Introducing Alternative Crops Into Traditional Cotton-Grain Farming to Aid Transition To "Freedom to Farm" Agriculture

Final Report for LS98-097

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $114,279.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $114,279.00
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Roland E. Roberts
Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center
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Project Information

Abstract:

A 4-year cotton-pepper-grain sorghum-vegetable legume rotation allows farmers to meet the objectives of the Freedom-to-Farm farm program while maintaining profitability and improving soil health. Cultural practices including windbreaks, tensiometer-based irrigation scheduling, and row-cover transplant production maintained or increased enterprise profitability compared to traditional cotton monoculture. Local marketing of roasted chile peppers provided a value-added opportunity for a high-value crop. Crop diversity also enhanced the impact of integrated pest management strategies.

Project Objectives:

1) Design and evaluate crop rotations including cotton, southernpea, chile pepper and grain sorghum to maximize producer sustainability while reducing buildup of soil diseases, improving soil conservation and management, and enhancing growth of rotational crops.

2) Identify and quantify cultural practices (irrigation, fertilization, wind protection) that optimize optimize pepper stand establishment, growth, yield, and quality.

3) Integrate adaptive research results into chile pepper production system demonstrations and disseminate the results to current and potential growers through their participation in adaptive research, on-farm demonstrations, field days and innovative educational programs.

Introduction:

Cotton production generates $1 billion in income and $3.5 billion in economic activity for the Texas High Plains. Entire communities rely on cotton for economic stability. Reduction and elimination of government subsidies within seven years will remove a major safety net for these communities and may result in significant disruption of traditional cropping patterns. Progressive cotton farmers in the region realize that traditional cotton monoculture or cotton-grain sorghum cropping patterns will not sustain farm income or soil health. In the past decade, thousands of cotton farmers, unable to overcome management challenges, have been forced to sell their farms. Loss of subsidies on 3.5 million acres of cotton will increase the pressure on these producers. Their ability to adapt their operations to open market conditions through crop diversification, adjustments in land tenure, and intensive management will be key to the economic survival of many families and communities. In addition, changes in the Conservation Reserve Program could result in over 300,000 acres of marginal land being brought back into production in the next several years. Unless properly managed, the resulting environmental and economic damage could further threaten the survival of the region.
The Texas Chili Pepper Co-op was formed by a group of 25 cotton farming families working together to develop alternative cropping systems. Members came to Texas A&M University System research and extension faculty for help in constructing viable and economically sound production scenarios. As a result of these meetings a number of obstacles limiting long-term success were identified, including: declining government support, lack of financing for alternative crops, declining soil health, damaging pathogen populations, increasing water pumping costs, limited water and excessive salinity in many wells, and wind injury to tender crops. Co-op members asked the scientists to join them in developing a sustainable multi-crop management system which would be adaptable to their farms. A set of objectives was agreed upon, and a southernpea-chili pepper-cotton-grain sorghum rotation developed. All parties agreed that the system must consist of marketable crops in a sustainable rotation, grown with appropriate cultural practices to conserve natural resources.
Consumption of chile products is increasing nationally at a rate of 5% per year (Taylor ). Market demand is strong, and pepper processors are soliciting contracts. West Texas farmers have trial-planted over 300 acres of chile peppers, are actively negotiating with buyers for another 1,000 acres, and have invested over $200,000 in 10 mechanical pepper harvesters which can handle over 1,000 acres of chile peppers. Several farmers are planting more than 1,000 acres of paprika pepper to supply a large pepper dehydration plant recently built by a national processor.
Chile peppers are well adapted to Texas South Plains climate and soils. However, current chile production is limited by poor stand establishment due to high winds, salt buildup in the soil, and low soil temperatures at planting. Technology exists to solve these problems. For example, a mid-bed-trench planting system, designed by Experiment Station scientists and developed by Extension specialists working with growers addresses all of these stresses. Rye windbreaks and oats nurse crops have also been encouraged to improve stand establishment. Significant diseases of chile include viruses and Phytophthora root rot. The Texas A&M Pepper Breeding Program released six virus-resistant chile pepper varieties which grow well on the Southern High Plains. Fungal (Phytophthora) root rots, exacerbated by improper rotations, have made chile pepper production unprofitable in many areas of New Mexico. Careful crop rotation and sanitation of equipment from infested chile growing regions should prevent this problem in West Texas. Growers can adapt research-based techniques for preventing disease, wind, and salt stresses coupled to efficient nutrient and water management. Grower use of tensiometers and the PET irrigation scheduling system would increase water use efficiency.
Blackeye and pinkeye southernpea markets are strong, with processors actively seeking contracts. Increasing market strength for vegetable legumes, (southernpeas, soybeans and dry edible beans) is apparent in USDA market reports. Some farmers plant southernpeas for soil improvement only after hailed-out cotton and see improved growth in subsequent crops. Southernpea is not usually part of a planned rotation, primarily because of conflicts with government cotton program regulations. Declining transition payments for cotton will reduce the economic penalty for growing southernpea on cotton land. An established local grain sorghum seed company and a four-grower cooperative have built complete systems for cleaning/grading, packaging, storage, and marketing southernpeas. We have professional handling and marketing arrangements for these crops. The TAMU southernpea breeding program has released a short-season pinkeye and a weather-tolerant mung bean. A local seed company has paid over $46,000 in royalties to TAMU Foundation Seed Program for production of certified >Texas Pinkeye= southernpea seed.

