SOUTHERN SUSTAINABLE FARMING # 9
Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
P.O. Box 324, Elkins, AR 72727
Phone (501) 292-3714; E-mail: HN3551@handsnet.org
Keith Richards, Editor
SOUTHERN SUSTAINABLE FARMING is the bi-monthly voice of
the Southern SAWG, 50 member organizations working for
more sustainable agriculture in 13 Southern states.
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CONTENTS, part 1:
* ORGANIC FARMING IN SUBURBIA
* BOLL WEEVIL PROGRAM CREATING MORE PROBLEMS THAN CURES?
ORGANIC FARMING IN SUBURBIA
by Keith Richards
While touring the five acre market garden at DeSoto Lakes
Organics, I was struck by the serenity of the place. Songbirds sang
from tall pines on the edge of the property as owner Bill Pischer and
two employees quietly prepared garden beds and transplanted seedlings.
Even though a subdivision of houses looms across the street to the
north and a golf course lies 300 yards to the east, sounds were muffled
in the middle of this oasis.
Bill, who is the certification chairman for the Florida Organic
Growers, began raising fruit and vegetables organically on this land
in 1978. Since that time, his garden has been swallowed up by the
city of Sarasota. Yet he says, "I don't consider being in this location
any more stressful than being in the country. It's all a state of
In fact, the location is an asset when it comes to hiring the
labor a French-intensive market garden requires and providing easy
access to customers for his produce.
Bill and his wife, Pam, employ five full time and five part
time employees. They found that it was easier to pay a few good
employees $8-10 per hour than to get by with employees who would
work for $5 per hour. "I like to get someone who has done roofing
or hung dry-wall for 10 years," Bill says. "They don't need to know
anything about organics. I can teach them that, but I can't teach
the work ethic and body movement."
A strong work ethic is needed to produce the lettuce, spinach,
chard and arugula that the Pischers specialize in growing nearly year
round. They harvest about 400 boxes of lettuce and greens per week
in peak season--October through November and March through May. From
December to February they only produce half as much because the plants
simply take longer to grow.
Beets, onions, tomatoes, and several cole crops are also grown
on a smaller scale.
Intensive Management Creates High Quality
During the summer--their off-season--the Pischers plant a cover
crop of sorghum Sudan grass mostly to protect the soil from heat, wind,
and hard rains. They cut the Sudan before it seeds and till it in
along with aged chicken or cow manure brought in from local farms.
Their tiller is a 5' Maletti rotovator that can be pulled by a small
Kubota tractor. Bill really likes the Maletti, a heavy duty, gear-
driven tiller. Once the beds are prepared at the beginning of the season,
they don't add any more fertility in the field.
All their plants are started from seed in styrofoam flats.
Since Bill believes proper pH is crucial to getting seedlings the right
start, they buy a commercial potting soil that is pH balanced. The
flats are set on waist-high racks under corrugated fiberglass or shade
cloth and foliar fed with Fertrell fish emulsion during watering.
"These plants won't hardly do anything without the fish emulsion,"
he says. "They'll only get so big without it."
Seedlings are transplanted directly into straw mulch on 5' beds.
Spacing is tight and exact to help the plants suppress weeds by shading
them out. The beds are created by laying a piece of pvc pipe marked
with the appropriate row spacing on each end of the short rows. String
is then pulled over the pipe and secured by a stake. As they plant,
each person lays another stick along the string that is marked with
the desired distance between plants. This way, workers can plant right
next to the string with perfect spacing of plants.
By paying attention to the details, the Pischers rely on healthy
plants and healthy, fertile soil for pest and disease control. Continual
crop rotations also discourage many problems. They spray the tomatoes
every 5-6 days with Bt, but seldom spray anything else.
In this climate, under an intensive system, water is the key.
"Too much water will cause root rot and aphids, and too little, even
for an afternoon will cause wilt," Bill says. "I find it necessary to
watch the weather closely because when it gets too wet, that's when I
see the aphid populations growing out there."
Diverse Markets Lessen Risk
About 60 percent of their crop is sold direct to local retailers,
at a local farmers' market, and to three buying clubs in the state.
Bill has found it worthwhile to work with small retailers to reduce
their risk of bad accounts and low market prices. "The more you work
with local retailers, the more you are insulated from price flucuations
in the market," he says.
About five percent of their crop is sold at their on-farm stand,
named "Jessica's Stand" after their daughter, on Saturday mornings. He
says, "The farm stand sales are important because it makes a connection
with the neighbors. Because they buy from me and know me, they don't
complain when I spread chicken manure. There are still a few hard core
complainers, but they can't get anyone else to go along."
The balance of sales are to an out-of-state wholesaler. They
use this market as a last resort for surpluses they can't move locally.
