Using cannon, drones and ingenuity to stop cotton pests

Pink bollworms have been a longstanding nightmare for western cotton farmers.

The insects lay eggs in cotton bolls and when the larvae hatch they burrow through the lint, to feed on seeds. This damages both fiber and seed oil. With high humidity, it only takes one or two larvae to destroy an entire boll because damaged bolls are vulnerable to infection by boll rot fungi, according to the University of California at Davis.

The National Cotton Council estimates that pink bollworms costs US cotton producers more than $32 million each year in control costs and yield losses.

The United States Department of Agriculture has long used an ingenious program, called sterile insect technique, to stem pink bollworm infestations.

Pink bollworms are raised, fed a diet of red dye, giving them a permanent, unnatural color, blasted with radiation to make them sterile and released near infestations of cotton-eating pink bollworms.

The sterile bollworms mate with the fertile pink bollworms, which fools the latter into a false state of pregnancy. As a result, an entire generation of bollworms die off without reproducing.

Pink bollworm larve on cotton boll.

Pink bollworm larvae on cotton boll.

The program, begun in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1960s, originally relied on the use of small aircraft to distribute irradiated pink bollworms. Now a pilot program has them being fired from cannon attached to drones onto cotton fields.

“Drones are a cheaper delivery method than the manual throw-moths-out-of-a-small airplane method that has been used in the past, so if the tests continue to go well, you might be seeing more moths flying out of drones in the future,” according to Popular Science.

Pink bollworms are found in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and northern Mexico.

Sterile moths are raised and irradiated at the Pink Bollworm Rearing Facility in Phoenix, Ariz., then shipped to Shafter, Calif., for aerial release in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 90 percent of California’s cotton is grown.

One of the great benefits of the program is that it doesn’t use pesticides, benefiting the environment.

(HT: Eideard)

Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Doctor’s role in reviving SC rice industry highlighted

carolina gold rice

Dr. Richard Schulze Sr. had predatory rather than culinary goals in mind when he planted Carolina Gold rice in the mid-1980s.

The Savannah eye surgeon was looking to attract ducks to his Turnbridge Plantation in Hardeeville, SC, about 30 miles northeast of Hilton Head, for hunting, according to the Savannah Morning News.

The birds didn’t much cotton to the long-grain rice, but chefs and rice connoisseurs shortly began to take notice.

Today, Carolina Gold rice is essentially the basis for the U.S. rice industry, no mean feat considering that virtually no one had grown rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry in the previous 60 years before Schulze’s efforts.

Initially, Schulze started by planting regular rice on his plantation. He then decided to switch to Carolina Gold, known as the Cadillac of rice for its taste and quality. The lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia was known for its high-quality Carolina Gold rice prior to 1900, particularly before the War Between the States.

“Well, I figured if we’re going to do rice, why not get the original stuff,” he told the Morning News.

Schulze requested Carolina Gold from the USA Rice Council, and was redirected to a rice research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in Texas.

He was able to secure 14 pounds of Carolina Gold seed, which he planted in 1986.

Schulze faced the additional obstacle of hulling the seed. Sending rice out of state for milling and then having it sent back was impractical.

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As global cotton reserves peak, future prices reach 5-year low

cotton nc

With cotton prices dropping to a five-year low late last month, it’s expected farmers around the globe will cut planting in the coming season, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee.

The effect of lower prices is already being realized in crop planning in the Southern Hemisphere, the executive director of the committee said during an industry conference in India last week.

With the US government estimating that global production will outstrip production for a fifth straight growing season and inventories at an all-time high, New York cotton futures recently tumbled to their lowest level since September 2009.

Slowing demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer, will shrink exports from the U.S. and India, the world’s largest shippers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, according to AgWeb.

“Everybody is trying to sell and prices are going to go down because supply is higher,” Terry Townsend, a former executive director of the committee, told the conference. “That process of declining prices, farmers losing money, and some farmers going out of business, reducing cotton production is inevitable.”

Cotton futures have slipped below 60 cents a pound, with March 2015 futures closing at 59.18 cents a pound, down more than 70 percent from an all-time high of $2.197 reached in 2011, according to Cotton Market News.

Global reserves are expected to reach an all-time high of 107.36 million bales, each weighing 480 pounds, according to USDA data.

Don’t look for prices on cotton products to reflect the downturn in futures prices, however. There is often a disconnect between the return farmers get for their efforts and what consumers pay for finished products.