The potential for sustainable rotations that include chile pepper and southernpea is high. At current market prices, 1,000 acres of chile will add over $1 million to net farm income. Strong processor markets exist for high quality blackeye and pinkeye peas and for dry edible beans. Higher net profit can result from improved growth of cotton and grain sorghum. This outcome could be a significant factor in reversing the trend of limited resource family farmers selling out to corporate farms.
For a sustainable system (eg. cotton-southernpea-chile pepper) to be accepted by growers and lenders, the 3-crop combination must result in higher net income than traditional systems, and reduce the risk inherent in monoculture cotton.. We propose a careful study to examine costs and benefits from two crop rotations and intensive adaptive research to reveal the best management practices for chile peppers and southernpeas and provide data upon which to base risk-management models.
We hypothesize that adoption of a system for planting chile pepper and southernpea in a long rotation with cotton, employing technically advanced cultural practices, will reduce nitrogen and water costs, prevent buildup of soil pathogens, and result in better growth of subsequent cotton and grain crops. This will result in higher net profit, reduced risk, and sustainability of soil health that will enrich the quality of life for farm families of this region.
The faculties of TAMU, Prairie View A&M, and Texas Tech are working together in 3 significant interdisciplinary systems: 1) Center to Improve Agricultural Productivity in Semiarid Environments (CIAPSE) at the TAMU Research and Extension Center at Lubbock; 2) AgriPartners, a corporate-university program for applied research, demonstration and survey data collection on the Texas South Plains, organized and administered by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service with over $150,000/year contributed by agribusiness; and 3) AG-CARES, a full scale irrigated farm for demonstrating improved farming systems, operated by TAMU and funded by Lamesa Cotton Growers. Synergistic collaboration of our research and extension faculties in these centers ensures well-designed, productive research and rapid adoption of advances in systems technology by farmers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • David Bender

Research

Materials and methods:

Research Locations

Crop rotation studies were established on four grower farms, two of which were small market vegetable operations, and two commercial cotton farms that also grew chili peppers (as members of the Texas Chili Pepper Cooperative) and southernpeas. Additional component studies were conducted at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Lubbock, Texas, and on the farm of another member of the Texas Chile Pepper Cooperative.

Site 1. A small farm site was established in northwest Lubbock County, Texas with a grower who produced a variety of vegetables and southernpeas for local farmers markets. Rotation research plots were established on a sandy loam soil, using furrow irrigation. In the second year of the study, the grower lost a family member who was critical to his vegetable production, and was forced to abandon his commitment to the project and limit his vegetable operation to southernpeas, which required less intensive care than other vegetables and could be machine harvested. No meaningful rotation data was obtained from this site.

