Danny Locke is known as a wrangler and horseman as much as he is recognized as a successful cotton farmer.
For years he has donated his horses, mules and wagoneering skills to a historical program in the Madera, Calif., schools that takes fifth graders on wagon train expeditions to relive history. Most of these journeys have been in California. However, three years ago it was a 30-day wagon train trip through west Texas to retrace the route of an 1850s gold prospector bound for California.
The 71-year-old Fresno County, Calif., farmer and this year's Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the West, says he is often “roped” into volunteering his time for the wagon train, but his quick, hearty chuckle that follows makes you believe the dally was not hard to get Locke to say yes.
Locke could be called an easy mark on the turnrows of the family's Pikalok Farming, along the banks of the San Joaquin River in Fresno County, Calif.
Pikalok is involved in a lot of research and demonstration plots.
The 1,570-acre operation has long hosted University of California and San Joaquin Cotton Board statewide variety trials.
For seven years, the California Sustainable Cotton Project has parked at Pikalok to demonstrate more environmentally friendly cotton growing. According to Kevin Long, Calcot field representative, the Locke family readily accepted the challenge to reduce pesticide and herbicide use and subsequently farming costs working with the sustainable ag project.
However, this is not an organic cotton demonstration, but one where practices like using hedgerows to increase the populations and diversity of beneficial insects have been demonstrated. Those same hedgerows serve as a trap crop to attract pests away from crops.
The bottom line for the sustainable cotton project has been increased yields and better quality cotton.
Long says Pikalok cotton, long-marketed through Calcot, has been sold at a premium over other Western cottons of similar qualities.
For a decade, Danny and the family farm partners also have captured and recycled drain water.
Pikalok installed the first high horsepower solar-powered irrigation pumping project. The solar energy system powers a 50-horsepower irrigation pump and provides power for the farm shop and the farm's main residence. It has been a big draw for visitors to the farm, often hosted by daughter and son-in-law Mari and Gary Martin.
The Lockes also strip-cut alfalfa, a highly recommended practice advocated by University of California Integrated Pest Management Regional Advisor Pete Goodell to prevent pest migration from the forage crop to the cotton crop.
Locke began practicing conservation/minimum tillage 15 years ago — before it became fashionable in the West — to increase microbial activity in the soil. This reduced-tillage has saved 50 percent over what they once spent on traditional cultivation and tillage.
All of this represents considerable time and resource commitments for a 1,600-acre operation. Many of the projects and demonstrations come with field days. And the family often hosts smaller groups wanting to see what they are doing.
University of California Cooperative Extension Fresno County Farm Advisor Dan Munk has worked with the family for almost two decades.
“I have been impressed with Danny's leadership in the industry as he works to improve farming practices and land stewardship,” says Munk.
And it does not include activity off the farm by all family members. Mari is involved in the controversial San Joaquin River restoration to make sure farmers get a voice in the project. Son-in-law Gary is on the Calcot board. Danny served 10 years on the San Joaquin Cotton Board, and for 20 years served on the board of the Paso Canal Co. and Resource Conservation District for his region.
Time away from the farm involved in activities affecting the farm is just as important sometimes as tractor time, notes Locke.
Asked why his family's farm partnership is involved in so much, his response reflects Danny's cowboy way: “It's the right thing to do.”
Locke must balance it all with the constant reminder that Pikalok must make a profit, which it has done with cotton for four of the past five years. This is no small feat in the U.S. cotton market of late.
However, it is not strictly about the money. For Danny it's all about keeping his family on the farm, which besides Mari and Gary includes their son Daniel, eager to finish college and work full-time at the farm; daughter Kelley Jo Locke and Danny's son Dane Locke III.
“I guess I am like an old mother hen. I don't want the family to get away from the farm. Maybe I should, but it has always been important to me to have my children be part of the farm,” says Danny.
By California standards, less than 2,000 acres is almost defined as a one-man operation, but Pikalok is the livelihood of many.
You suspect Danny had a reason to stay relatively small. He likely could buy more land, but with the acreage small, the family must invest their time in the farm for all to make a living. You cannot afford to hire it all done.
There is a hard and fast Danny Locke rule: The family is directly involved in the most important jobs like planting and harvesting of the crops.
“When there are critical jobs to do, everybody comes together,” said Gary.
“And we do not ask any of our workers to do something we would not do,” adds Dane, who along with Gary handles virtually all the agchem spraying.
Martin says Pikalok Farming decisions take a natural progression. “It's not that we get together and smoke a peace pipe and make a decision. Decisions come from conversations among ourselves about what is going on with the farm and about the future. From those conversations come decisions.”
Pikalok's cotton yields average close to 3.5 bales. In 2008 the family farmed 650 acres of cotton. The rest was in alfalfa (560 acres), corn silage (223 acres) and 125 acres of newly planted almonds.
It becomes obvious in a short time around the family that it is Danny's quiet leadership that fosters everyone getting along.
Locke is easygoing and admittedly slow to get angry or upset.
“I have been angry a time or two,” he admits. “The last time I got mad I thought I was going to give myself a heart attack, and it was not making any difference to the chemical guy I was mad at. It is not worth it to get mad.”
Locke grew up on the land he farms today between Firebaugh and Mendota, Calif. He has been farming for more than 50 years.
Locke's father and uncle moved the family in 1920 to California from Washington state, where they were homesteaders.
They settled first in the Merced area, eventually buying, in the early 1930s, the land the Locke family still farms. His father farmed into his 90s. Danny is not planning to retire any time soon, either.
“I remember ditching school to pick cotton, but they wouldn't let me pick because I was supposed to be in school,” he recalls.
Locke made sure his children worked all the jobs on the farm. “I remember the first time dad had me chop cotton. After 40 minutes I felt like I had been there for hours,” Dane laughed. Mari and Kelley chuckled in agreement.
Daniel went for his first picker ride when he was barely able to walk.
“Daniel went to sleep on the floor of the picker cab while dad drove the picker,” recalls Mari.
Unlike many cotton producers, 2008 was a good financial year for the Lockes. They sold cotton for 90 cents per pound in the Calcot call pool.
“We have always been in the seasonal pool, but the opportunity came up early to sell all our cotton for 90 cents, and we took it. It was what made the decision on how much to plant,” says Gary, who hastened to add, Pikalok still has 2007 cotton in the seasonal pool.
There likely will be less than 50,000 acres of Upland/Acala cotton in California in 2009. There may be 100,000 acres of Pima.
“The only thing that makes sense right now economically is Pima,” said Martin, admitting past experience with the extra-long-staple cotton left less than a desirable alternative. It will be tough to find another 90-cent Upland price for the 2009 crop.
Pima is difficult to get a stand for the Locke family. It takes a longer season to mature a crop, and therefore it's more risky.
“We tried it, but we could not get the yield we do with Acala,” said Locke, who agreed with his son-in-law that unless Upland prices improve markedly, Pima may return to Pikalok.
“These are not good times for cotton, but I think cotton will come back. California cotton quality is what got us here, and it will be what keeps us going because the world knows our cotton,” said Locke.