by Karl H. Kazaks
RICHFIELD, NC — “We’ve had a season unknown to most of us around today,” Ronnie Burleson said. “A wetter spring and summer than we can remember.”
So it has been — as in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast — in Stanly County, headquarters of Thurman Burleson & Sons Farm — a family partnership between Ronnie, his brother Dennis, son Andrew, and nephew Aaron. The Burlesons grow cotton, corn, beans, and wheat on 4,000 acres in five counties within a 50-mile radius of their home farm here.
Planting was delayed by about two weeks at the Burlesons’ operation.
With the cool wet spring, they could only plant corn “for a day or two before we’d have to wait,” Burleson said. They even sent some corn seed back, as they wanted to focus on planting 2,400 acres of cotton. “Hindsight being what it is, even late corn looks good,” Burleson said.
They weren’t able to make up lost time when planting cotton, though. Because of all the rain, some cotton plants experienced damping off. “We’ve got bare spots,” Burleson said. “Some of it just drowned. About all you can do is spray the weeds and keep up with the good stands.”
Persistent rain also delayed the Burlesons’ wheat harvest.
“We should be planting double-crop soybeans by June 30,” Burleson said. “Half of our wheat wasn’t harvested by then.” Because of the late wheat harvest, the Burlesons decided not to plant several hundred acres of beans, figuring the risk of planting so late just wasn’t worth it.
This year, for the first time, the Burlesons harvested their entire wheat crop with their stripper header. The stripper header cuts wider, travels faster, and permits harvesting to begin earlier in the day and run later into the night.
With the stripper header, Burleson said, “on a good day we could get 100 acres,” harvested, whereas with a traditional machine a good day would be 50 acres. Using the stripper header on all of their wheat meant the Burlesons didn’t have to rent a second combine.
In the past, the Burlesons have used the stripper header to get a jump on the wheat harvest and start planting soybeans. The typically dry that early wheat harvest, but don’t usually dry even 10 percent of their wheat. This year, thanks to weather conditions, they’re drying 30 percent of their wheat.
With all the rain, it’s given the Burlesons too much time to sit inside and “worry about what we could do,” Burleson said. “We’d try to go out and spray. But sprayers kept getting stuck. As far as I can remember, we have not got sprayers stuck in June or July before.”
The Burlesons were the first farmers to bring cotton back to this area, in 1991. The crop had left area four decades before that due to the boll weevil.
“Growing cotton that first year I had to learn more than in any other year in my life. Cotton is totally different than grain.”
The Burlesons decided to plant cotton because they were looking for a heat and drought tolerant crop. Over the course of 12 years they had extreme droughts about every three years — 1977, 1980, 1983, 1986, and 1990, Burleson recalled.
“It was tough to grow corn and soybeans, and the price of grain was cheap. So we decided to give cotton a try.”
They did things different than in traditional cotton growing areas. They planted the turn rows (perpendicular to the field, harvesting them first so they would be open when harvesting the field). “You run over a few,” plants, Burleson said, but you do get the extra production of the turn rows.
They didn’t side dress or use foliar fertilizer. The only fertilizer they put down was at planting.
“Our gravelly clay soils have fertility,” Burleson said. “They don’t leach nutrients” like in some sandy or coastal plain soils where cotton is often grown.
They also didn’t spray insecticide without seeing an insect pressure significant enough to justify the application. Burleson admitted his area has less insect pressure than other cotton-producing areas.
When spraying herbicides, instead of direct spraying with spray fenders — which are more suited for smooth, flat fields — they used single-nozzle shield sprayers. Since the Burlesons practice no-till on ground that can be rocky and is relatively hilly for cotton production, it would have been hard to keep the spray fenders directed and free from damage when passing over the fields.
“We did the best we could without our kind of technology,” Burleson said. “We had confidence it would work in our territory and our way of farming.”
The confidence was rewarded with a 1000-pound per acre harvest. “We’ve ended up being a phenomenal cotton production area,” Burleson said.
Today the Burlesons broadcast their chemicals and they no longer have to take their cotton to a gin 100 miles away. At the urging of other local farmers who were beginning to grow cotton, they teamed up with extended family members to build their own gin, Rolling Hills, in 1996.
Today the gin serves 25 growers within a 50 mile radius. The gin markets the cotton a number of ways. It is associated with ProCot, a cotton cooperative. It also sells directly to mills in North Carolina, to the large integrated ag companies, and to other cotton pools.
Last year the gin’s producers averaged between 2.2 to 2.5 500 pound round bales per acre.
When the Burlesons first starting growing cotton, they had two pickers, two boll buggies, three modules builders — and only four or five people to run all of that equipment. Even more challenging than running the equipment was moving it all from farm to farm.
“Our average field size is about 11 acres,” Burleson said. During cotton harvest, they had to move all of their equipment frequently, folding down pickers and module builders to stay clear of utility wires.
The logistics of keeping everything moving and the pickers working was “a challenge,” Burleson said.
Today, the Burlesons have one full-time and three part-time employees. This summer, with not as many acres of soybeans as planned to attend to, they are using their heavy equipment to get new ground cleared and ready for production.
They’re also looking forward to autumn. Usually, they like to pick cotton the last 10 days of September. (They harvest corn a little wet and dry it in to allow them to get out and defoliate cotton). This year, with cotton being planted at least two weeks late, they don’t expect to pick cotton until October.
“We’re looking forward to getting sunshine and heat with just a few showers,” Burleson said. “Hopefully frost will come later this year because every crop is delayed.”
Burleson family keep innovating — but wet weather means a late season for all crops
by Karl H. Kazaks