As cotton producers continue to look for ways to improve their profitability and fully utilize their resources, intercropping with vegetables might become a viable option, says a southwest Georgia county Extension agent who is working with a group of his farmers on just such a project.

This past year marked the second growing season that Brian Tankersley of Tift County, Ga., has worked with growers on intercropping systems. In 2010, they had success with growing cotton and cantaloupes together. In 2011, they repeated that system and added watermelons to the mix.

Tift County, says Tankersley, is the perfect place for such an experiment because of its crop diversity. “We grow a tremendous amount of produce, including cantaloupes and watermelons, and we also grow a significant amount of cotton, about 20,000 to 25,000 acres. Statewide in Georgia, we have 4,800 to 5,000 acres of cantaloupes planted annually and almost 24,000 acres of watermelons that are grown annually,” he says.

Normally, with cantaloupes, growers usually transplant three to five separate plantings from March through April 30, explains Tankersley. “These are usually two weeks apart to stretch out the harvest time so they can increase their opportunity to maybe strengthen the markets if they start off a little soft. Basically, it gives them some protection in the marketing of their cantaloupes,” he says.

Many times, these growers use a narrow plastic about 30 inches wide, which by the time they bury it, gives them about 18 to 20 inches on top of the bed, he says. “They use overhead irrigation, and some use drip irrigation. In our area, they usually start harvesting around May 30, around Memorial Day, and it stretches out with the different plantings until about mid-July.

“After this, in normal situations, if a grower wants to plant a particular program crop like grain sorghum or late-season corn, they’d pull the plastic, till the soil, and come in and plant. In recent years, growers have had difficulty getting their grain sorghum harvested or their corn dried out. So with the increased price of cotton, there has been an interest in intercropping with vegetables,” he says.

The production method for watermelons is similar to that of cantaloupes, says Tankersley, except that growers usually target being done with harvest by July 4, since the holiday is such an important market.

“Our usual last transplanting date for watermelons is April 15, with similar production practices seen in cantaloupes,” he says.

The studies conducted the past two years have been producer-driven, notes Tankersley.

“Growers came to us in 2010 and said they were going to plant cantaloupes and cotton, so we tried to set up a research study to help document what they were doing, and to see if it was profitable and feasible.

“We looked at the effect on weed control, the proper timing for planting cotton into cantaloupes or cucurbit crops, nematode build-up in cotton following a cucurbit crop, potential pesticide compatibility issues, harvest challenges with both crops, and insect control issues.”