Literally and figuratively speaking, the farming landscape has changed radically since the first East Alabama Cotton Tour was held in 1978.
Back then, most east Alabama farmers were largely preoccupied with one thing — boll weevils, those tiny insects that had inflicted such hardship, both financial and psychological, on so many farmers for so many years.
Today, the focus and even the name of this tour speak volumes about the tidal wave of change that has washed across Alabama’s farming landscape within the last three decades.
For one thing, cotton is no longer the undisputed king of Alabama agriculture — a fact reflected in the tour’s enhanced name: “The East Central Alabama Cotton, Peanut and Soybean Tour,” held Sept. 10 this year at several stops throughout east and central Alabama.
Moreover, boll weevils are scarcely mentioned nowadays. There are still challenges aplenty for producers, but the worry wrinkles etched so deeply onto their weathered faces stem from other causes besides weevils.
“Cotton farmers still face challenges — they’re just different than they were years ago,” says Jeff Clary, a retired Alabama Cooperative Extension System county coordinator who is still lending a hand with the tour he first organized as a freshly hatched agent in the late 1970s.
“Instead of weevils and worms, it is worries about pricing, changes in crop varieties, technology costs, and, yes, that perpetual worry, the weather.”
Along with insects, weed-related worries have changed too, he says.
Three decades ago, there was no such thing as transgenic cotton developed to withstand a limited number of herbicide applications. Today, farmers are dealing with a problem scarcely imagined way back then: Weeds that have developed resistance to some stand-by pesticides used with these transgenic crops, Clary says.
Some have even decided to return to farming with conventional cotton varieties — a change that has presented yet another set of challenges, says Leonard Kuykendall, an Extension regional agent who has worked closely with Clary in recent years planning and implementing the tour.
Within this global economy, farmers are also learning how to walk an increasingly narrow economic tight wire, balancing rising operating costs against commodity prices that, because of immense international competition, are not rising as quickly.
Even so, one facet of the tour has remained the same throughout its 30-year history: Its anchoring in research-based knowledge developed to provide producers with immediate economic benefit, Kuykendall says.
“That’s what we try to do with this tour — provide research and unbiased data,” Kuykendall says.
In fact, that’s been a longstanding principle behind Cooperative Extension work and Extension-related tours from the beginning he says.
“Because we’ve striven these many decades to remain objective and unbiased, I think farmers take a closer look at what we do,” Kuykendall says.
“They talk among themselves and there is a lot to be gained from that, but I think coming out and seeing these trials and the hard data helps them put all of this into sharper perspective.”
Clary, who hopes to assist with at least one more tour before fully retiring from Extension work, expressed it this way: “The tour has been a hit for 30-plus years because farmers gain the latest research-based information even as they learn from each other during the course of the tour.”