For Atwood McIntosh and other South Carolina farmers, 2015 has proven to be one of the most difficult years they have ever faced.
Low commodity prices, the one two-punch of severe drought and a relentless summer heat wave and then historic fall flooding made this one for the record books of tough crop years for the Palmetto State. But through it all, McIntosh is committed to overcome the obstacles and focus building yield and improving quality every step of the way.
“It’s been a tough year on the farm between the drought and now flood. The good Lord will watch out for us and we will try to make the best for what we have to work with. In farming you are always looking to the future, to next year. Next year is going to be better,” the eighth generation Williamsburg County farmer says.
McIntosh, 35, has been farming with his father, Irwin McIntosh full-time since earning his MBA from Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C. in 2005. But he has really always been a farmer and has worked with his father on the farm since he was six years old. The McIntosh family has farmed in the same area since the Revolutionary War.
The family produces cotton, corn and peanuts on 1,000 acres. And as mentioned in a related article in the Southeast Farm Press, McIntosh has branched out, starting his own cotton shirt business, Homegrown Cotton, where he markets polo shirts made from the cotton he grows on his farm.
“For the shirts, you farm your cotton a little differently. You focus on fiber quality first, over yield. Staple length is the main factor spinning mills are looking for and micronaire is important too,” he adds.
McIntosh plants 100 percent Deltapine cotton. For his shirt cotton this year, he planted DP 1555 because it yields well under irrigation and offers superior fiber quality, he said. “Upland varieties really are catching up with pima varieties in terms of quality. They have longer staple and better micronaire which you need for high quality shirts,” he notes.
Prior to the early October floods, McIntosh was expecting better than three bales per acre on his irrigated land where DP 1555 is planted. Now he will be lucky to pick two bales per acre on his cotton shirt acreage
The heavy rains have clearly impacted both yield and quality in Williamsburg County, he adds.
“A lot of people are hurting and we have a lot of crop loss in Williamsburg County,” he said. “We got all the rain we needed this summer in three days in October . People are complaining about irrigation but the amount I would use on my farm in a year would be only a few seconds of what flowed down the nearby Black River after the rains.”.
Peanuts are also an important crop for McIntosh that he rotates with cotton. His family started farming Virginia-type peanuts since the buyout and it has proven to be a good crop for them. Before the heavy rains, he was looking at a good peanut crop this year.
“I had them all dug before the rains came and they were sitting on the ground for a month so they are almost impossible to combine now,” he said. “The amount I will be able to sell is very little and the quality is deteriorating.”
For McIntosh, focusing on quality is critical. It’s particularly important for the cotton he devotes to his cotton shirt business. He relies on strip tillage, variable rate fertilizer and works to be conservation minded for all of the cotton grows, but he focuses extra attention on the 40 acres of cotton devoted to his high quality shirts.
Stink bugs are his main plant bug problem and pigweeds are always an issue. “I try to keep the fields as clean as I can. It takes years to get a field clean and you don’t want to go backwards. You have to keep it clean every year and take the pigweeds out before they seed out,” he said.
For his shirt cotton, managing plant growth regulators is vital. “You don’t want the plant to get too large. With irrigated cotton, you can get big bushes which leads to increased disease pressure, boll rot and poor quality cotton,” he said.
For his shirt cotton, he makes three applications of fungicides and treats it with foliar fertilizers and liquid potash. He also uses a higher plant population on his shirt cotton, planting 35,000 seeds per acre to ensure a thicker stand.
Like other farmers in South Carolina, McIntosh is looking to the 2016 crop year and hoping for the best. “I’m still hoping for a turnaround this year. Everything has to work out just right to have an ideal crop year. There are too many factors at play. It’s either too wet or too dry or too hot or too cold or not enough sunshine. All of this effects every crop,” he says.
When asked about the future of the farm and the cotton shirt business McIntosh says "I'm taking it one step at a time."