Tough words: “Don’t listen to Extension. They will break you.”

By: Bob Kemerait, UGA Extension Plant Pathologist

It doesn’t end.  What a season; what a harvest; what a year. After enduring the wrath of Hurricane Michael, rains have brought the cotton and peanut harvest to an agonizing standstill for many growers. 

Now into December, cotton in Georgia stretching from Warren County to Early County is yet to be picked and lint streams from the bolls precariously as rains falls again. 

The 2018 harvest gives new meaning to Merle Haggard’s lyrics, “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right.” Risk is an inherent part of farming and fortitude to withstand and rise from loss to uncontrollable forces, like weather, is a shared strength among successful farmers. 

Thrift is another common characteristic among farmer. Thriftiness is the quality of being careful with money or resources, especially by avoiding waste.

Service through Extension is the single most satisfying part of my job. It is a belief that what we do is meaningful to some of the hardest working men and women in our country.  That what I do matters is the spark that gets me up every morning and keeps me going into the night.

It came as quite a blow when a close friend of mine said to me, “You know Bob, several people, most of them dead now, used to tell me, ‘Don’t listen to Extension.  They will break you.  Buck, Earl, Johnny, probably 10 or more, all agreed.  They all warned me about that.’”

Don’t listen to Extension. They will break you.  Those words sting badly.  Even today, there is a feeling among some that because it is not our money being spent, Extension can be cavalier when making recommendations.  More troubling, a few believe that we in Extension are influenced to make recommendations that favor more expensive products.  I strongly reject both ideas and counter that in Extension, we pride ourselves on providing, non-biased, research-based recommendations.  Without our integrity intact, we are nothing.

Extension provides growers with strategies to reduce risks to crop losses from pests and the need for costly inputs.  Good crop rotation, where fields are planted away from crops that share the same diseases, and planting disease- or nematode-resistant varieties reduce the need for fungicides and nematicides.  Other important strategies include timeliness of applications ahead of disease and effective delivery of fungicides to the target area.

Growers who plant susceptible varieties on short rotations and who are late in fungicide applications with little attention to spray coverage will suffer avoidable losses no matter what products they use.   As exemplified by Peanut Rx and numerous prescription fungicide programs, growers who are attentive to their production practices can reduce their fungicide costs while at the same time protecting their yields.

My recommendations for disease management programs on peanuts cotton, corn and soybeans have become more intensive and sometimes costlier than they were 20 years ago; however, there are reasons for this. 

First, we have new diseases, such as Asian soybean rust and target spot of cotton, which were unknown then but impact us today. 

Second, we better understand the threat some diseases, such as southern corn rust and northern corn leaf blight, pose to our crops. 

Third, our arsenal now includes products which may have greater activity against a specific disease-causing organism, may have broader activity against a number of diseases, may be used at lower rates and may provide longer protective windows than did older, less expensive products. 

Fourth, with improved varieties and expanded irrigation, yield potential for our crops has improved, increasing yield potential and reducing the risk to loss from droughty weather.  It would be difficult for our row-crop growers to be profitable today if their yield expectations were that same as they were two decades ago.

As I see it, the job of Extension is to provide growers with the information they need to make the best decisions that they can.  Growers who want the least costly management program, yet one that will protect their yields, should do five things. 

First, they should have a minimum of two full growing seasons between planting the same or similarly susceptible crops.

Second, they should take advantage of disease and nematode-resistant varieties.

Third, they should take soil samples to check for nematodes, follow results from sentinel plots and use risk indices like Peanut Rx to clearly understand the threat from diseases and nematodes in a field.  Fourth, they should choose the fungicides and nematicides most appropriate for the risks they face.  Lastly, they should be timely and attentive in their application strategies.

My friend ended our conversation with the following:  “When I was 28, I was farming 1,000 acres of row crops, 100 acres of tobacco and 20 acres of cabbage.  I had never been to an Extension grower meeting.  My agent at the time sought me out to get me involved in Extension.  My yields went up 30 to 40% in the first year.” 

At our core, we in Extension provide research-based, non-biased information.  From there, the growers decide best how take it to their fields and find success.

(Dr. Bob Kemerait serves as Extension Plant Pathologist for row crops with the UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences. Kemerait is based at the UGA Tifton Campus and supports county Extension agents and farmers across the state. )

This article was originally published in Southeast Farm Press on December 12, 2018.