons he averaged 5.38 bales in 2000, 4.7 bales in 2001, 5.44 bales in 2002, and 2.84 bales in 2003.

Last year he planted a full-season cotton he had not grown before on a field he had not farmed previously. “I planted late and in July it was over 110 degrees for three weeks at peak bloom. It threw off every flower and square.”

Intense whitefly pressure produced leaf crumple, stunting boll development.

“It was my worst yield in 30 years of cotton production,” admitted Cox.

Nevertheless, he bounced back this year because he knows he can grow high-yielding cotton. “Mike loves to grow cotton more than any other crop,” says wife, Jody.

Silverleaf whitefly drove Mike and many other desert growers out of cotton in 1992 and 1993, but he jumped back in when abatement strategies were developed and new chemistry was introduced to bring the whitefly under control. Before whitefly it was boll weevil, budworm-bollworm and pink bollworm. Today it is lygus.

Mike's passion for the crop does not overshadow the reality that it must make money on his farm. Right now cotton profits are carrying several of his other crops. Besides cotton, Mike also produces sugar beets, durum wheat, sudangrass, alfalfa, canola seed, and seed onions. He farms about 1,000 acres and also farms in partnership with his dad, his brother, and other family members.

It takes more effort to grow cotton than most other desert crops, but said Planters Ginning Co. manager Bob Bedwell, “Mike always puts in the extra effort with his cotton crop. He does what he is supposed to do when it needs to be done. He is a real hands-on cotton producer.”

Herman Meister, agronomy farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension and a former independent pest control adviser, said Cox's “hands-on management approach and keen field observations have helped him make the correct decisions on all the crops he grows.” Meister nominated Cox for the High Cotton Award.

Cox was an early adopter of Bt and Roundup Ready technology to reduce pesticide use and lower his bottom line, said Meister. His IPM practices include using least-disruptive pesticides to suppress pest populations, and he organizes his alfalfa harvest to mitigate lygus movement out of alfalfa and into cotton.

“IPM strategies and principles form the basis for his weed and insect control practices,” added Meister.

Mike has seen several evolutions in cotton production as a youngster growing up in Imperial as well as a veteran producer, but none captured the imagination of producers like the plant growth regulator Pix.

“I have been working with it for 10 years to avoid excessive growth and set more cotton,” said Mike. It has also been a contributing factor in spacing plants closer and in production practices like planting two rows per bed or ultra-narrow row cotton, a concept introduced into Imperial by a San Joaquin Valley cotton producer.

Now with Bt varieties to ward off late-season pink bollworm, desert cotton growers can stretch the season for higher yields.

Make that stretch the two seasons in one year.

Cox says timely planted and well-managed cotton will set 2.5 to as much as three bales early in the season before it goes into infamous cutout when the heat literally suffocates the plants and they stop growing — with many more weeks of growing season left.

Cox encourages that early set with a light (one-quarter pint) application of Pix in the spring at early or peak bloom. Around July 4, high daytime temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees and excessive nighttime temperatures that never go below 85 degrees shut down the cotton.

Basically, it is so hot during the day, cotton quits breathing, explains Don Cox.

Mike Cox restarts the cotton with a fertilizer shot because he is looking for high yields. Then he “hammers” the crop with 1 pint of Pix the second or third week of August, compacting the plant and encouraging fruit set, driving toward fall harvest and those 4.5- to five-bale yields.

He is thinking about borrowing a page from growers in the Blythe area north of Imperial Valley who are compressing the season and avoiding two-set cotton. “I hear more and more talk about applying potassium to avoid hard cutout, put on another bale through what would be the normal cutout period, and terminate the crop in August. I understand it is producing some really good yields.

“I believe that if we can do that here in the Imperial Valley, it will allow us to get out earlier, avoid some insect control costs, and improve our lint quality,” said Cox.

“If Mike can do that, it will make a big difference,” said Larry Cox, primarily a vegetable producer who grows cotton ahead of winter vegetables. He calls himself a low-input, short-season cotton producer compared to Mike's approach of maximizing yields.

Mike Cox has switched to planting two cotton rows on a 40-inch bed, copying a technique developed by another High Cotton Award winner, Daniel Burns of Dos Palos, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Daniel has double rows on 30-inch beds. I tried that, but I could not control the irrigation water on half-mile runs,” he said. He first tried double row 40s five years ago, and this year all his cotton is on twin rows on 40-inch beds.

San Joaquin Valley cotton grower Brian Hair ventured into the Imperial Valley several years ago, planting a large acreage of ultra-narrow row cotton and picking it with stripper harvesters.

“It sure made us look at the way we were growing cotton,” said Larry Cox. “There is enough variability in the ground in the valley that an ultra-narrow system might work on some of this ground.”

Mike agreed. “That cotton looks pretty darn good at the gin, and it is a lot cheaper to harvest with a stripper than a picker.”

Hair has cotton planted as close 15-inch rows. “What I am doing with a double row 40 is the same as planting in 20-inch rows. I think Brian's high density planting has made us look at things differently,” said Mike.

To understand the history of Imperial Valley cotton is to appreciate what the Cox family has accomplished to stay in cotton virtually continuously for more than half a century. It has been a battle against odds only the resilient could beat. Pink bollworm and cotton bollworm-budworm numbers have been so overwhelming in the past, they were virtually uncontrollable. Synthetic pyrethroids use began in Imperial Valley to control pinkies. Bt cotton has also been a key part of the pinkie battle. More than 85 percent of the valley's acreage is in Bt cotton.

“We are spraying for whitefly in our late fields with pesticides that knock down the pinkie that may be developing in the refuges or in the conventional cotton,” said Cox.

In the past, pink bollworm moths blew into the Imperial Valley from Mexico in mid-August, but Cox has been noticing less of that. Bt cotton is starting to be grown in the Mexicali Valley.

“We hope to be in with the Mexicali/San Luis area of Mexico in the eradication effort that has been successful in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico,” said Cox.

Silverleaf whiteflies have been so thick they made cotton plants and lint black with sooty mold, but abatement strategies and new insect growth regulators used in a farmer-driven stewardship program have stopped them.

“We still can grow tremendous cotton in the Imperial Valley,” said Mike Cox. “It probably is more challenging than it has ever been before.”

Asked what they would say to someone who wanted to be an Imperial Valley cotton producer, Larry and Mike laughed and said they would suggest: take two aspirins and go to bed.

“You really need to know what goes on here,” said Mike. “My dad taught me to understand what is going on under the rows.”

Perched, salty water is a yield-robber. “You have to pay attention to the sumps and drainage system. If you don't, you'll pay for it.”

Matching fields to crops is another lesson Don taught his sons. The wrong match-up can be costly, said Mike.


e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com