Site 2. A small farm site was established in Hale County, Texas. This young farm family produced about 800 acres of cotton as well as vegetables and eggs for sale at a farmer’s market in Lubbock. The research studies were established on loam soil using furrow irrigation. Prior to the third growing season of the study, the grower was informed by his bank that he would not get a loan for his next cotton crop, and went home and committed suicide. His wife and children were unable to continue participation in the project, and limited data was obtained from this site.

Site 3. A large commercial farm site was located in northeast Lynn County, Texas. This farmer produced mainly cotton, but was also an officer in the Texas Chili Pepper Cooperative. Through the years he had produced chili, jalapeno, and paprika peppers on contract, as well as growing other pepper types for local sales. His entire family was involved in the farming operations, as well as the processed pepper products his wife produced for sale.

The research site consisted of a 90 acre furrow-irrigated plot divided into four quadrants. The soil was a sandy loam which had been annually amended with 10 tons per acre of cotton bur compost. An area of the southeast quadrant contained a caliche outcropping that had a pH too high to be productive. Cotton was planted in all four quadrants, but a 2-acre block of peppers or southernpeas was planted in each quadrant to produce a rotation of cotton-pepper-southernpea-cotton or pepper-cotton-southernpea-cotton.

Site 4. A commercial farm site located in northeast Lynn County, Texas. This farmer grew cotton, sunflowers, summer squash, and peppers, and was an officer in the Texas Chili Pepper Cooperative. The farm had a sandy loam to loam soil with center pivot sprinkler irrigation. Rotations similar to those on site 3 were established on approximately 2-acre blocks.

Cultural Practices

Crops were generally grown following cultural practices selected by cooperating farmers. All sites used raised beds on 40-inch centers. Intensive soil sampling and analysis of the research areas was the basis for fertilizer applications. Growers provided weed management, following their standard practices for each crop. Plots were scouted weekly for pests and diseases, with growers conducting pest management based on Extension Service recommendations. Cotton pest management was also influenced by the initiation of a mandatory boll weevil eradication program during the second year of the study. Irrigation of cotton was scheduled by growers using potential evapotranspiration calculations based on data from an on-site weather station, supplemented by tensiometers placed in each research plot. Southernpeas were grown without supplemental irrigation.

Experimental Design

Most research plots were arranged in randomized complete block design with 3 or 4 replications. In several trials, treatments were arranged in a split plot design. All data were analyzed using SAS software routines.

Rotation Studies

Three rotational plots 1-2 acres in size were selected within large cotton monoculture fields in each research location. A sequence of cotton, southernpeas, and peppers was planted in these plots and rotated annually. Cotton yields were compared to those in adjacent cotton monoculture.

Cotton was harvested and ginned by the growers, with yields from each research area handled individually. Southernpeas were harvested using a plot combine, and peppers were hand-harvested at weekly intervals. Peppers were sorted and graded to USDA standards.

On-farm Pepper Transplant Production

Peppers were seeded using a precision seeder in eight lines per bed approximately 2 inches apart. One drip irrigation line was placed in each bed, and the beds were covered with tunnels of spunbonded polyester fabric supported by wire hoops. Tunnels were approximately 12 inches high. Peppers were seeded in early April each year, and plants were undercut and lifted by hand in mid-May. These pepper plants were immediately transplanted in the research plots using a one-row transplanter and compared to plants of the same age and cultivar produced in a commercial greenhouse.

Pepper Variety Trials

Seed of pepper cultivars with potential to satisfy current market requirements or having potential in new market niches was obtained from commercial seed companies and the Texas A&M Pepper Breeding Program. Plants were grown in a commercial greenhouse and transplanted in the pepper research plots using a one-row transplanter. Plants were maintained by project personnel, and peppers were harvested weekly, graded, and evaluated for yield, quality, and market potential. Cultivars identified as having potential were produced on an expanded scale by growers for test marketing.