All customers pick up at the farm except for one local warehouse a mile
In a good year their five acre farm provides a decent living,
although profits vary widely depending on markets and the weather. Bill
says that they net between $0 and $75,000 per year.
All in all, farming in the suburbs works well for the Pischers.
In the middle of winter when crops are growing slowly, Bill wishes they
had more land, but because of their location they haven't had to invest
in refrigeration or trucking. And it can be peaceful in the city--it's
all a state of mind.
* * *
BOLL WEEVIL PROGRAM CREATING MORE PROBLEMS THAN CURES?
by Keith Richards
With crop losses mounting due to secondary pests, the boll weevil
eradication program is under fire by cotton growers throughout parts of
the South. On January 22, growers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas voted
overwhelmingly to kill the program in their region. Growers in a 29-
county area of eastern Mississippi have also asked for a referendum on
the program due to extensive yield losses last year.
The theory behind the boll weevil eradication program is that a
single pest can be totally eliminated through extensive use of pesticides
if all farms in a growing region participate. After heavy lobbying by
proponents of the program, cotton farmers and landowners are allowed to
vote on it by region. If the program is voted in, all cotton growers
must participate, spraying with malathion ULV several times during the
year to kill boll weevils.
Unfortunately, blanketing an area with pesticides also kills
beneficial insects that eat or parasitize other pests. Cotton farmers
in the Rio Grande Valley contend that a crop-killing infestation of beet
armyworms last year was a result of the malathion sprays. In 1995, the
first year of the eradication program, Valley farmers produced just
54,101 bales of cotton, compared with 307,943 bales the previous season.
They lost an estimated $140 million in sales, with the impact to the
region estimated at $420 million.
Although farmers in south Texas can go back to managing pests
on a farm by farm basis now that they killed the eradication program,
they still have the added burden of $8.9 million in program debt. Frank
Myers, Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation executive director, said
farmers must pay $12 to $14 an acre until the debt is paid off.
Tobacco Budworm Infestation in Mississippi
Cotton farmers under the eradication program in eastern
Mississippi also suffered disastrous losses in 1995. According to Blake
Layton, Extension entomologist with Mississippi State University, tobacco
budworms caused extensive yield losses. Whether this was due to the
malathion sprays or not is a matter of opinion. Layton believes it
Tommy Harrison, a cotton producer from Pontotoc and one of the
leaders of the recall effort, disagrees. "We had 700 acres inside the
eradication zone and 700 acres out," he said. "On our farm in Calhoun
County--outside the eradication zone--we averaged 510 pounds per acre
and spent $81 for insect control. Here in Pontotoc County--inside the
eradication area--we averaged 280 pounds and spent $128 per acre. We
can't take the risk of another year like that."
To compound the problem, many pests are becoming resistant to
frequently used pesticides. Recent research out of the University of
Arkansas found that 73 percent of tobacco budworms were resistant to
the most common insecticides used against them by mid-June 1995.
Researcher Don Johnson, who presented the findings at the Annual Cotton
Research Meeting, said, "It's a pretty serious problem we've got. The
future is dim as far as pyrethroids are concerned."
What is the Solution?
If all-out eradication programs upset the balance of nature so
much that secondary pests flourish, and increasing pesticide usage
creates increasing pest resistance, what is a cotton farmer to do?
Farm advisors like Tina Teague at Arkansas State University are
creating alternatives to the eradication program. She is helping
producers in northeast Arkansas use winter trap crops and pheromone bait
sticks on the edges of fields to direct weevils away from cotton and kill
Organic farmers in the northern Mississippi Delta and on the High
Plains of Texas have developed pest management strategies similar to this,
working under a paradigm of control rather than elimination. They learn
the life cycles of both pests and beneficials, then create an environment
in their fields where insect predators help keep pest damage in check.
Teague points out that this strategy is less effective further
south where the populations of weevils are much higher. Still, an
integrated management approach focused on better scouting and more
selective sprays would cut down on the negative side effects caused by a
rigid spray program.
Another strategy used by innovative farmers across the South is
bio-control. Glynn Tillman, a researcher with the USDA-ARS at Mississippi
State University, has found parasites for both the tobacco budworm and
beet armyworm. She says, "We have a great parasite for the budworm.
We've achieved 90-95 percent parasitization, but we haven't been able to
rear it well in the lab." Tillman is now working to rear the parasite
in nursery crops, and is hopeful of real progress in a couple years.
If parasites like these become commercially available, cotton
growers could keep worms in check without upsetting the environment of
their fields. Meanwhile, we are all faced with the question of whether
our resources and tax dollars should go toward programs like boll weevil
eradication, or be shifted towards greater research and education in
* * *
Sent: March 13, 1996 5:50 pm PST Item: R00NaMv