Dillard — like many Georgia produce farmers — has had trouble finding reliable labor.

“We contracted with someone out of Florida this year to harvest and pack our melons. One reason we didn’t plant cantaloupes this past year was because of the extra labor required.”

All of Dillard’s cropland is watered with overhead irrigation. Rainfall, he says, was more plentiful than usual this past season.

There is a little more value with a melon crop than with a row crop, says Dillard, but there’s also more risk.

“With a produce crop, you’re fluctuating with the market. You can forward contract your cotton, but with melons, it’s an open market and totally dependent on supply and demand.

“This is not a get-rich-quick situation. It’s just a matter of trying to utilize your land more efficiently. We prep the land for melons, and then all we have to do is come back in and plant cotton. We’re not prepping the land a second time, and we have some residual fertilizer from the melon crop.

“We’ll pull a tissue sample, but primarily, we’re hitting it hard with ammonium nitrate as we normally would do with cotton.”

There’s no science to intercropping or handbook to follow because it’s still a learning process, says Dillard.

“We’re supposed to be stewards of the land, so we’re trying to utilize a system that helps us in that regard.

“My recommendation to those trying it for the first time is that your first priority should be your first crop, and the other one will take care of itself.

“As soon as you know you’re finished with a field, you need to be taking it out because you know it’s stressed. But after you side-dress and water the cotton, it’ll come out of that stage and you can start to set a good crop.”

Dillard has worked closely with his county agent Brian Tankersley on the intercropping system.

Tankersley says that previous research with five growers has revealed that cantaloupe and watermelon yields were comparable to the yields of those same crops when grown alone.

Melon harvest did not damage young cotton plants, and cotton planting did not delay melon harvest, he says.

In several locations, cotton has yielded more than 1,100 pounds per acre in the intercropping scenario, says Tankersley. Also, in 2010 and 2011, economic returns and the profitability of cotton compared to late-planted grain sorghum was very positive toward cotton inter-cropping.

Researchers continue to evaluate weed control management and pesticide compatibility issues.

phollis@farmpress.com