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Finding the Next Generation of Cotton Farmers

From the Cotton Grower 2015 Annual

Beck Barnes 2015 Web(3)

As any longtime cotton producer will readily tell you, no two years are alike. The 2015 production season held true to this belief.

We began with a jarring drought over the western half of the country, which turned into a torrential month-long downpour across much of the Southwest, before slowly settling back into drought-like conditions in many of the same areas. There were herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant bugs. Through it all, there was the maddeningly stagnant cotton market.

As the old-timers would tell you, this year was unlike any other. But what can 2015 tell us about the old-timers? Well, namely, that there are a lot of them.

Cotton Grower occasionally does reader research studies in order to better understand our audience. We learned several years ago that our average reader was approaching 60 years old. He was still plenty young enough to take care of business on the farm, but, to be sure, our typical audience member was approaching retirement age.

Of course, we didn’t really need a reader survey to tell us that much. We’re out of the office and on the turn-row pretty regularly. We host a half-dozen grower-focused events each year. We see our audience face-to-face routinely.

It was at one such grower-focused event where I heard my favorite quote of 2015. In his acceptance speech for the Cotton Grower Cotton Achievement Award, Texas cotton producer Jimmy Dodson reflected on the nature of generational change in the cotton industry.

“We have a rule in my church,” said Dodson, “You can’t leave until you find your replacement. I think we need to have that rule in this industry as well. I strongly suggest you take that as your mantra – that you find your replacement, you find a young person or somebody with energy or somebody with enthusiasm or ideas, and you mentor them up to take your spot, and then some.

“We will have a better day in the coming year, in the coming 100 years, if you do that.”

I think there is a lot of wisdom in that piece of advice. I am also fully aware that the current economic prospects of the cotton industry may not be very attractive to young people who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives. And it is also true that sometimes young people – often your own sons and daughters – simply aren’t open to the idea of staying on the farm.

But it is also true that this industry won’t survive without an influx of young energy – a new generation of producers who, like Jimmy Dodson, have an eye on the health of American cotton as a whole. And the good news is that they – young people open to pursuing a career in agriculture – exist. Many are enrolled in our excellent agriculture universities across the country. Others are closer to home, working for a living and waiting for an opportunity to come their way.

As many of you may begin to think about retirement in the coming years, it would also be prudent to think about the future of the industry, as well. Finding your replacement, as Dodson phrases it, can keep both your legacy and our industry healthy for years to come.

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