Holding Fast

Consistent performance keeps cotton in this farmer's crop mix.

Cotton is the thread that runs throughout Justin Cariker’s Mississippi farming history, Image by Tommy Horton

Mississippi Delta farmer Justin Cariker doesn’t flinch when neighbors and friends ask him why he continues to grow cotton.

After 27 consecutive crops, he’s heard most of the reasons why he should switch to other crops. Thoughts that the crop represents too much price volatility, or resistant pigweed and plant bugs make it an expensive crop to grow don’t represent his thinking. Corn, soybeans and even wheat can, at times, seem like easier alternatives, but, he’d rather weave them in as part of a diverse mix of crops on his Dundee, Mississippi, farm.

“It all comes down to this point: Cotton has always been at the core of our operation,” Cariker says. “The varieties are there, and we have high yields. If Mother Nature cooperates, this crop always delivers for us. Cotton is consistent on our farm. If I look back on a five-year yield history, my cotton doesn’t fluctuate a whole lot.”

ON THE OFFENSE. Cariker takes a proactive approach to avoid most of the pitfalls that cut into consistent yields and profits. “We have had to deal with resistant pigweed, plant bugs and other things,” he says. “But, the problems never were serious, and we jumped on them fast. For example, we always overlay our residual herbicide applications. We are always looking for ways to be more efficient.”

Skyrocketing corn and soybean prices chased many farmers away from cotton. Not many years ago, the Delta looked more like the Midwest, as many farmers sold their pickers and purchased grain combines. In 2013, cotton acres in Mississippi dropped to 475,000.

Cariker wasn’t part of this group. He held the line on a diversified crop mix that allows an adjustment in planted acreage each year. For example, in 2016, his crop mix was comprised of 1,500 cotton acres, 2,000 corn acres and 2,500 soybean acres. In 2017, he showcased his ability to flex to cotton and planted 3,000 cotton acres, 2,500 soybean acres and 500 corn acres. Barring anything unusual, the 2018 plan calls for 3,500 cotton acres, 2,500 soybean acres and no corn acres. His 2018 cotton production increased further to blanket 3,800 acres. Soybeans were planted on 2,000 acres, and corn disappeared from his lineup.

Economics drive these crop-mix decisions. Corn has never delivered consistently for Cariker--varying from 150 bushels per acre (bpa) one year to 210 bpa the next year. Lower prices coupled with yield differences make it a rotational option these days.

IN THE MIX. Another reason to stay with cotton is the purchase of two John Deere module pickers--each costing between $400,000 and $500,000. Trade-in values on basket pickers helped lower the purchase price, but the efficiency gained by reduced labor costs justifies the expense and keeps cotton competitive.

The fact that Cariker’s father and grandfather grew cotton on this same acreage also creates an emotional tie to the crop. He’s also a part-owner in Tunica Gin, and the family’s longtime investment in cotton has helped make sure important infrastructure has stayed in place.

“I like to say that the foundation for my farming operation was put in place many years ago because of cotton,” he says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be operating. I never forget that.”

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES. As productive as Mississippi Delta soil is, yields don’t approach what Texas farmers achieve. That is why cotton production across the Belt is such a fascinating endeavor. Each region has a unique environment and growing conditions. Because of the length of seasons and soil composition in each region, it isn’t unusual for Texas farmers to hit yields between 5 and 6 bales per acre.

Cariker’s cotton yields in 2016 were excellent, with some fields delivering 3.2- and 3.4-bale yields. Because of untimely rains in May during planting season, the top 2017 yields only hit 2.8 bales per acre. At press time, he liked the way the 2018 crop was loading up and was hopeful for a finish that would exceed the farm’s five-year average of 2.5 bales per acre.

Water supplies are plentiful in the Delta. Irrigation on 85% of Cariker’s acres--either by furrow or center pivot--is a valuable tool. However, waiting for a top crop to develop is always a challenging management call. Untimely rainfall and cool conditions late in the season can hinder development, alter defoliation plans and lead to an earlier-than-desired cutout.

Cariker says the combination of better prices, fewer discounts and better grades drives his decisions to stick with cotton. Mississippi’s cotton acreage climbed back to 550,000 acres in 2017 and is estimated at 560,000 in 2018. That’s nowhere near the historical highs of 1 million acres achieved more than a decade ago, but it’s still an encouraging trend.

DON’T FORGET QUALITY. Fiber quality is another reason for staying with a crop that has always rewarded him, Cariker says. In 2017, Tunica Gin processed his 6,300 bales, and all averaged a 3-cent premium. Some bales reached a 5-cent premium.

Another important number is the average leaf grade of “below 4” on 75% of the bales ginned. That equates to 5,000 bales. Cariker says he would be happy with that number every year. Tunica Gin ginned a total of 35,000 bales in 2017.

“All of the gins in the Delta had good seasons in 2017,” he says. “In fact, when you drive down US 61 from Memphis, you see more cotton fields. Just a few years ago, you saw corn acreage on both sides of the highway. Now, you see cotton. That’s encouraging.

“Like I always say, you may not hit a home run if you grow cotton, but you’ll still get to first base.”


Name: Justin Cariker, Dundee, Mississippi

Farm Team: Tommy Walker, manager; full-time mechanic, Jimmy Smith; crop consultants, Tim Sanders and Winston Earnheart

Farm Overview: operating around 6,000 acres in northern Mississippi Delta with 85% irrigated

Crops: cotton, soybeans and corn (every five years); average five-year yield: cotton (2.5 bales/acre), soybeans (45 bushels/acre) and corn (182 bushels/acre)

Seeding Rates: cotton, three seeds every 12 inches on 40-inch rows; soybeans, 137,000 seeds/acre; corn, 33,000 seeds/acre

Biggest Challenge: getting crop to a stand and applying herbicides and insecticides in a timely manner

Biggest Farming Joy: harvest season

High-Yield Hint: Be timely in every aspect of your operation.


Consultant Tim Sanders has worked for Justin Cariker since 2003 and has had a front-row seat for the challenges that can beset cotton and the competition from grain crops. Through it all, he’s learned his boss is dedicated to efficiency in all phases of crop production.

“Justin respects my input, and he is always trying to become a better farmer,” he says. “He has the final say on every decision, but he likes to receive good input. He never becomes complacent. The smart farmer is always looking for new efficiencies.”

Decisions such as defoliation timing, precision ag techniques, variety selection or something as crucial as the purchase of expensive module pickers are all made with an eye toward profit margins.

However, when Cariker’s harvest is finished, he’s been known to help neighbors harvest their crops. “That should tell you the kind of farmer Justin is,” Sanders says. “He’s there to help his friends any way he can.”

Sanders says the biggest agronomic issue ahead is bollworm resistance in Bt cotton. Additional aerial spraying was required on many fields in Mississippi last year and became an added expense.


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