Civil War ghosts watch from the field’s edge as an agricultural tale of backbone and innovation demands a refreshingly misfit farmer: enter Garrett Heil. Stepping beyond the Midwest bounds of corn and soybeans, Heil grows the northern-most cotton in the U.S.—and he’s only 15.
Rubbing against the 39th parallel in northern Missouri’s Carroll County, one hour and 45 minutes from the Iowa state line, Heil’s cotton is a testament to the determination of a remarkable farmer not old enough to qualify for a driver’s license. Surrounded by 130 acres primed for picking, with the Missouri River running just beyond the rows, Heil has succeeded in producing cotton deep in the pocket of the Midwest.
Balancing a mix of historical respect and new ideas, Heil is a walking paradox, and when the Midwestern producer speaks, out pours a southern-flavored voice: “I guarantee you I shut some people up. I hate being told I can’t do something.”
Just outside the tiny town of Norborne, the self-proclaimed soybean capital of the world, Heil’s family farms 4,000 acres of corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat and maintains 300 head of cattle.
In 2015, Heil’s fire was lit in history class while discussing how cotton blanketed the South during the Civil War era. Off the cuff, with a dose of smart-aleck bravado, Heil claimed he could grow cotton. “I got irritated when people challenged me and said it wouldn’t grow here. I got serious really fast and said I was fixing to do it,” he remembers.
The 13-year-old started researching. Going back 150-plus years, Carroll County records show significant cotton presence. Heil began grabbing information online and tucking the puzzle pieces in a folder, along with a trove of detail on potential varieties and chemicals. The binder grew fatter as Heil’s chances to find seed got leaner. He called every salesman he knew and hit a wall: “I mean nobody had none, not even a handful.”
Cotton fortune finally smiled in the form of a busted bag of Phytogen 223. Heil crossed his fingers and planted five acres on 38" rows with a four-row planter in a creek bottom. Two floods later, Heil’s cotton was dead.
Fast forward to 2016. Through the grapevine, five and a half hours away to the southeast in the Missouri Bootheel, word about Heil’s efforts reached Allen Below, owner of Stoddard County Cotton Company. “Allen gave me so much help, and hooked me up with a seed company,” Heil says.
“I called Garrett out of complete curiosity,” Below says. “He knew his farming history and what he wanted to do. I was struck by Garrett’s age and interest because his persistence and maturity were unusual.”
Neighbor Ron Gibson was quick to offer acreage for the cotton trial. “Garrett read, researched and worked hard. Ever since he was little, he’s not been afraid to work,” Gibson says.
Essentially a sand blow on the river, the land was tough, but Heil was thrilled with the gift. He planted an early variety Phytogen 222 on 6' of pure sand. “I gave it my best shot and next thing I knew, cotton was up and growing,” Heil says.
With help from Below, Heil bought a John Deere 9965 four-row picker. However, he didn’t have a module builder or boll buggy. Undaunted, Heil improvised. He dumped fiber from the picker into a silage wagon and deposited the load in windrow fashion. Next, he used a round baler to net-wrap the harvest of 900 lb. off five acres and stored the makeshift bale. The precocious kid was just warming up.
With 900 lb. of proof sitting in the barn, Heil got the nod from his grandpa, Nelson Heil, to go bigger in 2017. He planted 100 acres of conventional NexGen 222 on river sand (quarter-inch of water every two weeks via a pivot) and 30 acres of stacked Phytogen 243 (dryland) on adjacent hilly ground. “We were able to get crop insurance, but the biggest challenge was getting the right seed again. The second biggest problem was spraying for cockleburs because of the high river. Otherwise, I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario,” Heil says.
“I’m very proud of my grandson,” Nelson says. “Why not go along and see what happens because real success requires a chain of duds. Why not let him be a learner while the other guys are watchers?”
And 2018? “We’re going to plant even more cotton this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see several other people try it out and replace a little bit of corn,” Heil says.
“Could it be a moneymaker? When combined with low inputs, even low yields can still bring profits,” Below notes. “Garrett has to push early and keep from getting frosted out, but he’s excited to keep learning, and he’s doing this for all the right reasons.”
When Nelson, 78, was a child, cotton was long-gone in Carroll County, but he remembers valuable lessons from soybean breakthroughs in the 1950s. “Nobody grew soybeans here. Suddenly the varieties were better and everyone planted them. You should always remember those lessons before you laugh at any crop,” he says.
When a high school sophomore takes an FFA project and rattles the door of possibility, seasoned agriculture veterans tip their hats. “Look around society and sometimes you think nobody wants to try hard enough,” Below says. “This kid is trying with everything he’s got. This is every day for Garrett: He’s either drilling, combining, cutting hay or working the land. He wants to grow cotton, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
For now, cotton is back in Carroll County for the first time in 150 years thanks to a young producer who isn’t afraid to buck convention. “You only live once, but if you live it right then once is all you need,” Heil says.