Doug & Bruce Cotton

Kalkaska, Michigan
Center Pivot Irrigation
My theory was that if I didn’t like it, I could always go to a different brand on the next one. Obviously, I’ve been pleased; because we’ve bought 15 more since then.

A lot of things have obviously changed since Doug and Bruce Cotton’s great- great grandfather moved to a 40-acre wooded farm near Kalkaska, Michigan, in 1913. However, a few things have also remained constant for those 96 years.

For one, the Cotton family has grown potatoes through all four generations of ownership. And Cotton family members have always been on the cutting edge of innovation and technology.

As an example, the family has been irrigating potatoes since 1948, when Glenn and Raymond Cotton bought a Chrysler war surplus engine and pump and installed it next to a man-made pond. That was the first year potatoes yielded over 300 hunderedweight per acre — even if it was on new ground.

Thirty-three years later, in 1981, third- generation owner, Don Cotton, installed the first center-pivot irrigation system on the farm… not to mention one of the first in the county. Today, a total of 16 T-L center- pivot irrigation units are spread across approximately 1,000 acres of Elmaple Farm, which was named for the elm and maple trees on the property.

In addition to around 200 acres of potatoes, which are still grown under irrigation, the farm also produces approximately 390 acres of green beans, 250 to 275 acres of wheat and 90 to 100 acres of corn.

“I looked at several center-pivot machines in central Michigan, and even traveled back to central Nebraska to visit some of the factories, before making a decision,” Don says. “Even before I toured the T-L plant, though, I was leaning toward the hydraulically driven system.”

“The way I figure, hydraulic oil is a lot easier and safer to manage than 440 volts of electricity,” he quips. “Besides, there are still some areas around here that aren’t very accessible to power lines.

“My theory was that if I didn’t like it, I could always go to a different brand on the next one,” he adds. “Obviously, I’ve been pleased; because we’ve bought 15 more since then.”

Although the most recently installed T-L unit is powered by a three-phase electric motor, the majority of the pivots are driven by four diesel power units equipped with quick couplers that are moved between pivots. It helps, too, having all units within three miles of the farm.

According to Doug Cotton, who with his brother, Bruce, represents the fourth generation of the Cotton family to manage the farm, most of the units on the farm are at least 13 years old.

“After Dad put in the first unit in ’81, we added 13 more over the next 15 years,” he says. “The most recent addition was a unit we bought in 2008. One is a towable unit and the rest cover anywhere from 20 acres to 160 acres each.”

“I think we’re up to 55 pivots in this county,” Don adds. “And it seems like the guys with electric units are always replacing micro-switches and motors. Yet, we probably haven’t had more than two service calls over that whole 28-year span. About all we’ve had to replace were tires.”

“With our sandy soils, we couldn’t grow green beans if it weren’t for the center- pivot units,” says Bruce Cotton, noting that the family added beans to the mix in 1977. “We have to get water on them right away if we hope to have any crop at all.”

Of course, the potatoes need their share of water, as well. On average, they need at least an inch a week, according to Bruce, who manages the warehouse and potato packing operation, while Doug is in charge of machinery and the shop.

“Wheat is usually the first thing we start watering in mid May,” Bruce relates. “Then, around June 10, we start irrigating the potatoes, followed by green beans around June 15 to get them up and out of the ground.”

The diverse crop mix not only spreads the irrigation schedule, but it also allows the Cottons to manage crop rotation.

“We usually go from potatoes to wheat then beans or corn,” Bruce continues. “When we can stretch out potatoes to four or five years on a field, we do it. The lon- ger we leave potatoes out, the better for disease prevention.”

While beans are harvested by the pack- ing company — which also provides the seed and designates the variety — pota- toes are stored and bagged in the fam- ily’s own warehouse and facilities before being shipped to market in five-, 10- and 50-pound bags.

“The T-L pivots have certainly made it a lot easier and allowed the boys to farm more acres,” says Don, who is now retired and helps only when needed. “Back when we were using the old style of irrigation, I figure I walked 20 miles a day through mud and wet potato vines.

“That’s why I’ve got webbed feet today,” he concludes with a grin.