Southern Sust Farming, part 1

===============Electronic Edition===============

                               SPRING 1997 
                                   -part 1-
        Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
                 P.O. Box 324, Elkins, AR 72727
      Phone (501) 292-3714; E-mail: ssfarm@juno.com
                     Keith Richards, Editor
voice of the Southern SAWG, 50 member organizations
working for more sustainable agriculture in 13 Southern
states.  Hard copy subscriptions via U. S. postal service: 
$15 per year or $25 for two years
CONTENTS, part 1:

by Scott Marlow and Keith Richards

   Peanut farmers in eastern NC may not like the changes
that are squeezing their businesses, but a two-year-old
Peanut Project is helping them meet the challenges of
change with a proactive approach. 
   Peanut farmers are facing some of their greatest
challenges in recent history. Legislation in the 1996 Farm
Bill cut the peanut program in ways that reduced grower
profits by about one half and eliminated many provisions
that gave producers a safety net in lean years. Budget cuts
within the USDA have also reduced research and
educational support from Cooperative Extension and state
universities. And heightened environmental awareness
throughout the country has increased the pressure to
produce crops with fewer chemicals.
   In response to these challenges, the Peanut Project is
working with farmers in four NC counties to help increase
their profit margin by reducing their reliance on chemical
   Initiated by the Rural Advancement Foundation
International (RAFI-USA) in early 1995, the project created
a whole systems approach to problem solving. They created
an advisory board made up of representatives from some of
the local parties who have a stake in peanut farming--NC
State University, the Peanut Growers Association, crop
advisors, crop insurance, environmental organizations, and
the growers themselves. Then, they put the growers in the
driver's seat by encouraging them to take an active role in
research and information transfer.
   As Scott Marlow, peanut project coordinator says, "We've
created a complete team approach. Everybody is an expert
in their area, including the farmers, and everybody has
something to give." With farmers setting the agenda, all the
other participants have been very cooperative.

Farmers as Agents of Research

   Farmers participating in the project have become agents
of on-farm research, initiating field trials, carrying them
out, and sharing information back to other growers at the
farm level. 
   Last year, with the support of the whole team, 25 farmers
held field trials on their farms, on areas from two to 250
acres. These trials included restricting the use of
preventative treatments, using insecticidal soap or Bt
products instead of broad spectrum insecticides, and using
natural substances as growth regulators. 
   One of the tests looked at alternative controls for thrips,
an insect that feeds on unopened buds early in the season.
The standard treatment is an in-furrow insecticide which is
both toxic to handlers and expensive to growers. Several
farmers tried using on-demand post-emergence treatments,
including insecticidal soap, a chemical insecticide, the
release of beneficial mites, and an untreated check.
Overall, the switch to post-emergence treatments was very
   "Not in my wildest dreams did I think that we could get a
crop of peanuts to this point without something under
them," said Rusty Harrell of Martin County.
   In several cases, yields of the untreated field were not
significantly different from any of the other treatments, and
the cost of the worst yield reductions were less than the
cost of the in-furrow treatment. While switching to
treatment based on scouting was very well received, the
alternative control strategies were not as successful. In one
case, the release of beneficial mites resulted in the highest
yields, but the difficulties and expense involved in the mite
release made it impractical for large-scale growers. The
insecticidal soap was also effective in one case, but it was
not effective in others because of problems with getting the
product into contact with the thrips in the peanut bud.
These results are preliminary and the tests will be done
again in 1997.
   Five farmers in the project tested high fructose corn syrup
to control the vegetative growth of cotton, and three tried
the use of citric acid as a cotton defoliant. In most of these
trials, the alternative treatments performed as well as the
conventional treatments.  Despite jokes from their
neighbors about "spraying Mello Yello" on their fields, all
the farmers are ready to try the tests again.
   In 1996 three members of the project were interested in
farm-scale composting of cotton gin trash for use as a soil
amendment. A visit was arranged to the farms of two
organic growers who were already employing this practice.
As a result of the tour, Hubert Morris of Halifax County
has started composting cotton gin trash to apply to his
   "I'm not sure yet how it will cost out," Morris says, "but
I'm real happy with the material." His composting is a
bonus to the local cotton gin, taking a mountain of waste
off their hands. "Its helpful all around," says Morris.

Sharing Information Farmer-To-Farmer

   Marlow says the peanut project uses three methods for
farmer-to-farmer information sharing: "jump teams,"
county level discussions about trials, and twice-a-year
round table discussions. With the jump teams, they bring
growers and professionals on-farm at any point if someone
is having trouble with a new practice. For example, they
brought in a compost specialist and a grower with
composting experience to consult with Morris about his
compost piles last year.
   In the round table discussions, growers get together with
all the other members of the team--specialists from
Cooperative Extension, the Peanut Growers Association,
etc.--to look at how the pieces fit together. Charles Hardin
of Burtie County says of the latest, "It was one of the best
dialogues I've ever had in terms of what works and what
doesn't work, and what is practical for farmers."
   Michael Sligh, coordinator of RAFI-USA's sustainable
agriculture programs, says the Peanut Project hopes to
prove it can help farmers make changes in production
practices that save money, have less environmental
impacts, and allow them to be more adaptive in the future.
Then, aspects of this model can be adopted by other
commodity growers facing similar challenges across the
   For more information about the Peanut Project and
internship opportunities, contact Scott Marlow at 919-361-



   A record crowd of over 400 people attended the sixth
annual Southern SAWG Conference and Trade Show in
Gainesville, FL this past January. The event offered a
reception feast and two fabulous meals prepared from food
grown by farmers in our region, 27 workshop and round
table sessions conducted by leaders in the field, three farm
tours that visited a total of 14 farms, a trade show with 36
vendors, a rousing auction of farm products and organic
cotton clothing, networking opportunities
with some of the most forward-thinking farmers in the
region, and all the sweetest organic citrus you could
possibly consume in one weekend.
   Don Bixby, director of the American Livestock Breeds
Conservancy in North Carolina, wrote afterward, "I'll join
the consensus...I was impressed with the structure, content,
and the great opportunity for network development."
   Chris Weick, a farmer from Umbarger, TX, concurred:
"Great conference! I met lots of folks looking for options
and answers. It's good to see so many open minded people
who aren't sold out to 'big ag business'. Keep up the good
   An event of this magnitude is a collaborative effort
among many organizations and individuals. Thank you to
all who helped make the 1997 Southern SAWG conference
such a success.
   Plans are already underway for next year's event. The
seventh annual Southern SAWG Conference and Trade
Show will be held January 15-18, 1998 in Memphis, TN. 
If you'd like to contribute or help with the planning, contact
Jean Mills at 205-333-8504 or jeanmills@aol.com.