High pH-Tolerant Southernpeas

Six southernpea cultivars suggested by breeders as being tolerant to high pH (8.2-8.4) soils were obtained from public breeders and seeded in an area at the edge of a caliche outcropping. Soil in this area had a pH of 8.4, and previous crops had exhibited marked symptoms of iron chlorosis. Southernpeas were seeded with a hand seeder on raised beds on 40-inch centers at 6-9 seeds per foot. Plots were fertilized pre-plant and furrow-irrigated based on tensiometers. Plant stands, plant heights, and leaf chlorophyll were recorded. Dry southernpeas were harvested with a plot combine. Soil samples from each plot

Research results and discussion:

Rotation Studies

Cotton yields in the rotation system averaged 3.2% higher than in cotton monoculture. Yields of cotton lint per acre in the cotton monoculture were 623 lbs in 1999, 572 lb in 2000, 519 lb in 2001 and 593 lb in 2002. Rotational cotton produced 621 lb in 1999 (following cotton), 580 lb in 2000 (following southernpeas), 549 lb in 2001 and 608 in 2002 (both following peppers and southernpeas). Variability was high enough that yields were significantly different only in 2001. At an average price of $0.50 per lb., this 18 lb. yield difference would increase farm income by $9 per acre.

‘Sonora’ chile yields from the rotation averaged 14,000 lbs. per acre, and ‘Dulce’ jalapeno averaged 15,200 lbs over the 4 seasons. Pepper quality was excellent, with a cull rate of less than 5% in any year. Southernpeas averaged 790 lb. per acre.

Soil analyses of the rotational plots indicated no significant changes in soil fertility or physical characteristics as a result of the rotations. Soil nitrate was slightly higher immediately following southernpeas than in adjacent cotton plots, but by the following spring most of this nitrate had been immobilized or lost to leaching. Soil nitrate was also higher at the end of pepper harvest, likely due to higher fertilization rates, but little residual nitrate was present the following spring.

All sites were assayed for nematodes at the beginning of the study. Nematode levels were very low in the two commercial sites where the rotations were successfully completed. Assays at the end of the trial showed no increase in nematode populations. Initial nematode numbers (primarily root knot, stunt, and lesion) were high enough in the two small farm sites to warrant remediation. Loss of these two research sites, however, prevented determination of the effect of rotation on nematode populations.

Rotation of cotton with chiles and southernpeas appeared to be feasible for the High Plains. Cotton and chile planting times coincide closely and might be a logistical challenge, but cultural operations and harvest timings have little overlap, allowing growers to produce all three crops without significantly increasing the labor requirements.

On-Farm Pepper Transplant Production

Pepper transplants produced on-farm under row cover tunnels grew well in the plant beds and performed comparably to greenhouse-grown transplants. Approximately 1200 feet of bed produced all the ‘Sonora’ chile transplants needed to plant 2 acres. In the first year of this trial, the row covers were not sufficiently supported, and wind caused some abrasion of the plants. Insertion of additional wire hoops in subsequent years reduced this problem and increased transplant yield. The sheltered environment under the tunnels did encourage weed germination, and weeds remained a major constraining factor on this technology. Development of an effective weed-management strategy will be critical to making this technique a useful alternative for pepper growers.

Pepper Varieties

Each year 30-50 pepper cultivars were evaluated for adaptability to local growing conditions and market requirements. Chile and jalapeno cultivars were emphasized, as these were the primary types grown by participating growers. Several cultivars had the characteristics of yield, size quality, and pungency to fit market demands. ‘Sonora’ chile was identified as a mild chile with excellent yields, smooth pods and strong, upright plants that could be hand or machine harvested. Consumer identification of ‘New Mexico 6-4’ as the standard pod type for hot chile led to a search for other green chiles of similar pod structure. Evaluation of 23 different chile cultivars over 4 years did not find another cultivar with higher yields and better appearance than ‘New Mexico 6-4’.

The wide range of pepper types included in these trials suggested several with potential for specialty markets. Several ancho varieties yielded well, and were greatly in demand for roasting, bringing a 33% price premium over the green chiles. Hot Asian peppers from a Korean seed company were sought by owners of several Asian restaurants for fresh use in their cuisine. This niche market could be exploited and expanded with marketing to surrounding areas.

