TALKING SHOP: Mississippi
Steve Mckaskle's personal cotton research center

An organic cotton trailblazer, this Missouri farmer beats weevils,
doubters with persistent experimentation

By Errol Castens

Where McKaskle's
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, see Mississippi 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 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 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 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!"

Keeping farming: 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.

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 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 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 production
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."