Ron Smith never liked the term treadmill to describe the plight of modern farming.

Willard Cochrane, an agricultural economist, coined that term decades ago to illustrate how farming was permanently locked in a technological treadmill and how new technology constantly had to be updated and introduced to farming to increase output and lower prices.

Smith understands the underlying explanation.  He just never bought into the term.

He should know better than most. Perhaps few other people on this planet have gained a deeper insight into cotton farming both inside, growing up on a north Alabama farm, and outside, advising cotton growers about how to deal with one of the biggest banes of cotton production — insects.

Having grown up this way and having seen all the changes that have swept the cotton landscape over the past two generations as a cotton insect expert, Smith has a hard time seeing cotton production in such dire terms.  

“Treadmill implies to me that you’re locked in the same place — walking but not getting anywhere,” says Smith, an Auburn University professor emeritus of entomology and Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist.

“We’re definitely not doing that — every time we adopt new technology, we’re in a new place.”

Smith still remembers the time in the 1950s when producers’ fortunes in the fall were tied directly to the previous winter.

“The boll weevil’s severity depended directly on the previous winter’s severity,” Smith recalls. “If the winter was cold, we made a great crop; if mild, we made only an average crop.”

Those were the days of dust insecticides — toxophene, BHC and DDT — all worth something, Smith says, but not nearly so valuable as what came later in the form of liquid and foliar sprays.