Farm Is Located
YAZOO CITY, MISS, DEC. 7, 2002: Steve McKaskle
knows what it means to be an organic pioneer. He’s stubbornly
experimented his way to a successful, integrated systems approach
that manages pests while it builds soil.
He was the keynote speaker for the first ever statewide sustainable
ag. conference in Mississippi on Dec. 7, titled “Agriculture
that Lasts: How to Keep Farming.” (For more on the conference,
holds first statewide sustainable ag conference.)
McKaskle, of Braggadocio, Mo., brought to the Cotton Belt
his Missouri Bootheel experiences growing the nation's primary
fiber crop under organic certification. Corn, soybeans and
wheat are also part of the crop rotation on his 1,000-acre
Introduced by Delta Enterprise Network executive director
Jim Worstell as "the most innovative cotton grower in
the world," McKaskle gave attendees an overview of the
integrated-systems approach he continues to develop -- to
do what the common wisdom said was impossible.
"He's been successful in an area of the country that
most people say you cannot grow organic anything," Worstell
said, "and especially you cannot grow organic cotton."
||"The best thing about the organic
approach to pest control is that if you don't spray a
field, you've got beneficial insects," says McKaskle.
Other parts of his control program: occasionally spraying
sugar or certain organic-approved acids onto the crop,
which makes plants more resistant to insect damage.
While McKaskle's presentation focused largely on his cotton
production, he emphasized that his integrated approach translates
into other sustainable farming enterprises as well. "Innovative
systems -- not only for cotton, but for all crops -- will
be the key ingredient that will make or break organic farming
operations," McKaskle said.
The Missouri producer acknowledged agriculture -- subject
to the vagaries of markets, nature and government -- is a
difficult profession for every grower. "We're all familiar
with the situation facing our farmers -- high costs for equipment,
high costs for farm inputs," he said. "At the same
time, we're looking at 30-year lows in crop prices and confusing
This fall, farmers in his area also faced 15 inches of rain
that beat crops down and turned fields to swamps during the
peak harvest season. Even more difficult, he said, was the
line of farming he chose.
"Growing cotton organically has to be one of the most
challenging, frustrating experiences a farmer can face,"
he said. Borrowing a line from the late comedian Jerry Clower,
who lived in Yazoo City, McKaskle said the generous assortment
of production problems he faces constantly sometimes makes
him feel like the hunter who climbed a tree to punch a raccoon
out of its den, only to encounter a wildcat instead.
"'Just shoot up in here amongst us,'" he quoted.
"One of us has to have some relief!"
a leap of faith toward sustainability
McKaskle riveted his audience with the question of the day:
"How many times
have we thought ... 'Are we going to be able to keep farming?'”
His own answer to that question in the early 1990s came when
he realized he could not continue farming indefinitely with
conventional methods. Instead, he made a leap of faith in
moving toward sustainability. "I saw (organics) as the
best alternative choice for our own farm to stay in business,"
he said. Organic farm products often command a 100 to 200-percent
price premium over conventional crops, he said -- an incentive
too great to ignore.
"If I could learn how to grow cotton, soybeans and corn
organically, we could make a good profit," he stated.
McKaskle saw other reasons to farm more sustainably, too.
Conventional cotton is one of the most chemical-dependent
crops grown in America, he said. Insecticides are additionally
sprayed throughout much of the growing season, threatening
both the comfort and health of nearby residents. The stench
of conventional defoliants likewise make harvest in cotton-growing
areas a most unpleasant time. "It is a terrible time
of the year," he said.
101: His own personally funded research center
Defying the conventional wisdom on Delta farming has forced
McKaskle to find a host of different ways to improve his farming.
"I had to innovate," he said. "My farm has
become a (research and development) center -- without funding
-- and it is expensive." Fertilization of nitrogen-loving
cotton is largely solved with chicken manure and gin trash
-- hulls, stems and other nitrogen-rich parts of cotton left
over from the process of separating the fiber from seed. McKaskle
is also cooperating with university researchers to try to
develop non-leguminous, nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria.
