At A Glance
corn, peanuts, soybeans, winter wheat and rye
on 400 acres
• Conservation tillage,
cover crops, innovative rotations
soil erosion. In the early 1970s,
the soil on Max Carter’s farm was on the
move. It blew away on windy days and washed away
during rainstorms. Like most farmers around him,
Carter cultivated each of his double-cropped fields
nearly year-round, turning over the soil and breaking
up its structure to eliminate weeds and prepare
seed beds. He burned the crop residues left on
top of the soil before each planting so the “trash”
wouldn’t clog his disk or harrow. Turning
and burning were considered normal practices,
even encouraged by farming experts at the time,
but they caused Carter’s loamy sand soil
to erode away.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 88 to 90
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
to Treasurer: Max Carter demonstrates the
residue he plants into as part of his no-till system
designed to conserve soil.
years ago, Carter decided he’d had enough. After days
of planting when he couldn’t even see the front wheels
of his tractor from all the smoke and dust, he vowed to find
another way. “I looked at all the carbon going up in
smoke, and I knew it wasn’t right,” he says. “Too
much was leaving my land.”
He retained his double-crop rotation of wheat, corn, cotton,
peanuts and soybeans, but decided to quit burning the residue
on his fields and find a way to plant into it. By eliminating
burning and consolidating tillage and planting in one field
trip, Carter also hoped to shorten the time between harvesting
one crop and planting another.
“If I could get the planting dates moved up to within
a week of combining, I wouldn’t lose so much moisture
at a critical time of year, and I’d give the second
crop more days to reach maturity before frost,” he says.
“Ten days can make a big difference.”
Carter opened his farm to field days and research experiments
on no-till systems; his latest collaboration looks at how
to reduce chemical use in minimum-till systems. Suddenly,
farming became exciting to him again.
After years of figuring out the equipment, rotations and management
techniques that would allow him to double crop his land with
almost no disturbance of the soil, Carter is now considered
one of the modern pioneers of conservation tillage in the
South, with other farmers and researchers emulating his methods.
Focal Point of Operation —
Rotations and cover crops
Since no one in his area had tried planting into crop residue
without tilling, Carter had to figure out his own equipment
and systems. The first year, he modified his planter with
fluted coulters to create a small bare strip ahead of the
seed drill. With this strip-till rig, he planted soybeans
into wheat and rye stubble and found that it worked to his
Two years later, he bought one of the first no-till planters
in the area. This four-row rig featured serrated coulters
to cut the residue, followed by shanks that ripped 14 to 16
inches into the soil to provide aeration and stability for
the roots of the next crop, and an angled pair of tires to
firm the soil for the seed drill or planter. Although he has
made numerous adjustments since, Carter still uses this piece
of equipment today.
As he fine-tuned his system, cover crops became an important
part of Carter’s rotation. Even after 24 years, though,
he doesn’t have a set formula; he makes adjustments
every season depending upon the markets and weather.
Lately, Carter has rotated winter wheat and rye with his summer
crops of corn, cotton and peanuts. He either sows clover right
into the corn by air in August, or drills it into the corn
stubble after harvest. In spring, he plants the corn with
his no-till rig back into the clover, then “burns”
the clover down a week or two later with an herbicide. This
same system works with cotton and peanuts.
When he rotates his summer crops with winter wheat or rye,
Carter uses an old drill to plant the winter crop directly
into the cotton stubble. A week or two later, he mows the
stubble with a rotary mower and lets the residue from the
summer crops cover the ground. After the winter crop is harvested,
he comes back with the no-till rig to plant another crop of
cotton, corn or peanuts.
“There is very little disturbed ground in this system,”
Carter says. “Yet, within a few weeks of planting I’ve
got a beautiful stand.”
He’s planted peanuts into corn stubble in May or into
wheat stubble in June without much affecting his yields.
Economics and Profitability
As long as he can keep his yields stable, Carter defines profitability
in his system by the amount of inputs — fewer inputs
equal more profit. Diesel fuel, equipment maintenance costs
and chemical costs have decreased, which has helped his bottom
line. And if yields stay comparable to what he got when he
conventionally tilled — and he has every indication
that they will — he’ll do what’s best for
“I get about 45 to 50 bushels of wheat or soybeans per
acre, and two tons of peanuts per acre in a good year,”
Last year he averaged nearly two bales of cotton per acre.
By lowering his input costs all around, Carter says, he can
keep his operation in the black.
