“Dawson traffic, Barron 25734, 10 miles out landing on runway 31 - left base,” says Ronnie Lee, which means he is about to drop the landing gear on his Beechcraft Baron – most likely returning home from another ag industry meeting.
“I don’t have many hobbies but I absolutely love flying, and it allows me do things I probably would not be able to do if I had to drive,” said Lee, the 2011 Southeast High Cotton Award recipient who oversees a 9,000 acre multi-commodity production farming operation that stretches into six different counties.
Lee has been taking off and landing airplanes since 1989 when he first soloed in a Cessna 172. He has been checked out in everything from a Beech Sierra, a Barron, to a Super Cub.
“Back in the 60s and 70s, my dad owned a farm supply and grain business but he never owned an airplane. He contracted with an aviation spray business to operate off our strip. My summer job was loading those planes. I guess that’s where my passion for flying originated,” Lee said.
The managing partner of Lee Farms in Bronwood, Ga., Lee is the current chairman of Southern Cotton Growers and on the board of the American Cotton Producers, holding a vice-chairmanship position on the board’s Farm Policy Task Force. Since 2003, Lee has been a delegate to the National Cotton Council and is one of seven directors from Georgia on the board of Cotton Incorporated.
McClesky Cotton Company is the family’s ginning and warehousing operation. In addition to McCleskey Saw and Machine Co., LLC, and Adela Logistics (a brokerage house), and a trucking company LGT LLC., it should come as no surprise Lee has a flying business – RCL Flying Service.
Lee readily admits that his three sons, Ron, Chandler and Neal, are indispensable when it comes down to running the operations that support cotton, corn, peanuts, pecans, hay, small grains and cow/calf operation. “My sons stay on the go and are often stretched pretty thin as well, but they all play key roles in any success the good Lord has thrown our way.”
Ron, the eldest son, runs the gin and warehousing business and handles all of the cotton marketing for their ginning customers, as well as marketing the operation’s commodities. Chandler oversees the trucking side of the business and the brokerage house. The youngest, Neal, manages all of the production farming-related operations.
Maintaining cotton base acres
While cotton’s planted acres in most cotton-producing states has taken a dramatic drop over the last several years, Georgia’s acreage remains high and ranks second in the United States.
“Logistically, Georgia is perfectly located to take advantage of key partners within cotton’s supply chain. Our freight system costs are very competitive, and we have an excellent infrastructure that continues to support and benefit us economically,” explains Lee.
Georgia cotton growers enjoy lower production costs, as well as lower warehousing charges than many other states, and that keeps them a little more competitive. Between being in close proximity to a few domestic mills, and a major port, the port of Savannah, it makes good business sense to stay with cotton – despite its lackluster price of late.
“In Georgia, you’re either a cotton farmer who grows peanuts, or a peanut farmer who grows cotton. Both cotton and peanuts are somewhat drought-tolerant, so they work well in rotation. Combining that with the high-yielding germplasms which are available, most with a broad range of resistant traits, we’re able to maintain a good basis with cotton. When some others are a nickel off, we may be a nickel on,” adds Lee.
Guiding Southern Cotton Growers
Lee has been associated with every Southern Cotton Growers meeting since he started ginning back in 1995. He joined the board in 2006 and was nominated to the executive committee in 2009, and still serves on the President’s Advisory Committee.
“As an organization however, we did work diligently to help get the Farm Bill passed and I do recall dedicating a lot of time to help get the Committee for the Advancement of Southeast Cotton Reverse Raffle off and running. That has significantly strengthened the fundraising efforts for our Political Action Committee,” he said.
Lee has known and worked with David Ruppenicker, CEO, of Southern Cotton Growers, for a long time, and they share a strong desire for strengthening the business of cotton for southern growers. With help from retired National Cotton Council President & CEO, Gaylon Booker, serving as facilitator, Lee and Ruppenicker recently organized a Strategic Planning Committee to review and assess the organization’s goals moving forward.
Lee and Ruppenicker are quick to recognize that an organization must evolve with the times or its leadership could lose perspectives on current issues impacting southern cotton growers.
The organization was chartered in 1964 in North Carolina as Upland Cotton Growers before eventually being changed to Southern Cotton Growers, Inc., to reflect a more regional tone as other states began to join.
“We were the first producer group to gain approval from its members to donate 20 percent of its dues to help fund Cotton Council International. To date, we have given $1.3 million to CCI in support of their cotton promotion efforts overseas. With so much of our cotton being exported, it was a good decision that we think continues to benefit our industry as a whole today,” said Ruppenicker.
One of the most successful things Southern Cotton Growers was able to lobby for and eventually get approved was the ability to update producer base and yield numbers. Around the time of World War I, there were in excess of 5.2 million acres of cotton in Georgia alone. Mainly because of the boll weevil, acres eventually plummeted. After the Boll Weevil Eradication Program was established, cotton acreage bounced back. The 1996 Farm Bill incorporated Ag Market Transition Act payments to try and wean farmers off price support programs but the southeastern growers were caught between a rock and a hard place because they were not allowed to update their base acres.
The sounding board
“When our growers signed those ATMA contracts, only half of the cotton acres planted in the Southeast were at that time eligible for those payments. That changed with the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill because growers were then allowed to update their program payment, PPY and base acres,” said Ruppenicker.
“Ronnie is a respected leader, is held in high esteem and works well behind the scenes to garner unified support for initiatives and policy changes,” adds Ruppenicker.
“I guess I see myself most often as a sounding board. I may not have the vision some folks have but I believe I’m more than adequate at reviewing, evaluating options and thoroughly thinking things through before offering my opinion about something that impacts grower/ginner operations all across the Southeast, and possible the entire Cotton Belt,” said Lee.
Right now, Lee is focused on working with the major seed companies to create a program where they might offer growers a little “relief” on seed costs when crop disasters occur.
“We want to keep cotton at a sustainable level in Georgia. We’re getting some good feedback from the seed companies, and I think that will benefit both parties in the long run. We’re also working with the National Cotton Council to get cottonseed established as an ‘other oil seed’ so we might possibly get support payments like other minor oilseed crops,” he said.