After returning from the Vietnam War in 1975, Tom Leahy took on a prominent role alongside his father on his family farm near Moscow, Kan. Around that time, he began irrigating the land —a move that would ultimately lead him to a grand experiment.
“We’re really corn farmers who ran out of water,” Leahy, 60, told me without a hint of regret.
Realizing that the aquifer water just wasn’t there to support corn production on parts of his land, he turned to the "fabric of our lives," producing his first commercial cotton crop in 2000.
At that point, cotton was barely on the radar in Kansas.
“We saw an article in the High Plains Journal about a fellow at Winfield, Kansas that was raising cotton,” Leahy said. “And I thought maybe we can raise cotton in our part of the country.”
Now, Leahy can get almost three cotton crops on the water from one corn crop. He still farms corn and wheat, but about 3,000 irrigated and 3,000 non-irrigated cotton acres fill out his portfolio. Part of 60,000+ cotton acres throughout southern Kansas.
Leahy is a proud producer of the crop … and he graciously agreed to let me tag along with him every so often to share the ups and downs of growing cotton in Kansas.
So decked out in cotton from head to toe, I ventured to his southwest Kansas fields in mid-May for my first day of farming...
Tom Leahy hustles to get his crop in the ground. Video by Eric Durban / Harvest Public Media
Cotton is a heat-intensive crop so Leahy waits until the ground temperature is about 60 degrees before planting.
This year, he began planting cotton the second week of May, a week later than planned as a result of a cooler April and other duties with his corn planting. The corn is more reliant on initial moisture for growth so Leahy had to jump at his chance when light showers came in late April.
Leahy's goal is to have all the cotton planted before June 1, when hotter temperatures become more frequent. Planting on the northern end of the cotton belt, Leahy has a shorter cotton growing season than his southern counterparts and a more limited variety of cotton to plant. It gets hotter later and colder earlier. That doesn’t keep the yields and quality of southern Kansas cotton from competing though. As I found out in a previous story, Kansas cotton is among the best.
On the day I join him, the AC is kicked on in the tractor as temperatures reach the 90's and clear blue skies cover the cultivated ground.
One of the first things to catch my eye from a Kansas cotton field is the reddish stalks stretching to the boundaries of the land. It almost looks as if the farmer was too lazy to clean up the field after harvest, but there’s more to it than that. Leahy says stalks from the previous year’s crop provide a nice windbreak to prevent erosion and protect the emerging plant. On cue, the notorious southwestern Kansas winds kick up.
You won’t necessarily find a field like this in Texas though, the heart of cotton growing in the U.S. They clean up the whole field after harvest Leahy says. It’s a longstanding cotton practice that he doesn’t quite understand.
As a longtime corn farmer, the planting process for cotton isn’t all that different for Leahy. He plants the cotton seeds at shallower depths, but uses the same GPS-controlled planter to sow the fields. It’s amazing what GPS can do these days. As I ride shotgun in the tractor cab, Leahy surveys the land, grabbing the controls only a few times as we move through the field. The computer takes care of the rest. His sister Becky Herrman comes over to help out with the planting while I’m there. Despite only one practice run, she feels confident with the GPS controlling things.
Cotton, perhaps like many scrubs in your backyard landscaping, is a perennial plant. If it wasn’t for the winter temperatures throughout the U.S., the plant would continue to grow all year, unlike many of the annual grain crops that feed the world.
And so the countdown begins until harvest in November.
In about six to eight weeks, the plant will first blossom, a process that has added a new leaf to Leahy’s work.
“Anything new is more exciting than something that is old hat, but watching the plant develop, there’s just more excitement to watch that crop grow than corn and wheat,” Leahy tells me after handing off the tractor to his sister.
I'm looking forward to it.
So come back to Field Notes every few weeks, and I'll share the story of how the cotton season is progressing. I’ll also explore issues related to the crop and its use of Kansas’s natural resources.