At A Glance
• Cotton, 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
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.
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 satisfaction.
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
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 the soil.
“I get about 45 to 50 bushels of wheat or soybeans per acre,
and two tons of peanuts per acre in a good year,” he says.
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
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 or water.
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 altogether.
“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 practices.
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
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