Mark Watte: High Cotton Award for Western Farm Press

Mark Watte: High Cotton Award for Western Farm Press

Mark Watte, Tulare, Calif. cotton grower, wins the 2015 High Cotton Award from Western Farm Press.  The Watte family grows top-quality Pima and Upland cottons, plus implemented state-of-the-art farming practices over the years including integrated pest management, softer pesticide use, land laser levelling, nitrogen management, and others. 

Cotton runs deep in the veins of the Watte family of Tulare, Calif.

The family’s cotton roots date back 56 years to their first planting in 1959. While the first crop yielded two bales per acre, today’s Watte cotton yields are about four bales (2,000 pounds) with higher quality lint.

“Over the years, cotton has been our moneymaker and has paid the bills,” says Mark Watte, a third-generation grower and the 2015 winner of the Western Farm Press High Cotton Award.

It was King Cotton, Watte says, which led to infrastructure development in this area of the famous San Joaquin Valley; a farming Mecca heralded by many as the most productive farm land on Earth.

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Tulare County is the nation’s top farming county in gross sales, and the largest dairy county in the nation.

Watte recevied the Western Farm Press High Cotton Award from Editor Cary Blake during the 2015 High Cotton Award breakfast at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences held in early January in San Antonio, Texas.

The award recognizes the contributions of the entire Watte family.  

Qualifications for the High Cotton award include: a full-time grower who earns a profitable income from cotton production in one of the four Cotton Belt regions – West, Southwest, Delta, and Southeast; must produce cotton of consistently high quality; and include environmentally sound production practices.

The Watte family farm - George Watte & Sons Farms - includes about 3,000 acres, plus a 1,000-head Jersey cow dairy. Last year’s cropping system included: alfalfa (Roundup Ready and conventional) on 440 acres, triticale (970 acres) for green chop and corn for silage (350 acres), and black-eyed peas (460 acres).

Over the last several years, the Watte’s planted 665 acres of pistachio trees - the Kerman and Golden Hills varieties. About 300 of the tree nut acres are commercially bearing. More on the growing role of permanent crops in the Watte farm later.

Watte family tree

In 1907, Oscar Watte (Mark’s grandfather) emigrated from Belgium to the U.S., and farmed as a sharecropper for 50 years near Los Alamitos, Calif. In 1958, the family pulled up its roots and moved north to Tulare. They planted their first cotton crop a year later.

Today, the Watte family farm continues its love for the land. Oscar’s son, George and his wife Phyllis (both deceased), had sons Mark and Brian. Other family members include Mark’s and Brian’s wives - Joanne and Patti, respectively; Brian’s son Matthew (fourth-generation farmer); and Jason Starr who married Julie, one of Mark and Joanne’s three daughters. Karen and Tracy round out the daughter trio.

Mark, a full-time farmer for 39 years, is mostly responsible for irrigation and agronomy while Brian manages farm equipment and personnel.

Last year, the Watte’s cotton crop included 760 acres of cotton (all Roundup Ready): including 450 acres of Pima (Phytogen 811 RF) and 310 acres of (Upland) Acala cotton (Phytogen 725 RF).

Mark is honored to receive the Western Farm Press High Cotton Award.

“Anytime you are acknowledged by a jury of your peers it’s the highest honor you can have,” Watte said. “I’m very proud of the award. Thank you.”

Cotton quality

The Watte’s Pima cotton crop is ginned at County Line Gin Inc. in nearby Hanford. The Acala cotton is roller ginned at the Mid-Valley Cotton Growers Gin in Tulare. Mid-Valley Manager Stan Creelman has known the Watte family for about 35 years.

“The quality of the Watte’s Acala cotton is top of the line,” Creelman said. “Cotton in this area usually makes good micronaire and strength. Mark’s yields are always at the top level. Their cotton is top-notch quality.”

The Watte family’s Acala has been roller ginned for about a decade. The slower roller gin process generates a Watte price premium of 4-13 cents for the Watte’s while the roller ginning cost is about 3.5 cents more than saw-ginned cotton.

“Our overall price received for the roller-ginned Acala per pound is $1.10-$1.15, prices closer to Pima cotton,” Watte said.

Cotton planting dates are late March to early April. Harvest usually wraps up by late October.

All row crops are flood- or furrow-irrigated with quarter-mile runs.

Farming experience

Over the decades, Watte has grown about 30 crops, including grapes, olives, and oranges on an absentee-owner farm in the Exeter-Lindsay area after graduation from California Polytechnic State University with a Bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.

“Of the many crops I’ve grown, the crop that provides the grower with the most opportunity for plant manipulation is cotton,” Watte says.

Growth regulators, insect control, fertility, and water stress are important tools to manipulate the cotton plant. The plant can even partially forgive a late or missed irrigation.

