Marshall Grant, North Carolina farmer and the man who led the way in eradicating the boll weevil, received the inaugural “White Gold Award” at the 25th Annual Joint Commodities Conference, held January 14-16 in Durham, N.C.
“It takes confidence and clarity of vision to accomplish great things. I believe timing plays a role as well. It is clear to me and to many cotton producers that Dad’s tenacity, foresight and confidence came along at the right time and helped save our cotton industry in North Carolina and across the nation,” said David Grant, a second generation cotton producer in Garysburg, during his father’s introduction.
Cotton was the official host commodity at this year’s conference, and the timing could not have been more appropriate to announce the establishment of the new award. “With North Carolina harvesting a record cotton crop this year, and with cotton being the host commodity at the year’s conference, we knew the timing was right to announce the creation of this award, and Marshall Grant as our first recipient,” explains Joe Martin, Conway, North Carolina cotton producer and President of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association.
The early years
Marshall Grant has seen a lot of cotton in his time. Born in 1924, he was the seventh of 8 children, and planted his first cotton crop in 1946. He harvested his last crop in 1994 when he was 70 years young.
After losing his father when he was twelve, Grant was raised by his mother and five sisters. While studying agriculture at North Carolina State College, World War II began and he served in the rough terrain and rolling hills in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.
After the war, he began farming and immediately started answering the call to serve on local, regional and eventually, national boards of charitable and agricultural organizations.
“Cotton production sure changed a lot from my first crop to my last crop,” states Grant.
That quote may be the biggest understatement of all time, specifically because of the effort Grant expended in a project he recognized that needed to be addressed. Unknowingly to Grant, it was the impetus for ground-sweeping improvement to cotton production, as well as to cotton’s overall environmental sustainability moving into the twenty-first century.
The boll weevil arrived in North Carolina in 1924. At that time, the state had 2 million acres of cotton. By the late 70s, land dedicated to cotton had fallen to its low of 40,000 acres - most of that being planted in and around Northampton County, along the border of Virginia and South Carolina.
“Because of our soils and climate, it was difficult growing corn and soybeans, and tobacco production was restricted by government allotments,” explains the elder Grant.
Cotton was the best option but the boll weevils were literally eating up producer’s profits, so by 1968, Grant organized a spray group to hire scouts and spray for pests on a regional basis. Grant had the foresight and firmly believed that for the program to succeed, broad acreage in general proximity over a short period of time would have to be controlled to keep boll weevils from merely migrating to adjacent cotton fields. This, he believed, would save producers money over the long haul by reducing input costs and eventually allowing for improved yields.
“Dad has always been about saving money,” David Grant explains with a wry smile. “My father has always been a frugal man, and today even rinses out and reuses his coffee filters.”
The old farm homestead where Marshall Grant has lived for so long still has no air conditioning. When Dr. J.R. Brazell, at that time head of the Entomology Department at Mississippi State University, before taking a position with USDA, visited Marshall about joining a boll weevil eradication national effort, they stayed outside on the front porch of Marshall’s house because it was a little cooler there.
Ramping up momentum
Grant’s willingness to begin lending his ag knowledge and opinions to cotton organizations through leadership positions brought him in contact with influential people like then NC Commissioner of Agriculture Jesse Helms, who soon became a Senator, and eventually chaired the Senate Ag Committee.
“We remained friends for a long time before his passing in July of 2008,” recalls Grant.
By the mid-70s, during a meeting of the National Cotton Council, it was decided to proceed with a full-scale boll weevil eradication trial. Most people assumed the trial would be established in the High Plains of Texas or either around the lower Rio Grande. State legislation to authorize a vote for mandatory participation was necessary.
“After several minutes of silence, waiting for a volunteer, dad spoke out and said, ‘If Texas was too big a bite to chew on, wouldn’t North Carolina’s small acreage work better?’, and now, in retrospect, a smaller beginning offered a much better opportunity to fine tune the program,” adds Grant, from his recollection of his father’s earlier days of recounting that meeting.
Gaining unified support for the boll weevil program across the Cotton-Belt was no easy task. Many producers balked at the plan, quipping that it would never work in their area, but Marshall Grant was prepared for each and every naysayer.
“Dad would tell them if they didn’t want to save $65 an acre in production costs, it was no skin off his back,” says the younger Grant.
As the program expanded, many areas of the country had moments of crisis, and Marshall Grant was there with his voice of detemination. Grant’s long-term association with Senator Helms allowed Grant to meet with Helms in Washington DC, unannounced, and just before a Labor Day weekend. Because program funds in Georgia had been depleted, an emergency loan was badly needed or all the eradication efforts made to that point would have been in vain.
“By Monday, a federal loan had somehow come through and the eradication continued,” says the senior Grant. “This happened more than once.”
Each state had to vote to approve its own funding, which was far from easy. Grant traveled extensively to help organize supporting committees and educate producers on the program’s long-term viability.
“I did have more than my share of week-long trips and sometimes had to spend money out of my own pocket, but most of the time, each state was gracious enough to cover my expenses,” says Grant.
Weevil eradiction annual benefit is $644 million
According to published estimates, Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) benefits are accruing at the rate of $644 million a year to US cotton producers. It is also estimated there are 10 million pounds fewer insecticides being used annually to produce the US cotton crop thanks to the eradication of that long-snouted pest.
It would literally take a small book to list all of the awards, achievements and certificates of recognition which have been bestowed on this truly humble and hard-working man.
From being named “Outstanding Young Farmer of Northampton County” in 1959, to being named “Southeast Cotton Producer of the Year” in 1990 by Southern Cotton Growers, Grant remains gracious and always thankful for the recognition.
“When you make a living in an industry doing what you love, it’s only natural that you want to raise the bar of success for that entire industry,” adds Grant.
And raise the bar he did.
Grant accepted yet another honor at the 2015 Joint Commodities Conference.
The name for the award, “White Gold”, was chosen to reflect not only the importance cotton has played in the economy of the United States through history, but the value level of achievement reached by the recipient.
“Our board thought it appropriate to establish an award that would recognize someone in the North Carolina cotton industry only when their efforts were so impactful, that they made significant and broad-sweeping improvements across our industry. I think anyone would agree, Marshall’s efforts have done just that,” explains David Parrish, CEO of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association.