High pH-Tolerant Southernpeas

Six southernpea cultivars were evaluated for performance in high-pH environments. Plant stands varied from 10, 890 to 61,560 plants per acre, although seeding rates were the same. Yields generally correlated with plant stands, ranging from 1,031 lbs per acre for ‘Early Scarlet’ to 407 for ‘Texas Tall’. Higher populations tended to result in taller plants, and cultivars with lower populations tended to compensate by producing more peas per plant. Significant differences in SPAD chlorophyll were noted, but did not correlate with yield. For example, ‘Early Scarlet’ produced the highest yields but had the lowest leaf chlorophyll (most apparent iron chlorosis). Overall, all varieties performed adequately in high pH conditions, although ‘Early Scarlet’ and ‘Texas Pinkeye’ had the highest yields and were selected for use in the trials.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Results from this study have been presented to growers at annual field days, where research plots and special studies were viewed and discussed. Results were also presented at grower meetings, regional and state vegetable conferences, and regional and national horticulture society meetings. Three journal publications are currently in preparation, and 8 research result reports and Extension result demonstration reports have been published. The SARE project has been featured in a local television news story that was also posted on a website. Several local stories have been published about the chile roasting project, with attribution to SARE’s support included in most of them.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Cotton growers using rotations have the opportunity to diversify their operations while maintaining their income. Logistically these crops fit together well as a growing sequence, and all have local marketing channels. While the benefits of crop rotation to the soil were not demonstrated in this relatively short-term study, a body of research results clearly indicates that long-term improvements in soil health and crop yield can be expected. As commodity prices fluctuate, diversity in the crop mix provides a buffer to family farm income.

Results from the pepper trials have provided additional opportunities for several farm families. Chili cultivars with characteristics well-adapted for roasting were identified from variety trials on the participating farms. Two growers then built chili roasters, grew the peppers, and began roasting and selling chili at local festivals. The first one-day festival attended produced enough income to pay for the roaster and much of the production costs. Members of both families provided most of the labor in growing and harvesting the peppers as well as staffing the festival booth. Future plans include building additional roasters and seeking roasting contracts with local supermarkets and discount stores. One of the wives has also started processing and selling pepper products at festivals and on the internet. Local restaurants have purchased some hot Asian peppers identified by the variety trials, creating a niche market for fresh specialty peppers.

Economic Analysis

The economic viability of the rotations in this study is highly dependent on the fluctuations in commodity prices. For example, southernpea prices during the study ranged from $0.15 to $0.23 per lb., and historically have gone much higher. With production costs of about $200 per acre, a yield of 1000 lbs. per acre at $0.20 would be required to break even. Peppers have the potential to produce income of $3,000-$4,000 per acre, but production costs may exceed $2,500 per acre, so loss of the crop to natural disaster, production problems, pest management failures, or market problems put growers at significant risk. Cotton prices also fluctuate, having dropped almost 35% during the period of this study, but are supported by restored subsidies for cotton in the latest farm program. Thus the initial premise of this study, declining cotton subsidies, is no longer valid. Direct and indirect benefits of rotations to the grower may still be attractive, but the economic impact on the farm operation will need to be evaluated in light of the changing political environment.

Participating growers were offered full services of the Texas Cooperative Extension Service’s Risk Management program. Risk management specialists assist producers in doing an inventory of their farming operation and evaluating strategies and options for balancing income and risk. These services keep producers updated on changes in farm programs and changes in commodity markets that impact their enterprise.

Farmer Adoption

Growers participating in the research plots have continued the cultural systems established during this project. As officers in the Texas Chili Pepper Cooperative, they are in a position to influence other local growers to consider using peppers and southernpeas in rotation with their cotton crops. Field days at the research sites, presentations at regional vegetable conferences, and continuing Extension Service programs and publications reached many farmers in West Texas, and several have indicated they will adopt this technology.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Rotation studies are by nature long term, and several rotation cycles may be required measure subtle effects. The loss of two research sites and the subsequent one year extension granted by SARE allowed completion of one rotation cycle, but the rotations need to be followed for a number of years. Unfortunately, the loss of the vegetable research program in West Texas is the end of this study. Perhaps this concept could be pursued at another location.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.