Garth Brooks wrote a song about them. “Sometimes God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” the lyrics went.
Larry McClendon had one go unanswered, and it too became a blessing. Says McClendon, “When I was a little boy – 7 or 8 years old – I chopped cotton, and I told my Dad one day the last thing in life I wanted to do was be a farmer.”
Upon graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1974 with a degree in agricultural business, McClendon returned home and seriously considered a job in the public sector. But something got in the way of that. He explains: “I looked back and I saw some men who were older than me and saw what they had done with their lives. I realized they were good role models for me.”
So go ahead and insert the obvious cliché: The rest is history.
McClendon is a Marianna, AR, grower, ginner, warehouseman, cotton-association executive, award winner, family man, good citizen. You could use extraordinaire behind of them all.
So without further ado, we are pleased and honored to announce that McClendon is 2006’s Cotton Grower Cotton Achievement Award Winner.
This will mark the third time McClendon has graced our cover. In 1994, he was the subject of a grower feature, and in 2002, he was our Marketer of the Year.
Living The Unanswered Prayer
McClendon made his first cotton crop in 1975, starting on 500 acres. Being the modest sort, he doesn’t care to publicize his current acreage. But if increased acreage increases efficiencies – and McClendon believes it does – then let’s just say he’s efficient.
“I started out the way a lot of people do – renting land, expanding over time, and then trying to buy land; it’s a slow process,” he says.
Not to mention hitting the more than occasional bump in the road. “One thing I didn’t realize was just how volatile agriculture could be,” says McClendon. “The biggest thing that held me back was that in the ‘80s, we had a series of droughts – severe droughts – and they literally displaced half of the producers in my county. It was all I could do to hang on. The first 10 or 12 years were not very productive; it was a struggle at times. After that, it sort fed on itself and I started doing better.”
McClendon adds that despite the difficulties – and what industry does not have them? – it’s mostly been a labor of love: “I have a love for agriculture and a love for the people in agriculture. The people I have associated with personally – lenders, chemical dealers, equipment dealers, landlords, my employees – are people who have shaped my life. There are some incredible people in this business, and I can’t say that enough.”
All In The Family
McClendon has been married to the former Betty Joe Oxner for 26 years, and they have two children – Ashley, 30, and Tyler, 22. They also have three grandchildren.
Ashley – the mother of McClendon’s three grandchildren – works part-time on the farm and her husband, Bobby Byrd, is a farm manager.
Tyler is a senior at the University of Arkansas. “Tyler could possibly come back,” McClendon says. “Right now he will work in the investments division at a large bank. He’ll be there for a couple of years, and then he will probably go back to school to get a graduate degree. After that, we’ll look at what he really wants to do, but coming back is always in our minds and we talk about it frequently. In the meantime, I want him to get all of the education he can get.”
McClendon adds that his family is not unlike that of his neighbors: “We have a small family and generally speaking, we are like most families in this area – rural background, working class. That’s how we’ve always looked at it.”
Legends Of The Fall
McClendon, Mann & Felton Gin Co.
McClendon got into the ginning business in a big way when, in 1991, he bought out the operation of the legendary Lon Mann.
Mann was the Southern Cotton Ginners Associations’ Ginner of the Year in 1999 and served as president of both the National Cotton Ginners Association. and the Southern Cotton Ginners Association. The other leadership positions he held in nearly all of the local, state and national agricultural organizations are endless.
In 1993, Mann got back into the ginning business as McClendon’s partner and stayed active in the gin until he passed away in 2003. McClendon says, “I miss him. I always held him in the highest regard. And that’s why we wanted to retain his name on the business.”
And then there is the Felton part of the name: McClendon’s first job out of college was for Dan Felton and Co., and Felton’s son, Trent, is now McClendon’s gin partner.
The younger Felton individually owned a gin operation until 1995. “Trent and I have been friends since the fifth grade; we grew up together, went to college together,” McClendon says. “But in the gin business, we started out competing with each other. One day we sat down and talked and decided we would have more things going for us if we worked together, rather than on our own. There is a synergy there.”
The current operation now includes three gins. Under one roof in Marianna are a three-stand gin, built in 1993, and a completely separate two-stand gin, built in 2002. “The gins share an office, a load-out facility and seed houses, but the ginning process is all independent,” McClendon says. “If we have a breakdown in one gin, it does not affect the other gin and we can still run. We even have two sets of employees – a day and a night shift for each plant.”
There is a three-stand gin in Brickeys, just north of Marianna. All eight stands are Continental Eagle designs.
McClendon manages the day-to-day operations, while Felton manages their warehouses.
Gins evolve just like anything else, and McClendon says the most historic changes to the business have been gin consolidation and the introduction of modules.
In the early ’60s, McClendon says there were over 4,000 gins in the U.S. Today there are 850. And it’s not that that many gin companies got out of the business, it’s that they merged with other smaller companies and built today’s super gins.
But as far as technological advances, the module has had the most profound impact. Says McClendon, “Modules changed the way cotton is harvested, stored, and transported, and it radically changed ginning. The cost of ginning has declined because of modules. Were it not for modules, ginning would not even be cost effective today. You could not afford to build a plant and run it for a few weeks out of the year.”
Before modules, McClendon says 50-60 gin-days per season would be normal. But if conditions were poor, it could take from fall to spring to get those days in. Now gins can run for 90 days or more, if necessary, without ever shutting down, and when it’s done, it’s done.
McClendon begins the gin season with 12-hour days. Then when harvest gets into full swing, the gins run 24/7 until the end. This year, McClendon, Mann and Felton will gin over 200,000 bales and warehouse 250,000. Warehouses are located in Marianna and Brinkley, also in Arkansas.“Capacities and speeds of the gins have been remarkable. Our through-put is way higher,” McClendon says. “Even the way we gin has changed. We went for a long period of time over-drying and over-cleaning. We have, so to speak, been ‘gentle ginning’ for the last eight or so years. But the market is sending us signals that we might be going back the other way. Our market is an export market now, and importers are requiring a higher grade than we have supplied in the past.”
Good Things Come In Threes
When McClendon started farming there was virtually no irrigation around him, but that has changed substantially. “Now it is virtually all irrigated,” he says.
Another substantial change was the movement to bigger, and then even bigger equipment, and McClendon went all 12-row in 1988.
But the monumental change, in his opinion, came with genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties. McClendon says, “The Roundup Ready and Bt technologies would have to be at the very top of the most dramatic changes we’ve seen.”
These three innovations – the nearly 100% conversion to irrigation, monstrous equipment, and GM varieties – are, he says, “things I never could have imagined when I started farming.”
McClendon says area growers go for the stacked genes: “We are 99% stacked and 100% Roundup Ready. Generally the D&PL and Stoneville varieties have been predominant here. You have got so much money tied up in an acre of cotton that you have to have a reasonable expectation or assurance that you can make a good crop out of it. So when people find a variety that works for them, they stay with it.”
And as a direct result of these innovations, yield has seriously increased. McClendon says, “In our gin territory, over the last three or four years, we have exceeded 1,000 pounds per acre. On the better, watered ground, 1,100-1,200 pounds has become routine.”