Amid ruins of Soviet dystopia, an avant-garde gem shines

There’s not a whole lot going for Karakalpakstan, the sparsely populated autonomous republic that occupies the whole northwestern end of Uzbekistan.

Once home to the Soviet Red Army’s research labs and testing sites for chemical and biological warfare, it’s a Grade A ecological disaster area.

In addition, the region suffers from extensive drought, largely due to exploitation of the Amu and Syr Darya rivers in the eastern part of Uzbekistan. As a result, the Aral Sea has all but dried up and crop failures in Karakalpakstan have deprived tens of thousands of their livelihood. If that weren’t enough, shortages of potable water have created a surge of infectious diseases

While the name Karakalpakstan may not ring a bell, you likely have seen the desolate pictures of the dry Aral Sea, which features grounded rusty Soviet-era ships, desert-like conditions and overall desolation.

To get an idea of how much damage the Soviets wreaked on the region, consider this description from the blog The Travel Lust:

The Aral Sea, situated in the Karakalpakstan State of Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth-largest in-land sea, it has since shrunk by 90 percent, the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a failed Soviet cotton production project. The disaster had ruined the once-robust fishing economy around Moynaq town and left fishing trawlers stranded, … impoverishing the whole area. The whole area lost so much water that the whole area has turned into a salty sandy wasteland.

Added the website Strange Maps, “The former lakebed is the birth chamber of countless toxic sandstorms plaguing the region, keeping local life expectancy in check.”

Strange Maps adds, perhaps unnecessarily, that the capital of Nukus doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of the discerning tourist – or any tourist, for that matter:

Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew, authors of The Golden Road to Samarkand, one of the best introductions to Uzbekistan, describe Nukus as ‘a grim, spiritless city of bitter pleasures whose gridded avenues of socialism support a centerless town, only to peter out around fading fringes into an endless wasteland of cotton fields punctuated by the random, surreal exotica of wild camels loitering in neglected apartment blocks.’ Even those trying to talk up the tourist potential of Karakalpakstan ruefully admit that the Tashkent Hotel in Nukus is ‘abysmal … certainly a prime candidate for the worst hotel in the world.’

Apparently, the area does have one thing going for it: It’s home to the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, after the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

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Southern cotton, hit by rains, late to mature

cotton clarendon county 003

A recent drive through rural South Carolina shows evidence of a healthy cotton crop, albeit one that was late to mature.

Cotton pickers and module builders are just now ramping up in the Carolinas, Georgia and many other parts of the Deep South, the result of a growing season slowed by unusually large amounts of rain this year.

Much of South Carolina, for example, has received 50 or more inches of rain in 2013, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches above average precipitation levels. The same appears to be the case across the region.

In years past, lack of rain has been an issue for cotton farmers, particularly in Texas, a major cotton-growing area, so why is excessive rain an issue?

It’s a factor for several reasons, according to Mark Crosby, Emanuel County (Ga.) extension coordinator:

Heavy rainfall caused excessive erosion on sloping fields and in places in fields where the water puddled, the cotton plants stood in water. The worst fields had areas where the cotton drowned, but, in much of the cotton land, the plants stood in soggy, wet soil for weeks and weeks.

Examination of the crop roots showed very little tap root development and shallow feeder roots. Shallow feeder and tap roots limited the plants ability to take up fertilizer because of a lack of oxygen in the soil.

As soils become more and more saturated and eventually became waterlogged, the effects on cotton plants included yellowing, reduced shoot growth, reduced nutrient uptake, altered hormone levels, and other problems. Some fields of cotton had symptoms of reddening leaves and stems being too wet, as well as typical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

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Lone Star: A lonely look at the past

Calhoun County 9-1-2013 001

A trip to the tiny town of Lone Star, SC, is a journey not so much into the past, but into oblivion.

The unincorporated community, located in Calhoun County just a few miles from Lake Marion, is just a few notches above ghost town status.

Its downtown, once a bustling small-town locale, now features four abandoned buildings: An old freight depot, a general store and two old-style gas stations. Nearby is an active African Methodist Church. A few homes and cotton farms can be seen in the surrounding area.

Lone Star was on the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, between Rimini and Creston, another pair of communities that are all but gone.

The railroad line, now owned by CSX, still runs through the town, but there’s no longer any need to stop in Lone Star.

It’s apparent that the freight depot at some point was pulled away from the tracks and relocated on the other side of the road that runs through the town.

It sits silent, padlocked, with a sign that warns visitors that “Hunting, fishing, trapping or trespassing for any purpose is strictly forbidden,” and that violators will be prosecuted.

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