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 farm.
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
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
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 government programs."
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
"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
"'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
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.
Innovation 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
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
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 insect damage.
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."
Weed control: 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 soil."
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."