Test crops become teaching labs for dealing with weather damage
By Tom Hallmand and Peter Hull
It has been the mantra of farmers for time immemorial: “Make hay while the sun shines.”
But the sun shone less in 2012 than it has in a long time. Rainfall during the crop season neared two feet above normal in some South Carolina counties – delaying field work, promoting disease and often cutting yields.
“You don’t usually think of water being a stress on crops, but this year it was,” said John Mueller, a plant disease specialist who directs Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center (REC). “It was wetter and it was cooler, so we saw a lot more disease and pest problems.”
But problems – according to another axiom of agriculture – are also opportunities. And Clemson Extension Service specialists made the most of them. The annual field days that impart the latest scientific information to farmers became teaching laboratories for dealing with unusual weather problems.
“Fungal diseases love this kind of weather, with moderate temperatures, cloudy and wet,” Mueller warned farmers gathered alongside a soybean field at the Simpson Experiment Station in Pendleton. “We didn’t find a lot of rust the past two years, but this year we’ve found it earlier than ever.”
Then – with a pregnant pause – he urged farmers to do the counter-intuitive: Employ patience before applying costly sprays against the disease.
“We don’t want you to spend your money unless you have to,” he said. “There’s some dry weather in the forecast, which is not favorable to rust. Give it some time.”
Such were the lessons to be learned in Clemson’s fields across the state, from cotton and tobacco in Florence to watermelons and peanuts in Blackville.
Mother Nature proved she could vex the most knowledgeable farmers – including the researchers who have devoted their lives to the science of South Carolina agriculture.
“We planted our corn pretty much on schedule, but we’ve had problems ever since it came out of the ground — problems the likes of which I haven’t seen before,” David Gunter, an Extension corn and soybean specialist, told farmers at the Pee Dee REC in Florence.
“It came out of the ground and just stopped,” he said. “Eventually the weather got better and the corn came on, but if you have a disease book on corn you’ll find just about anything in it in this field.”
Farmers cruised the crops at Clemson’s research centers and looked for answers from the scientists who study them.
“We’re not as row-crop oriented in the Piedmont any more, so most of our row-crop faculty are in Edisto and Pee Dee,” said Garland Veasey, director of research farm services and host of the Simpson station’s 2012 field day, which drew its largest crowd in a quarter century.
“It’s good for the row crop farmers up here to have this one-on-one time with the Extension specialists and researchers from other stations,” said Veasey, who re-routed some of his field day tours to avoid soggy sections of research fields.
In the midst of all the talk about rain, researcher Todd Campbell explained how he was trying to create a drought for his cotton crop.
The scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service is studying the effect of drought on the length of cotton fibers at the Pee Dee REC – information he hopes will lead to genetic advances that will help farmers grow more marketable cotton even when the rains fail.
During the unprecedented wet growing season, Campbell devised a solution to maintain a drought even in the face of unexpected rainfall.
“We laid down plastic mulch that is used for strawberry production to keep the soil dry. We’ve been monitoring moisture and we’re approaching drought conditions, believe it or not,” Campbell said. “At the end of the season we’ll be able to determine drought effect on fiber length and the genetic targets we need for breeding programs.”
Plant diseases encompass much of the research at the Pee Dee center. In between raindrops, Shyam Tallury, a new peanut breeder with the Advanced Plant Technology program, introduced farmers to wild peanut varieties he is using to breed new varieties that are resistant to common diseases.
The same holds true for research in tobacco.
“Our research is all designed to reduce disease and increase profitability,” said Bruce Fortnum, a plant disease specialist and former director of the Pee Dee center. “Economic development has been the mission of the Pee Dee center since its beginning more than 100 years ago. Our research focuses on helping South Carolina farmers achieve greater profitability from the crops we can grow best in this region.”
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