A favorite food of a host of insects, cotton has depended
for the past half-century on an arsenal of insecticides to
keep them at bay. Cotton genetically modified with a gene
from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) now offers systemic control
of tobacco budworms, bollworms and other larvae for conventional
farmers -- an option not open to organic producers -- while
the regional Boll Weevil Eradication Program has virtually
eliminated that pest in many parts of the Cotton Belt.
Not surprisingly, McKaskle was ahead of the curve on boll
weevil control. "I'm the first organic cotton farmer
that the Boll Weevil Eradication Program has allowed to grow
cotton organically and not spray it," McKaskle said.
"Before the eradication program started, I was already
using boll weevil traps, and I didn't have any trouble with
the boll weevil at all.”
McKaskle said the Missouri Bootheel's winters -- harsher
than those in most other cotton areas -- have always helped
with insect control. In addition, he releases purchased predatory
insects such as the big-eyed bug into fields when necessary.
"The best thing about (the organic approach) is that
if you don't spray a field, you've got beneficial insects,"
he said. Other parts of his control program include occasionally
spraying sugar or certain organic-approved acids onto the
crop, which, he explained, makes plants more resistant to
The "stale-bed" planting technique -- similar in
principle to the "no-till" approach increasingly
favored by conventional farmers -- leaves a dead vegetative
cover that greatly decreases damage by thrips, which can devastate
a young stand of cotton.
"When cotton is planted in roughage," McKaskle
said, "research shows that thrip infestation is decreased
by about 50 percent. They get confused and don't know where
the cotton is."
One other insect control measure offers special promise --
and perhaps a visceral feeling of victory -- to organic producers.
"We may want to pull a vacuum machine through the field
that will suck out all kinds of bugs," McKaskle said,
"and then release beneficial insects back into the field."
The biggest challenge of all
Competition from grasses and broadleaf weeds remain the biggest
problem McKaskle faces.
"Weed control is the greatest and most costly challenge"
in large-scale organic cropping, he said. "If I can get
the weed control problem down, I can make a profit."
One of the organic producer's most useful tools for battling
weeds has turned out to be flaming. Accomplished with precisely
aimed propane-fueled torches, the process is designed to destroy
competing plants while protecting the crop. McKaskle acknowledged
that grasses recover enough from flaming that most of his
cotton still requires some hand weeding, "but on morning-glory
and other broadleaf weeds, it's deadly," he said.
||"McKaskle has begun using non-GMO
corn gluten meal in the cotton rows at planting time to
control weeds in the narrow disturbed strip of seedbed
Dozens of cultivation tools are at the organic producer's
disposal, he added, from rotary hoes to new machines that
simply vibrate soil to uproot newly sprouted weeds.
The organic pioneer has begun using non-GMO corn gluten meal
in the row at planting time to control weeds in the narrow
disturbed strip of seedbed soil.
"Dr. Nick Christians at Iowa State University discovered
several years ago that corn gluten meal would prevent weeds
from germinating," McKaskle said. "It will prevent
your cotton or soybeans from germinating, too, so you have
to plant below the zone where your corn gluten meal is. To
me, this is one of the most exciting developments in organic
agriculture that has happened recently."
Researchers have still not determined what ingredient in
corn gluten creates its herbicidal properties, but McKaskle
is working with University of Missouri researchers to develop
a liquid gluten product.
"Farmers like liquids," he said. "They're
a lot easier to handle than dry materials."
McKaskle's search for solutions visits a variety of venues,
including organic pesticides, growth regulators (to curb over-vegetation)
and defoliants. (The present organic defoliant of choice is
citric acid, an ingredient in many soft drinks.)
"Another possibility that I'm working on right now is
developing a non-selective, post-emerge weed control product
that is made from soil bacteria that may work as well as Round-Up®,
but it will be organic and it will be natural," he said.
"These are some of the things we've got to have if we're
going to farm organically on a large scale."
The survival and growth of organic agriculture are not in
the hands of farmers alone, McKaskle reminded his audience.
"Every time I get to talk about organic farming, people
ask me, 'Is there anything I can do?'" he said. "You
can buy organic products." Nike, Patagonia, Early Winters,
Norm Thompson and Timberland are among the clothing manufacturers
who already use or have announced plans to include organic
cotton in their clothing lines, he said.
Organic farmers, McKaskle reiterated, face a host of challenges.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," he quoted.
"We will solve these problems, because we have to."