Steve Newsom admits he’s usually an early adopter of something new. New technologies. New conservation practices. New crops. New solutions to lingering problems.
Newsom has been growing cotton on the family farm near Sundown, TX, for the past 34 years. It’s a 5,000-acre operation, including 3,000 acres of cotton, plus peanuts, occasional corn … and wine grapes and peaches. He farms it with his son, Keegan, and several other employees.
It’s an unusual, diversified mix of crops, especially for the High Plains of Texas. But Newsom has mastered the mix and enjoys the challenges that each crop brings.
However, two things concerned him. One, volatilization of herbicides from neighboring fields and the impact it could have on his grapes. And two, root knot nematodes that were squeezing productivity from his cotton crop.
Protecting His Interests and Investments
For several years, Newsom closely watched what his neighbors were planting, judging the potential impact that weed control programs using 2,4-D and other products might have on his wine grapes and peaches. Lessons learned at a field day in 2022 convinced him that the 2,4-D choline in Enlist herbicide brands was less volatile than some other products and not as hazardous to the grapes.
He liked that. But the tipping point, he admits, was the nematode resistance in PhytoGen’s Enlist cottonseed varieties.
“We are in a horrible area for root knot nematodes,” says Newsom. “Our land used to be one of the experiment farms for Dr. Terry Wheeler’s nematode studies at Texas Tech. I asked her if she had a chart showing the levels of nematode infestations, and she told me we were off of it.”
So, with potential solutions in sight — and with ranch land bordering the biggest block of his land — Newsom started calling neighbors to suggest teaming up to plant PhytoGen varieties.
“What did we have to lose?,” he asks. “We gave it a try and ended up with a huge block of PhytoGen cotton acres out here where we are. I had CRP [Cotton Reserve Program] acres on one side and wine grapes on the other. I was convinced that if I could manage it, I wouldn’t have to worry about volatility. And if you walk in my vineyard, there’s no 2,4-D injury from the Enlist choline.”
Making an Unconventional Crop Mix Work
Newsom has more than 100 acres in wine grape production. As he puts it, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it really is. To put it in wine perspective, production from 100 acres translates into approximately 37,000 12-bottle cases.
When the wine grapes first hit the High Plains, we’d plant them and go looking for a market,” Newsom recalls. “And we’d get calls. Eventually, we and some other growers had some really big plantings in the area, and we looked up one day and we were overplanting it.”
Looking for another outlet for their grapes, Newsom and two other growers started a small winery in Levelland. As the urge to build a winery grew, Newsom ended up partnering in 2018 with the Tommy English family that owned the former Caprock Winery to establish English Newsom Cellars in Lubbock.
“We’re 100% estate grown, and we’ve had a fair amount of success, especially in competitions,” he explains. “We have about 21 different varietals. We do sell grapes to other wineries, but we don’t bring in any outside grapes for our branded products.
“We took peaches on as an experiment and have actually enjoyed growing them. We’ve had a little bit of success with them, too.
“I guess I just like to lose money in a lot of different areas,” he laughs.
Focusing on One Variety
Newsom selected PHY 332 W3FE for the majority of his cotton acres in 2023, with the exception of a small block planted to another weed management technology as a buffer from other neighboring cotton fields.
“We’ve had four or five years of really bad drought and have had some below–average yields for the past several years,” he says. “We certainly didn’t have normal rainfall again this season, but it seems like this cotton did really well on both irrigated and dryland acres.”
About 2,800 of Newsom’s cotton acres are irrigated.
The nematode resistance provided by the PhytoGen variety was a major advantage. But the variety’s vigor caught Newsom’s attention as well.
“Vigor is a big deal for us,” he explains. “We have challenging weather in the spring. You’re going to get some hail, you’re going to get some wind, and you’re going to get some cold and extreme heat. I like to plant early and get my cotton off to an early start, usually the first week of May. It was a little simpler this year because of the variety we planted.
“We still use residuals and products like Zidua and Warrant in conjunction with those residuals,” he adds. “We felt the tank mix compatibility with the Enlist choline was really good. It worked out well. And with the longevity of the sprayings, the most we sprayed anywhere was twice. When your application window is only three or four hours from sunup to when the temperature gets above 90oF, degrees, it’s good to know it’s going to work if you don’t get a second shot at it. I didn’t worry about damage. I could not find anywhere that showed volatilization with the choline.”
Newsom also has a peanut field across the road from one of his cotton fields.
“I didn’t worry about it for one second,” he notes. “We managed wind and tried to do everything we could to not test the application, but we had no issues.”
Moving to More Sustainable Practices
Newsom’s farm was one of the first in the area to add cover crops to the entire operation, dating back to the 1990s. He believes the cover crop has been able to save enough water to offset the investment needed to get it going while still providing the management and conservation advantages the cover crop provides.
“We’re putting more focus on regenerative ag,” says Newsom. “We’re leaning more towards compost and limiting the number of trips to the field to help lower greenhouse emissions. We want to limit our chemical use and hope to get to a point where we’re only doing one spray application.
“We’re nearly all either conservation till or minimum till,” he adds. “We feel pretty confident that we can pass this land on to the next generations in a little bit better shape than when we took it.”