My interest in anything remotely related to television seems to wane with each passing year. Maybe it’s the advent and popularity of “reality shows,” which seem to me to be a true sign of the apocalypse, culturally speaking. Don’t we get a large enough dose of reality in everyday life without viewing more of it when we return to the comfort of our homes in the evening?
But recent events — primarily orthopedic surgery — afforded me more idle time than I knew what to do with. And, after reading everything within my reach, I was stuck with the prospect of staring into the abyss, a 42-inch television screen.
You can imagine my great surprise when I aimed my remote, switched the “power” button, and saw Auburn University’s Old Rotation featured on the “America’s Heartland” program.
For those of us who live and work in Auburn, it’s easy to take the Old Rotation for granted. It has always been there, for more than 100 years now. It’s an anomaly on the Auburn campus — a small plot of land that essentially looks as it always has, even as a major research university has sprung up around it. In the shadow of an 88,000-seat football stadium and other multi-million dollar structures sits the one-acre Old Rotation, and for some of us that’s reassuring, especially those of us who are supporters of agricultural research.
The television program featured Auburn University Extension Agronomist Dennis Delaney and AU Libraries’ archivist Dewayne Cox discussing the Old Rotation, which is the oldest continuous cotton rotation experiment in the world and the third oldest ongoing field crop experiment in the United States.
As a short history lesson, the Old Rotation was begun in 1896 by Professor J.F. Duggar in response to Southern cotton yields that were declining because growers planted the same crop on the same land year after year, a cycle that caused significant soil nutrient loss. The aim of the plot was to test whether soil nutrient levels could be maintained by growing a crop of legumes on the same land as cotton, but in the winter months when cotton doesn’t grow. It became evident within a few years that adding the winter legume crop as a rotation was sufficient to restore adequate nutrients to the soil to indefinitely maintain an annual cotton crop.
The program pointed out that research pioneers at Auburn recognized long ago that there was a better way of growing cotton. At the time the Old Rotation was established, cotton producers believed that taking their fields down to bare soil was the best planting practice.
It was a time, explains Delaney, when almost all the cotton and corn acreage in Alabama was clean tillage. Producers, he says, were proud of the fact they buried all the crop residue and left the fields bare, with barely a weed in sight. In the meantime, however, soil erosion was occurring, and all the nutrients were washing down to the creeks.
For more than a century now, several generations of plant scientists have used the Old Rotation to manipulate conditions to test theories on field conditions that directly impact cotton production. “The big improvement we’ve seen is when we go ahead and plant a winter cover crop, you know, keep something green here year round and keep those roots growing and keep the soil from washing away, keep all the nutrients in place,” says Delaney.
In addition to improving the production practices of the state’s growers, the Old Rotation also has served as a vehicle for teaching, allowing students to take a hands-on approach in evaluating the impact of crop rotation, field moisture and plant nutrients.
Cox — the AU archivist — says scientists realized early in the research that farmers needed to diversify. “And that notion goes back as far as Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson felt like and said that those who cultivate the soil are the sturdy yeomen that form the backbone of the republic.”
Cotton remains critical to the success of Alabama agriculture, with the state producing more than half a million bales each year, worth more than $140 million. And, with each passing year, the Old Rotation remains as it has always been.
It’s nice to know that some things never change.