Jim Kuhn Memorial Farmer of the Year Award
2006 - Don Cox
Don Cox: 2006 Farmer of the Year
Remembering Don Cox
By Nicole M. Rothfleisch, Farm Bureau
Even as an adolescent I had a strange fascination with the complex water issues of the Imperial Valley. Throughout the years I have had many inquisitive conversations with my grandfather, J.C. Reeves (an opinionated northend farmer) and there was one name that never failed to come up: Don Cox. Although my grandfather considered Don a close friend and agreed with him on his take on the water issues, some of his positions were at times controversial. Controversy aside, I believe that everyone who knew or worked with Don deeply respected him and appreciated that he was always doing what he felt was best for the Valley. I have often affectionately referred to him as the “godfather of the IID” because I don’t know anyone more knowledgeable or passionate about our water issues. His contributions to the agriculture industry of Imperial County are invaluable.
Donald H. Cox graduated from UC Berkeley in 1950 with a B.S. in Agricultural Economics and after a brief farming stint in Lakewood, CA he moved his family to the Imperial Valley. In addition to raising four children, Don went on to raise more than twenty different crops. His favorites were tomatoes and cotton because they are so responsive to fertilizer and water. He felt as if he could talk to them and they would talk back. Barbara Cox, reminiscing about her husband of fifty-seven years said, “When I would ride with him and watch him walk into a field, grab a handful of earth to check it for moisture or salt, I knew he had chosen the right career. He would not have been happy in a job where he needed to be inside.”
A cutting edge farmer, Don worked closely with researchers and entomologists and was constantly searching for new innovative, efficient, economical and environmentally friendly means of doing things. He was a pioneer in planting alfalfa on beds to reduce summer scald and increase seed production, planting skip-row cotton to maximize production while meeting acreage limitations as well as watering every other row of cotton to ensure adequate irrigation and leaching of the salt buildup. To increase irrigation efficiency, he invented facets for siphon irrigation tubes to reduce the flow of water after it reached the end of the furrow while allowing it to continue flowing onto the field. Don was also at the forefront in the use of row taps to speed up the wetting of the bed tops and in advocating pump back systems to capture surface water and improve irrigation uniformity and efficiency.
Selflessly giving of his to time to serve in farm organizations such as the Imperial County Farm Bureau, Imperial County Cotton Growers Association, California Beet Growers Association, Calcot and the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association was a part of his life. He was instrumental in founding the Cotton Pest Abatement District, the Water Conservation Advisory Board, the Imperial County Whitelfy Management Committee and the Northend Gin.
Don wasn’t afraid to push for things that seemed radical and weren’t popular at the time, but he believed were better for the local farming industry. These included a mandatory short cotton season to reduce pesticide exposure by half to people and the environment and to reduce pink bollworm problems, a sugar beet free period between harvesting and planting to break the cycle of leaf hoppers, plow down on melons and other crops to help control whitefly and getting the IID to levy a 10 cent surcharge on farm water sales as seed money for research and development of parasitic enemies of whitefly. With the help of the late Vern Highley, they gained the support of Congress for the whitefly research effort by being looked upon favorably for self-taxation. His diligent work with researcher Adolph Van Maren led to the widespread usage of Bollguard cotton on the 1990’s.
Politically, Don was a driving force in the successful 1970’s “Fairness Campaign” to legally prove that the 160-acre limitation did not apply to the IID. In 1988 he was elected to the IID Board of Directors with a main goal of advocating a water conservation agreement with the Metropolitan Water District. He was passionately vocal about his opposition to the Bass Brothers’ concept of individual landowners selling water outside the valley. Because of his outstanding knowledge and experience with water, he served as the IID representative to the Colorado River Board, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Salton Sea Authority Board. He brought IID’s business out to the farmers and was a regular at coffee shops like Tim’s Tiger and Ethel’s Café. After serving three terms during an extremely tumultuous time, he retired in 2000 due to health problems.
At the age of 72, when most look forward to retiring, he stepped forward again to serve on the Imperial County Farm Bureau board and was an integral part of the ICFB Water Committee up until just weeks before his passing. During this time the committee met regularly, sometimes up to twice a week to discuss the complicated negotiations of the QSA and water transfer to San Diego. Hundreds of hours of argumentative meetings finally led to the compromise of the so-called “Farm Bureau Plan.” According to past longtime water committee chair Larry Gilbert, “Don was kind of like a bulldog when it came to getting things done. He was a devoted leader and friend and was able to maintain his sense of humor through it all. It was disappointing to see his disease take him sooner than we were ready.” Vice President Dean Currie says, “In my relatively short time of knowing Don through ICFB, I believe he was the person who brought to the forefront how important it would be for the QSA to address how the landowners of the Imperial Valley would not be held liable for any impacts to the Salton Sea because of the IID/SDCWA water transfer. Don was always trying to think ahead of an issue and the impacts any possible scenario might have if it were implemented. He had a lot of ideas on water issues affecting the valley and he'll be missed from our discussions.” Don was particularly proud to serve on the Farm Bureau board while his son, Michael was President and his granddaughter, Allison, was the Water Quality Program Director.
Along the way, Don has served as a mentor and resource person for aspiring farmers who saw him as someone they could ask about soils, farming practices, water issues and pest problems. ICFB 2nd Vice President Mark McBroom worked as Don and Larry Cox’s irrigation foreman for seven years and attributes his knowledge of farming and water to Don. “Working for Don was always a blessing. The most memorable times were when his son Larry would go on vacation because Don would call or come by my house at 3am to see if I had checked the cotton water yet. When I would reply that I had been asleep Don would say, “If a guy was sharp he would know if it was going OK or if it needed a finish head.” Needless to say, I got a finish head. I sure appreciated Larry a lot more after his vacations!” Mark went on to say that Don was always very good to his employees. His policy was that if the farm had a good year, his employees would share in that.
ICFB board member Don Brock claims that Don Cox and Art Caston (Don’s partner in the Green Valley Farms tomato shed) were the best farmers in the valley. “They set the standard for excellence and nobody could touch them for yield or quality of farming. Once I saw a cotton field of Don’s in the late fall and the plants were so heavily laden with cotton, you could not tell if the furrows ran north-south or east-west.”
Don was known by his sons and colleagues as a business-savvy perfectionist who was very competitive but wasn’t too proud to be hands-on and put himself in the shoes of his employees, working right by their side.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Don Cox responded, “I would like to be known as being truthful and honest. I hope to be respected for getting involved and looking for solutions. As one who loves a good challenge and is very competitive, I want to leave things better for others.”
Fellow farmer Jim Walker put it best when he said, “Although Don was at times controversial, I believe that the Imperial Valley as a whole and we in agriculture in particular owe him a great debt of gratitude for his efforts in our best interests.”
His legacy to Imperial Valley agriculture will live on through his two sons, Mike and Larry, and son-in-law, Tim Allen who continue to farm here.
It was an honor to have known you, Don.