Windfall Farms – Mark Fickett and Frank Williams
Business partners and long-time cotton growers Frank Williams and Mark Fickett were willing to innovate and give the Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) growing practices a try. Recognizing the potential toxicity of many of the pesticides used on cotton, the Windfall Farms growers wanted information and to do "discovery" on more biologically based farming practices. The project was a good fit for them and they found the support from UC IPM and UCCE increased their interest and confidence in implementing practices that would enhance their soil while protecting water and the health of the rural community they live in. They also discovered adopting a reduced risk system would not hurt their financial bottom line.
Windfall Farms was the first and one of the only cotton growers in California to try interplanting alfalfa with cotton, a practice developed by bio-control experts in the 1960s that had gone out of vogue with the ease of insecticides. The main pest in cotton is the lygus bug, which actually prefers alfalfa to cotton and so the growers tried planting 6 rows of alfalfa between two 80-acre cotton fields.
Dismissed by their pest control advisor (PCA) as a disaster waiting to happen, the growers persisted and found the practice worked. They also liked the idea of planting annual hedgerows on their field margins. The hedgerows of corn, sunflowers, and black eye peas serve as food and shelter for beneficial insects, attract pests away from the main crop and can serve as wind blocks.
With increased confidence in biological systems, the Windfall growers decided to try organic cotton production and planted 40 acres in 2006. It was successful and the growers felt they were learning even more about biological control and reduced risk systems. They planted 80 acres of organic in 2007 and 160 in 2008, while continuing to farm SCP's Cleaner Cotton™ on the rest of their cotton acreage. They have even planted a small amount of colored cotton fiber – both green and brown to be used in color blending which reduced the impacts from bleaching and dying cotton fiber.
"We found beneficial insects that we didn't know we had out there," Mark says.
"It was very simple. It integrated with what we did very well," Frank adds. "It's probably left an indelible mark on how we look at things and how we culturally grow our cotton."
Always willing to participate and share their farm and expertise, their fields are often used on our yearly farm tour and for SCP field days. Frank and Mark represent the best of cotton growers who have made the transition from conventional cotton production to sustainable and organic through the support and direction of the SCP project. The tools of the project – demonstration fields, mentor growers and strong technical support from UC IPM and UCCE have made the difference for these growers and they are eager to share their story.
Chad Crivelli was skeptical. The third generation Dos Palos area cotton grower worried that using biological controls would increase risks to his crop.
Chad has come a long way in his thinking. After nearly a decade in the Sustainable Cotton Project, he has been a major advocate of the Cleaner Cotton™, going as far as planting 10 acres of organic pima cotton in 2009, the only cotton he grew that year.
At a recent farm tour where Chad's field was a focus, he shared his observations about SCP and reasons for making the shift from conventional growing to more biological systems and even on to organic.
He has found that by eliminating the broad-spectrum insecticides on his farm, there has been a gradual increase in beneficial insects, bio diversity and even in wildlife. At Crivelli Farms in 2009, Chad found quail in the brush piles along the roadways and field margins, something his family has not seen for more than 30 years. This discovery has had a big impact on Chad, his father and brother who both farm with him. They recognize the importance and value of biodiversity and protection of the water and air quality in their area. They like what they are seeing.
"Cleaner Cotton™ really opened up my eyes," Chad says. "Farmers can still make a profit growing cotton and reduce chemicals. That's a great feeling. It's a very good concept. It does work."
Through SCP, Chad gained the confidence to plant organic cotton. He found that the program's resources and access to University of California Cooperative Extension and UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management cotton experts supported his questions and increased his knowledge base.
Chad appreciated the weekly field scouting provided by SCP and the interactions with other growers as well as seed for planting annual hedgerows and beneficial insect releases when needed. These were the factors that allowed Chad to feel he had the tools to try organic cotton production (one of only two organic cotton producers in the state in 2009). He now realizes that pesticides can play a role in secondary pest infestation and that there are choices and options which protect and enhance the local watersheds.
Paul and Doug Goodman
Paul and his son Doug and their family farm close to 3,000 acres of cotton in Merced County. Active in the SCP program for eight years, Paul has been a strong supporter and has found that using Best Management Practices have allowed him to grow cotton in most years without pesticide applications.
Two of Paul's fields are located in the town of Dos Palos, one right next to Dos Palos High School. Paul needed to find alternative practices to those used by conventional growers since there were limitations on chemical use with a field that close to the school and another next to a local subdivision. Paul is a successful and careful grower who has found that using annual hedgerows has helped to decrease the movement of pests into his cotton. The hedgerows provide a trap crop as well as food and shelter for beneficial insects. He has found the Best Management Practices, program technical support and extra scouting very useful. He has transferred these practices to the rest of the cotton he farms, a testament to his trust in the Cleaner Cotton™ Program.
By nature, farmers tend to stick to old habits and shy away from change.
Not John Teixeira, a long-time Firebaugh farmer. “I’m always willing to try something new. Being progressive, you have to think outside the box.”
Teixeira is one of the pioneering growers involved the Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP). Over the years, he has gone from skeptic to advocate of biological pest controls in the San Joaquin Valley farming community. He and his family continue to demonstrate how Integrated Pest Management practices can work effectively in their crops.
“It’s a new paradigm. It helps the pocketbook and doesn’t hurt production,” says Teixeira, who runs the 85-acre Lone Willow Ranch and also farms with two brothers and his father. His cotton acreage has ranged from 2,800 acres to no acres during the drought and economic downturn. In 2011, his family planted 1,500 acres. He also has grown organic cotton.
Together, he and his family grow a diversity of crops, including almonds, alfalfa hay, corn, cantaloupes, cotton, processed and fresh tomatoes and wheat hay. At Lone Willow, Teixeira is well-known for growing many varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes.
When the SCP was founded in 1996, Teixeira’s first reaction was less than enthusiastic: “What’s this all about. They are nuts.” But fellow farmers eventually persuaded him to become involved with the program. Through the years, he has had enrolled cotton, alfalfa and almond acreage in the SCP program.
“It’s all about economics. You look at your budget and want to protect your crop yields to meet that budget,” he says. “It’s really challenging in this day and age.”
In today’s economic climate, the cost of farming continues to rise. At the same time, growers are facing growing environmental pressures, including tougher regulations on agricultural chemicals and irrigation run-off.
“Environmental concerns are very prevalent now. There is a movement of instead of being a hard line people are willing to take or trying something different.”
Teixiera says SCP workshops and resources, weekly field scouting program and access to leading University of California farm advisors, researchers and IPM specialists has taught growers like himself about monitoring fields for crop-damaging and beneficial insects, natural habitats to attract good bugs and softer agricultural chemicals. “The key to all of it is not to get rid of all the beneficials. You have to keep that beneficial population going,” he says.
“It has become very educational to understand the whole process. It has taught us to be a little more patient and understand all the (pest) numbers from the scouting. You used to take it for granted that you had to spray when the PCA says so. Now I want to know why I have to spray. What SCP has done is teach the farmer how to be more like a PCA. It saves you money.”
His message to fellow farmers: “Lets all try it. Let’s work together to make a difference. It works.”
Teixiera also is a firm believer in promoting sustainable agriculture. He has been involved in the Slow Food Movement, testified before legislative bodies and promoted community agricultural events. He urges farmers go out in the community and educate consumers about the food and fiber growers produce.
“Get the picture in front of the consumer,” he says. “We should be going to the colleges and teaching the younger generation. The younger generation is going to buy local, sustainable food more than ever.”