Civil War ghosts watch from the field’s edge as an agricultural tale of backbone and innovation demands a refreshingly misfit farmer: enter swashbuckling Garrett Heil. Stepping beyond the revered Midwest bounds of corn and soybeans, Heil grows the northern-most cotton in the United States … and he’s only 15.
Rubbing against the 39th parallel in northern Missouri’s Carroll County, an hour and forty-five minute drive 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, Heil has succeeded in producing cotton deep in the pocket of the Midwest.
With the Missouri River running just beyond the rows over his shoulder, Heil walks the fruits of his labor. A lanky 6’1” frame carries a lean buck-fifty as Heil wades into the fiber. Brown cowboy boots kick up fine white sand and faded blue jeans scratch rough against dry bolls as Heil checks up, tugs on the brim of a ball cap, and surveys what he hopes will be solid yields. 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 (pop. 708) 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 during discussion of Civil War-era cotton production blanketing the South. 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,” Heil remembers.
The 13-year-old went home and started digging--in books. Going back 150-plus years, Carroll County records show significant cotton presence. Heil began grabbing bits of online information and tucking the puzzle pieces in a research 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 the seed 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 4-row planter in a creek bottom. Two floods later, Heil’s cotton was dead.
Fast forward to 2016. Through the farming grapevine, five and a half hours away to the southeast in Stoddard County and the Missouri Bootheel, word about Heil’s efforts reached Allen Below, owner of Stoddard County Cotton Co. “Allen called me and gave me so much help, and hooked me up with a seed company,” Heil recalls.
“I initially called Garrett out of complete curiosity,” Below explains. “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 really unusual.”
Neighboring producer Ron Gibson was quick to offer acreage for the cotton trial. “Garrett read, researched and worked very hard. Ever since he was little, he’s not been afraid to work. If it has a steering wheel he can drive it,” describes Gibson.
Essentially a sand blow on the river, the acreage was tough, but Heil was thrilled with the gift horse. He planted a very early variety Phytogen 222 on ground that reached 6’ depths 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 4-row picker and prepared for harvest. However, he had no module builder or boll buggy. Undaunted, young Heil had a grand plan to improvise. He dumped fiber from the picker into a silage wagon and deposited the load in windrow fashion. Next, he rolled in with a hay round baler, net-wrapped the harvest of 900 lb. off five acres, and stored the makeshift bale. The precocious kid was just warming up.
It’s On Like Neckbone
With 900 lb. of proof sitting in the barn, Heil got the nod from his grandfather, Nelson Heil, to go bigger in 2017, planting 100 acres of conventional NexGen 222 on river sand (pivot irrigated; quarter-inch of water every two weeks), 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 Heil 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 next year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see several other people try it out and replace a little bit of corn,” Heil says.
Will cotton bring long-term profit for Heil? “Could it be a money-maker? 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 enough to keep learning, and he’s doing this for all the right reasons.”
When Nelson Heil, 78, was a child, cotton was long-gone in Carroll County. Yet, 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 explains.
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 just think nobody really 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 in some way. He wants to grow cotton and that’s what he’s doing.”
“If you sit back and wait until everyone else is doing something that makes you a follower and not a leader,” Nelson Heil concludes. “All I’ve seen is Garrett innovating and giving his best.”
“Garrett is gung-ho. He’s the largest cotton producer in northern Missouri and that’s just the truth,” Gibson echoes.
For now, cotton is back in Carroll County for the first time in approximately 150 years thanks to a most unusual 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.
“I’d say I’m the most northern cotton farmer in the country,” he adds. “I’m excited about cotton, but even more than my crop, I’ve learned a true lesson: Put your mind to something and anything is possible.”