As cotton grower Dennis Palmer drives his truck through his fields in Thatcher, Ariz., he grabs a paper towel to blow his nose. He is actually allergic to cotton yet the malady has not sneezed or sniffled away his ability to succeed in fiber production.
For Palmer, cotton farming is at his family’s core.
“I love to plant cotton,” said Dennis, whose physical size mimics a defensive linebacker in the National Football League. Like a pro football player, Palmer is unafraid to tackle the many challenges in cotton production.
“My favorite time during the cotton season is picking cotton it’s white and beautiful. It represents the payoff at the end of the year.”
Palmer is the winner of the 2016 Western Farm Press High Cotton Award. He will receive the award at the Farm Press High Cotton Breakfast during the 2016 Farm & Gin Show in Memphis, Tenn. in late February.
Cotton a challenge, gamble
“Cotton farming is a challenge and a huge gamble which motivates our family to solve different problems every day. It’s never boring,” says Palmer, 61.
The 5th generation cotton farmer is a humble, faith-based man – with a capital H and F. He’s also a ‘VIP.’ While Palmer does not view himself as a very important person, the family’s farm moniker is VIP Farms – the initials from his father’s name - Verle I Palmer, who passed away in 2012.
The Palmer operation is located in the desert in Graham County in southeastern Arizona. The farm is at 2,900 feet in elevation, encircled by the Pinaleño Mountains. The farm sits at the base of the 10,700-foot tall Mount Graham.
Last year, the Palmers farmed about 5,000 acres, including 3,200 of furrow irrigated Pima and Upland cotton, plus 900 acres of desert durum wheat. The Palmer farm is spread across 25 miles in the fertile Gila Valley.
The cotton acreage includes about 2,000 acres of extra-long staple (Pima) – including Dow AgroSciences’ Phytogen 805 RF and Monsanto’s Deltapine DP 358 RF Pima varieties.
The 1,200 acres of Upland included DP 1044 R2BF as the full season variety, plus DP 0912 B2RF planted later in the spring. 2015 was their first year to grow FiberMax FM 1830GLT.
The Palmers are Monsanto National Product Evaluators, and last year grew three experimental Deltapine varieties in their eight variety tests.
The cotton industry in the western U.S. faces a wide range of issues affecting profitability. Get the latest western region cotton news, with cotton prices and futures, and production information on planting, fertilizing, and harvesting your cotton crop.
Matt Palmer, Dennis’ son, shares his father’s enthusiasm for cotton.
“We are excited about the new cotton varieties coming down the pipeline,” Matt said.
Cotton yields for the Palmers generally average 3.5 bales per acre for Upland and about 2.7 bales for Pima. Ginning takes place at the Safford Valley Cotton Growers Co-op gin, located a stone’s throw away in Safford.
“The gin has made us a lot of money over the years,” Palmer said.
Gin general manager Cheryl Soto says, “VIP Farms and Dennis Palmer go out of their way to do the best job possible to grow good cotton. Their cotton gins very well. They are really good all-around farmers.”
The Palmers’ cotton is marketed by Calcot Limited, based in Bakersfield, Calif. Dennis has served on the co-op’s board for the last 16 years.
Palmer runs a tight cotton ship as the farm’s managing partner. His top goal is finding new ways to increase production and overall farm efficiency.
Planting typically starts in mid-April with two, 12-row planters operating side-by-side, capable of planting 200-250 acres per day. This task requires extensive teamwork, precision, and efficiency.
Harvest usually kicks off in mid-October. Under dry weather conditions, the Palmers can harvest the entire crop – the 3,200 acres - in three weeks.
Technology has helped the Palmers achieve higher efficiency. Dennis waved his smartphone in the air, calling it the most important technology he owns.
“I’m addicted to my phone,” he laughed. “It allows ‘24-7’ farming.”
In the early going, the Palmers slowly embraced technology. Dennis was skeptical about GPS yet begrudgingly climbed aboard the GPS train.
“Today, GPS is invaluable to our operation,” Palmer said. “It has improved field accuracy and farm efficiency for us.”
In addition, the Palmers expanded their line of ‘green paint’ equipment with the purchase of three John Deere 7760 round bale pickers. The investment has substantially improved harvest efficiency.
Last year, the operation set a personal harvest record as the module pickers picked 208 round bales in one per day – the equivalent of about 52 standard modules.
The family’s next technological plunge will be variable rate fertilization using yield maps created by the cotton pickers, and implementing drone technology.
Pest and disease issues are relatively low at VIP Farms with whitefly, lygus, and aphid pressures under the economic threshold for treatment. While the pink bollworm caused the Palmers headaches years ago, the insect is virtually eradicated in the Southwest today. More on this later.
“We have not used a single insecticide on our farm in the last five years,” Palmer proudly boasted.
The Palmers closely scout fields, placing a heavy emphasis placed on integrated pest management - tapping beneficial insects to help keep fields clean.
“We have created a version of nirvana out there,” Palmer said. “Good bugs eat the bad bugs. Our cotton is clean.”
Matt chimed in, “We rely on ‘beneficials’ to do their job and they have done it.”
