For most of Simpson Farms’ history, going back to Kevin Simpson’s grandfather’s time, cotton has been the backbone crop — but this year the economics again favored grains and he will plant no cotton on the 3,500 acres he farms in two far north Mississippi counties adjoining the Tennessee state line.

“Cotton put us where we are today,” says Kevin, in a rare moment of relaxation at his Ashland, Miss. headquarters, as he waits for rains to end and soils to dry enough to begin planting this year’s crops.

“But in 2012 grain prices were just too good and we rolled all our cotton acres into grains. We won’t have any cotton this year for the same reason: grain prices continued to be the most attractive option, and we’ve done quite a bit of early booking of this year’s production.

“This year, we’ll have 1,000 to 1,200 acres of corn, with the remaining 2,300 to 2,500 acres in soybeans. About 1,400 acres of the beans will be double-cropped behind wheat.”

When they grew cotton, Kevin says, yields for the dryland crop were 900 lbs. to 1,100 lbs. year-in, year-out. But for their last few years of cotton, their harvest operation was somewhat unique for the Mid-South.

“We own land in Texas, which is used mostly for recreational purposes and CRP, although some of the cotton land is rented,” he says. “My father, Danny, who died last August, was a natural-born PR person and he got to a know a lot of the farmers out there. We visited several of their farms and were impressed with how efficient their strippers were in harvesting cotton. They’re very fast — you can dump a load of cotton every few minutes.

“We saw no reason why it wouldn’t work as well here. We bought a John Deere 7455 stripper and modified the gin — we’re a partner in Farmers Gin at Ashland —with a stick machine. The stripper brought a new level of efficiency to our harvesting operation, and when the cotton was picked and ginned, we couldn’t tell the difference between stripper-harvested and conventionally-harvested cotton.

“At whatever time we go back into cotton, we’ll continue stripper harvesting. I’m hoping by that time they will have developed even better stripper heads, which will make the process even more efficient.”

He’s also hopeful there will continue to be enough cotton acreage in the area to keep the gin in operation until the demand for cotton returns.

“The sharp cutbacks in cotton acres the last couple of years have been tough for the ginning business,” Kevin says. “We ginned only 1,740 bales last year, a big drop from the usual 8,000 to 12,000 bales. Owning a gin is a lot like owning a golf course,” he laughs. “It takes a lot of money to run it. I think we’ll continue to have enough cotton in the area to keep the gin running. With cotton prices now in the mid-80s, that could be an incentive for area farmers to boost their acreage a bit.”