Carter didn’t realize all the benefits he would reap
when he first quit tilling his soil. Most importantly, his
practices have stopped the soil from leaving his farm.
At the lower end of a field with only 3-percent slope, a fence
is half buried with eroded soil from when Carter used to till
and burn. That is an image of the past, as no fences are being
covered by soil today. The water in each of his two ponds
is clear, unaffected by runoff, and the fish are plentiful.
Soil samples analyzed by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation
Service also showed that crop residues had boosted the organic
matter in Carter’s soils. Since the higher organic matter
improved his soil quality and water retention, he has been
able to get rid of his irrigation equipment. Higher soil quality
also provides more nutrients for soil organisms, and humus
and fertility for the next crop.
Carter tries to keep chemical herbicide and nutrient applications
to one pass, before plant emergence. Although Carter now relies
on spot spraying rather than cultivation to manage problem
weeds, his herbicide use has not gone up since he switched
to no-till and cover crops. He is very careful when he applies
herbicides, trying to minimize chemical contact with soil
Retaining a cover crop over the winter may be the reason Carter
sees so many more beneficial insects on the farm. Regularly,
he notices lady beetles, big-eyed bugs and predatory wasps
so he recently eliminated his use of chemical insecticides
“It seems like as I cut back on insecticides, the beneficials
just increased, and nature took over,” he says.
Carter also experiences no soil-borne diseases, which some
no-tillers might expect from a wetter, cooler soil environment.
He attributes that to his late summer plant date — around
June 1 — because the soil is warmer.
Without the smoke from burning and dust from tillage, air
quality has drastically improved around the neighborhood.
And Max speaks with joy about the quail and other birds that
have returned to his land, finding cover among the residue
on his fields.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
For years, Carter was considered a little unusual by his fellow
farmers, so he kept a low profile about his farming practices.
In fact, he did most of his real innovations on the fields
away from the road so neighbors wouldn’t bother him.
All that changed about 12 years ago.
“I was ready to retire, but then this started getting
really interesting,” says Carter, who has lived, then
worked, on the farm since he moved there in 1941 at age six.
Today, conservation tillage is sweeping the county. There
are 80 members in the Coffee County Conservation Alliance,
an organization that Carter helped organize and served as
past president. His farm is a showcase for conservation tillage,
hosting numerous visitors and field days, and he has been
asked to speak at other events.
Part of the change is due to the support of county Cooperative
Extension agent Rick Reed. Once the federal boll weevil eradication
program got underway, Reed was awakened to the need to work
with nature instead of against it. Trying to dominate nature
by eliminating the boll weevil had just created a “bigger
monster” with other pests, he believes.
Reed credits a strong core of innovative farmers, such as
Max Carter, as the biggest factor driving more sustainable
Carter likes to tell people that he got into conservation
tillage because the old way was too much work, although one
look around his well-kept farm will tell you that he’s
not afraid to put in some long days. The truth is, conservation
tillage allows him to tend to other activities while his neighbors
are out cultivating their fields during the winter and spring.
It takes patience to make a system like Carter’s work
right. One spring, Carter’s no-till planter couldn’t
cut through the 4 to 6 tons per acre of organic matter on
his fields when he was trying to plant cotton. Instead of
getting frustrated and setting fire to the residue, he changed
from a fluted coulter to a wavy one. The adjustment worked,
and he got his crop in on time. Carter says one of the keys
for all farmers is to constantly fine-tune their systems.
It also helps to share information with other farmers. Field
days are invaluable, and groups like the Coffee County Conservation
Alliance can provide support.
One criticism of a minimum-tillage system is that its dependence
on chemicals instead of cultivation to control weeds harms
the soil in other ways. Sharad Phatak, a researcher at the
University of Georgia with whom Carter works, feels that many
growers, even organic ones, are just trading one set of inputs
for another in an attempt to improve their operations.
Phatak praises Carter for creating a system that is continually
moving in the right direction. Based on his research and Carter’s
experiences, Phatak believes that most chemical pesticides
and herbicides can be greatly reduced in a no-till system
on all farms in south Georgia. He is working with the conservation
tillage farmers of Coffee County to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, Carter sees a brighter future ahead for those who
follow him into conservation practices. “A few years
ago I started reading everywhere that erosion is the farmer’s
no. 1 problem,” he says. “I thought I had lots
of worse problems every day — a dead battery on the
tractor or equipment broke down or something — but they
were right. You can’t farm without soil.”
--Photograph by Keith Richards