The Palmers practice smart chemical use, says Shawn Wright, manager of the local branch of Fertizona. The company is Arizona’s largest agricultural fertilizer and crop protection retailer. He calls VIP Farms a ‘well-oiled machine’ with an emphasis on “smart” chemical use.
Wright explained, “The Palmers choose products which are friendly on beneficials, and do not spray immediately when a pest is found in a field.”
Crop consultant Dale Deal of Western Six Incorporated says the Palmers run a “first-class operation,” and make crop decisions which are “friendly to the environment.”
The Palmers are risk takers and conduct 10-15 trials annually, working with different fertilizer and Pix amounts. They also conduct defoliation and seed rate tests, different irrigation interval checks, and more.
Last year, the Palmers used a drone to gain an infrared view of fields to examine field-wide plant health.
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University of Arizona Cotton Specialist Randy Norton has worked with the Palmers on several on-farm trials. One such trial is studying the best amount of TOPGUARD fungicide needed to gain improved Texas root rot control in cotton.
“The Palmers are not afraid to take risks and try new methods,” Norton says. “They are always thinking ahead and are some of the best and most efficient cotton farmers in Arizona.”
Water is perhaps the largest challenge facing the Palmer family – usually the lack of it rather than too much. The farm’s water supply is about an equal split of surface water from the nearby Gila River and groundwater. Overall water quality is good.
As the new year begins, Arizona is entering its 16th consecutive year of drought. In recent years, the Palmers have fallowed hundreds of acres annually due to water shortfalls.
That said, farmers and ranchers across the lower western states have eagerly awaited increased rainfall and snowpack into this spring, tied to the stronger El Nino weather pattern expected to deliver higher than normal precipitation across the southernmost part of the U.S.
For the Palmers, the El Nino rains started with a bang during last summer’s monsoon season. Monsoon storms hammered VIP Farms with five major hail storms which knocked about a third of the crop into the row.
The Palmers have their fingers crossed, hoping for timely rains through the spring and more snowfall at the higher elevations.
“If we get several feet of snow in the upper elevations this winter then we should be in decent water shape for 2016,” Palmer said. “If this pans out, he would like to plant wall-to-wall cotton this spring.
Dennis and his wife Margaret have been married 40 years and have four children - Marshall, Matt, Mila, and Marianne (all married) – plus 15 grandchildren.
Margaret jokingly said that Matt’s cell phone number is the No. 1 listing on Dennis’ cell phone speed dial. Matt helps manage the day-to-day operations including field work and irrigation.
“Once cotton farming is in your blood you get hooked,” Matt said. “I enjoy the sights, smells, the seasons, and straight cotton rows!”
The High Cotton Award is a family award. Dennis’ mother Trelva, who maintained all the family’s farm books by hand for decades, today serves as the family’s matriarch. Matt’s wife Kim pays the farm bills and manages the check books.
Dennis’ sister, Sue, is the farm’s executive assistant, handling payroll, government paperwork, and running errands. The farm has about 20 full-time employees.
Farming is at Dennis’ core but that wasn’t always the case. As a teenager, he hated the hard work on the family farm.
When Dennis and Margaret married, he began college and worked for her family’s music company. He sold a piano - just one – and then permanently took down his music shingle, and went back to the family farm where his dad made him a partner.
Dennis is well aware of the critical issues facing today’s cotton growers – low cotton prices, large cotton stockpiles held by China, and other challenges. The Palmers’ farm efficiencies have helped them bear the tough times.
Hanging by the fingernails
When asked if he is bullish or bearish on the U.S. cotton industry, Dennis said, “We’re hanging on the cliff with our fingernails. It has to get better. At 60 cents per pound for Upland cotton we hope things get better.”
Dennis says the family is in cotton for the long haul.
“We are bullish and we want cotton to work. We are hoping world markets will improve and we have confidence they will.”
The Palmers have few crop options in the Gila Valley. Alfalfa is an option but it requires more water than cotton. Plus, transportation costs to the nearest dairies would be expensive.
Palmer spends time off the farm and giving back to the cotton industry and agriculture. He is the immediate past chair of the National Cotton Council’s (NCC) pink bollworm action committee. The group oversees PBW eradication efforts and advises the NCC on the issue.
“Dennis has been very instrumental in the development and oversight of the pink bollworm eradication program as the program moves closer toward eradication of the pest,” said Craig Brown, the NCC’s vice-president of producer affairs.
“Dennis is very dedicated to the cotton industry and has been diligent on working through the mine fields of pink bollworm eradication. He has worked on government funding issues, with regulators, and made sure we have a good solid pink bollworm plan of action in place.”
Palmer has also served on numerous canal boards, and as the chair of the Arizona Crop Improvement Association and the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. He is currently a vice-chair of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association.
Humbled by High Cotton Award
Palmer is humbled by the Western Farm Press High Cotton Award and its recognition of his hard work. The physical award is a heavy, bronze-plated statuette of a cotton boll.
“In my opinion, The High Cotton Award is the ‘The Award’ in the U.S. cotton industry.” He added with a smile, “Once you win this award you might as well go out and buy a casket.”
Dennis plans to rotate the award among the family households.
Congratulations to Dennis and the entire Palmer family for this well-deserved recognition.