Development and Implementation of Ecologically-based Cotton Production: A Model System for Fostering Sustainable Communities
Cotton is grown on over 11.6 million acres in the Southeastern USA each year. But less than 25% of this cotton is grown using conservation tillage. A consortium of scientists and others from ARS, the University of Georgia, Communities In Schools of Georgia, Inc., American Farmland Trust, and the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance set out to implement ecologically based pest management and other sustainable agricultural practices through whole-community initiatives. Based on cotton production technology and outreach education partnerships previously developed by the ARS unit at Tifton, Georgia, the consortium developed pilot programs in two Georgia counties involving on-farm demonstrations coupled with community-wide outreach education on the importance of sustainable living practices.
Prior work done in these communities demonstrated excellent prospects for the cotton production system as a model for this program. Funding and overall responsibility for the project was administered through the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance- a producer-based organization. USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia provided scientific facilitation for the project including assisting in the management of fiscal processes as needed. Communities In Schools of Georgia, Inc., provided educational outreach activities. A steering committee of representatives from the latter three organizations provided the overall coordination.
Two local communities were involved in the pilot initiative: Coffee County, Georgia, and an area involving two to three counties in the area of Louisville, Georgia. The local chapters of the Conservation Tillage Alliance, together with their statewide organization, focused on outreach to farmers through field days, workshops, literature dissemination, etc. The Communities In Schools organization, working through their local governing boards of business leaders, educators, government officials, and others provided outreach regarding the importance of the program, along with other sustainable living practices, to the community's overall future well-being. These outreach activities will include such activities as orientation workshops with community leaders and field trips to the farms for students and teachers. A multidisciplinary, multilocation science team from USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia provided guidance for design, monitoring, and evaluation needs.
Project goals and objectives
Develop and implement an ecologically-based cotton production system in selected Georgia communities
Three growers in each local community are being selected to provide pilot cotton production and demonstration systems. Each of these farmers will provide at least one 40-to-50-acre field for the duration of the pilot demonstration purpose. Similar conventional sites will be chosen for comparative purposes. These sites will be placed into cotton programs in accordance with core sustainable production practices including
* Landscape ecology. Year-round habitat management using cover crops and diverse associated borders and other noncropped areas, with an emphasis on healthy balance between pests and natural enemies.
* Conservation tillage. Minimum tillage with an emphasis on continuous overlap of living plant material, enhanced soil nutrient and water quality, organic matter, and diverse soil organisms.
* Crop health. Strong emphasis on crop variety and management practices that promote maximum health with respect to optimal balance of yield and input costs.
* Judicious inputs. Careful and minimal use of pesticides, fertilizers, and energy. All input decisions will be made on the premise that they are strictly backups to the inherent system and that they should be chosen and used to minimize costs and disruption. The boundaries on interventions will be strongly stressed vs. conventional wisdom.
The success of the program will be evaluated on three criteria: (1) the increased interest and confidence in, and knowledge and use of, sustainable practices by farmers; (2) the increased interest in sustainable farming practices by people whose jobs are directly or indirectly related to farming; and (3) the increased knowledge and interest in sustainable farming and sustainable communities by the general population of the selected communities.
The partners defined current cotton production practices, key barriers to sustainable production and possible alternative practices. They developed and documented a cotton production system that appears to successfully eliminate the use of Temik while reducing the cost of production. Ten acre plots on two farms indicated that cover cropping with legumes, using Round-up Ready (RR) cotton without the use of Temik or other insecticides, resulted in a net increase in profits. They are now completing an incentive package, outreach plan and technical assistance program. The incentive package may include a price premium for certified organic cotton from a local denim fabric mill. The decision-support system and management plans help farmers manage weeds without herbicides. The project partners also succeeded in bringing together farmers and educational programs in Jefferson County and the surrounding area by developing teaching units related to sustainable agriculture. The teaching units focus on challenges farmers face in Jefferson County and link teachers and students with farmers. With the success of the demonstration plots, the partners are now planning research into management practices that could profitably produce certified organic cotton.
One of project's farms, the Tilmanstone Farm managed by Lamar Black, is featured on the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance website at www.gcta-ga.org/
Certified organic cotton is now being grown successfully in Georgia. A handbook on how to grow organic cotton is available from ATTRA(Appropriate Technologies for Transfer to Rural Areas) at attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/cotton.pdf.
ATTRA also provides a handbook on conservation tillage and organic crop production at attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/omconservtill.pdf.
A soil quality card for Georgia, designed by GCTA farmers for farmers is available at: www.gcta-ga.org/SQCard.pdf