On the pest and disease side, Fusarium Race 4 is the top disease for many cotton growers in the Tulare area.

“This area is the epicenter for Fusarium Race 4,” said Watte.

A pathogen attacks the roots and leaves which plugs up the plant’s xylem (circulatory system). This limits the delivery of nutrition and water to the plant which can eventually lead to plant death.

Infected ground can decrease lint yield and fiber quality yet the PhytoGen varieties in Watte’s seed portfolio are highly disease tolerant.

All of the land farmed by is infected with Race 4 at some level. Typically, portions of a field are infected; not the entire field. Fusarium Race 4 only targets cotton.

Watte said, “The long-term fix for Fusarium Race 4 is genetics.”

Pest challenges

On the pest front, the Tulare area has less insect pressure than other parts of the SJV due to its distance from the foothills. The spider mite is the top pest threat for the Watte’s, followed by whitefly. Both are controlled using IPM and softer insecticides.

The lygus pest is present in fields but below the economic threshold for treatment.

“I’ve never sprayed an acre for lygus during my farming career,” Watte said.

A lesson the Watte’s learned over the years is to protect and utilize beneficial insects.

“We have always been very cognizant and aware of keeping beneficials intact as much as possible. It’s embedded in us – it’s just what we do,” Watte said.   

When a pesticide application is needed in cotton, Watte confers with pest control advisor Matt Chase of Matt Chase Consulting. They agree that an early pesticide application works the best to control pest and disease issues, while using the softest products available to protect the beneficials.

“Mark is very proactive and wants to get the pest or disease before the problem gets out of hand,” Chase said.

Water strategy

On overall crop development, Chase said, “Mark understands how plants grow and when to irrigate and when to hold the water. He might irrigate one field but hold the water in an adjacent field.”

Watte uses about 36 inches of water, or less, for cotton in the farm’s Chino series clay loam soils.

On the technology side, the Watte family was one of the first growers in the “neighborhood” to laser level farm ground (1979) which improved water uniformity in the fields.

“I had a lot of neighbors come by and see what I was doing,” Watte recollected. “Keeping our land level has always been high on our priority list.”

University cooperators

For decades, the Watte family has served as longtime cooperators in field research trials with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE). In the early days, field studies on the farm included plant mapping, pressure bomb use for better irrigation decision making, and early studies on the concept of roller ginning Acala for higher quality and added value.

UCCE Cotton Specialist Robert Hutmacher says the Watte operation is in an area where nitrogen management plans are required to better utilize all sources of applied N to protect the groundwater from nitrate contamination.

Hutmacher said, “Nitrogen management information developed by the Watte’s and others will impact future plans for groundwater protection in other areas of California.” 

While field trials can delay a grower during the season, there are benefits to the grower to participate.

“As new seed varieties are developed, the best way to evaluate them is to grow them on your own farm,” Watte acknowledged.

California drought

Let’s face it - California can be a more difficult area to farm due to stringent government regulations, higher taxes, and the current severe three-year-long drought. Major water deficits are forcing some growers to shift from row crop agriculture, including cotton, into more permanent tree and vine crops to reduce the farm’s overall water needs and generate good economic returns.

In the future, the Watte family will likely grow less cotton and increase nut tree plantings.

Watte says cotton will continue to have positive fit in California heading forward.

“Cotton may shift into a secondary, rotational type of crop where it will fit here and there,” says Watte, 62. “It will continue as an important crop in the state.”

He believes California cotton acreage could hold steady in the 200,000 acre range in the short term.

Watte thinks cotton’s best fit is in ground with subsurface drip irrigation (SSDI). Some growers with SSDI grow processing tomatoes for several years and then turn to cotton as a rotational crop.

Giving back

On the civic level, Watte is heavily involved in giving back to agriculture and the community. He is the current vice-chair of Cotton Incorporated and in line to assume the chairmanship in late 2015.

He serves on the boards of the California Cotton Growers and Ginners, the Friant Water Authority, and the local People’s Ditch (water) Company. Watte is the current Tulare County Agriculturalist of the Year.

Previous leadership roles include past vice-chairman of the California-based Calcot Limited cotton marketing cooperative, Tulare City Council member, and last year’s city of Tulare ‘Man of the Year.’ Joanne is the current Tulare city ‘Woman of the Year.

In 1992, Mark served as the volunteer chair for World Ag Expo – the largest outdoor farm exposition in the world held in Tulare – where he continues to volunteer annually. He is a past board member of the local Farm Credit association.

In summary, Mark Watte is most proud to walk in the boots of a farmer, and continue his family’s farming legacy as food and fiber providers - a family tradition started more than 100 years ago.

Congratulations, Mark Watte - the 2015 Far West High Cotton Award recipient. 

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