Cotton is coming on strong in Virginia and each weekday morning during cropping season growers in southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina tune in their radios to get the latest dose of cotton common sense from Johnny Parker.
Parker is a cotton agronomist, who works for Continental Cotton Gin in Windsor, Va. How he became one of the pied pipers guiding the resurgence of cotton in Virginia via multiple communication outlets is a story in a story.
Parker graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in agronomy and after trying his hand as a crop consultant, he followed a popular career path, working as an Extension farm agent in Duplin County, N.C.
In 1990, he moved on to work in the Virginia Tech Extension System. Parker explains his unlikely move as a radio host, “The county in which I worked had a long history of the county agent working with a local radio station. So, it was part of the job I had there. When I came to work at the cotton gin, we continued on with the radio show,” he explains.
The radio show transitioned from a farm radio show to a daily cotton radio show. The show eats up these one minute segments, which are updated three times a week during the growing season. Finding things to talk about is the easy part, Parker says, finding the time to do the shows when things really get going is the hard part.
As technology has changed, Parker added the script to his webpage for Commonwealth Gin. The script for the radio show is part of Johnny’s Blog, which is available on multiple electronic outlets. He says the blog allows him to expand some of the timely topics, which he couldn’t do in a one minute radio show.
"The radio station is WLQM 101.7 in Franklin, Va. The program only runs during the growing season, usually from early April through late October. In addition, I use my web page for off-season comments under 'Johnny's Blog' and this is typically the script from the radio program. You can go to www.commonwealthgin.com  for that website," Parker says.
Now, his radio show is picked up as far away as Gates County, N.C., and throughout much of the Virginia cotton growing belt. “Farmers certainly get a lot of information from the show, and hopefully some of the things I talk about has helped cotton farmers make better management decisions,” Parker says.
Long-time Virginia farmer and agri-businessman John Crumpler goes a little further in recognizing Parker’s contribution to the growth of cotton acreage. “We don’t have a cotton specialist in Virginia, and as much as anyone, Johnny has been responsible for getting farmers the information they need to grow cotton,” Crumpler says.
The Virginia grower says Virginia cotton growers are fortunate to have two gins in the state, Mid-Atlantic gin in Emporia and Continental Gin, that hire cotton consultants to help their growers produce high yielding, high quality cotton.
“Johnny works full time for Continental Gin and technically isn’t a consultant, and Wendell Cooper works with growers affiliated with the gin in Emporia. Between them, these two guys know as much about cotton production as anyone in the state and they help a lot of cotton growers during the growing season. Price is a factor in increasing cotton acreage, but so is having someone like Johnny to provide information,” Crumpler says.
Back in the early 1990s brothers Tom and Lynn Alpin were struggling to build a cotton gin into a sustainable agri-business. When they hired Johnny Parker away from the Virginia Cooperative Extension System, there were some people who questioned whether it was good business move for either party.
“One of the first years we had the gin, we had a cotton crop that must have grown to 6-7 feet tall. It was lush and green — and big. Every farmer thought they had 4-5 bale cotton,” Tom Alpin says.
Back then we didn’t know a lot about growing cotton, but we learned real quick that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to cotton plants. It was a real awakening for a lot of Virginia farmers and really could have slowed the growth in cotton acres in the state, he adds.
After a few such surprises from cotton, the Alpin brothers made what seemed at the time to be a questionable business move when they hired Parker to work full time with their growers to help them grow better cotton. “It’s been a great business move for us and Johnny is like another brother — a part of the family,” Tom Alpin says.
Though other gins in the state have cotton consultants who work with their growers, it is still a bit different to have a full time person on staff to help with the production end of cotton. Parker, through his radio show and by virtue of talking cotton with anyone who needs help, helps growers regardless of where they gin their cotton.
The 2011 cotton crop has been a frustrating one to say the least, Parker says. “We had a big crop planted and potentially one of our top producing crops. Cotton plants were well loaded and we seemed to be getting rain at just the right time. We were even talking about the possibility of setting a state record with an average of over 1,000 pounds per acre,” Parker says.
By the end of August cotton looked really good. Then, Hurricane Irene hit and started a series of events that is almost sure to cut our yields, he adds.
Started before the storms
The problem probably started before the storms struck, he says.
“Most of our crop was planted in April and was blooming in late June, which is about two weeks early. These early-planted fields had a heavy load of bolls, but too many of these bolls started opening early and in adverse conditions.
“Then, the early maturity was made worse by extreme heat and humidity in the later part of the growing season, and it pushed our maturity too fast. I believe a lot of the hard lock I saw in our cotton this year happened because bolls were opening in 90 degree heat and high humidity from Aug. 15 through Labor Day — that’s a bad combination for hard lock,” the Virginia cotton expert says.
“Then, Hurricane Irene hit and made a mess of our cotton fields. The wind didn’t damage the cotton so much, but it laid cotton plants every which way across rows. Defoliation was hard and picking the cotton was even harder. The result will be a loss of yield,” Parker adds.
Probably the worst damage to Virginia cotton came from Tropical Storm Lee. It hit on a Monday night and rained virtually all week, keeping cotton wet for the week. That second storm pushed our hard lock even more, he adds.
“The cotton remained on the plant, so we didn’t lose much cotton to the wind and rain — that’s the good news. The bad news is the hard lock and the trouble growers will have picking their cotton is going to turn what could have been an outstanding crop to just a good crop,” Parker contends.
After the storms hit Parker was in high gear trying to help growers figure out how to get into their cotton fields to defoliate and then how to best pick their crop. While some cotton experts were advising growers to spray and pick in a 45 degree angle to the planted row, Parker said going across the cotton field may provide a better result.
For sure going across a cotton field in a sprayer or a picker at a 90 degree angle to the planted row will put more bounce in your ride. Some growers contend using Parker’s tip helped them pick more cotton. “My thinking is that going at a 45 degree angle, the picker may be pushing cotton away from the picker head. Going at a 90 degree angle may push cotton into the picker head,” Parker says.
Parker says he doesn’t expect an increase in acreage for 2012, but says he doubts there will be a decrease. Regardless of the cotton acreage next year, Parker will be providing growers with some timely tips to help them maximize yield and quality.