Suffolk, Va., farmer Tommy Rountree has seen a little bit of everything in his farming career, but risks involved in farming today is one of the toughest challenges he has had to face.
Rountree grew 350 acres of cotton, 200 acres of peanuts and 50 acres of corn in 2008. He says 2009 will be a challenge.
“The best I can do is book my cotton for the best price I can and get the best contract I can get on peanuts, and use whatever inputs I need to grow a good crop. High yields and high quality are the best defense I know of to offset risks,” he says.
When Rountree started farming his current farm in 1980 life was much simpler. He and his wife grew corn and peanuts and good children. Three sons, Chad, Glenn and Jeremy are all involved in agriculture and all help their dad when things get tight on the family farm.
His son, Glenn came home from playing football in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers to be Extension Coordinator in Isle of Wight County and has since gone on to a career with Pioneer Seeds. Jeremy sells micronutrients for crops and Chad is a banker specializing in agricultural lending.
“Corn and peanuts was a good rotation — we thought. Most years we made our money on peanuts and took our licks on corn. The cost of managing diseases in peanuts and changes in the peanut program that dropped the price we got for our peanuts put us in a real squeeze,” Rountree recalls.
He grew his first cotton crop in 1992. “I didn’t know what I was doing, that was the first good year for corn in a long time, and I swore I’d never grow cotton again. That lasted for three years,” he says.
Now cotton is a staple on his farm and has proven to be a good rotation with peanuts. “It’s the best rotation in terms of cleaning up nematodes and breaking disease cycles — the rotation has been one way of reducing risk on our small farming operations,” Rountree adds.
Though technology has been a sometimes friend in fighting risk, Rountree says he has been slow to adopt new things. “I was probably the last cotton farmer in Virginia to switch to Roundup Ready cotton,” he says with a laugh.
In 2005, he planted Deltapine 393 conventional cotton, and it was one of his best crops. In 2006, results weren’t nearly so good, and by that time ALS-resistant weeds were popping up on his farm. The availability of Roundup Ready Flex varieties and the need to clean up ALS-resistant weeds, combined with the difficulty in finding conventional varieties, forced him to adapt the new varieties.
High technology fees and skyrocketing cost of glyphosate put much of the risk back into growing Roundup Ready crops, forcing the veteran Virginia grower to explore some options for adapting technology to his operation.
His son Glenn suggested he try one of the new Phytogen varieties that performed well in 2006 in Virginia Tech variety trials. In 2007, he planted Phytogen 370 in fields near his house.
The new varieties did well, but also allowed him to use Ignite at a fraction of the cost of glyphosate. “Ignite works real well, as well as glyphosate if you get it on the weeds before they get big,” Rountree says.
“I am real pleased with the yield I got from the Phytogen varieties, especially the ones that include WideStrike — we don’t see any yield drag with these or other varieties of cotton when we grow the crop two or three years in a row in the same field,” he adds.
WideStrike expresses the Cry1F and Cry1Ac Bacillus thuringiensis proteins in cotton plants, providing season-long protection from a broad spectrum of cotton pests such as cotton bollworm, tobacco budworm, beet armyworm, fall armyworm, soybean loopers, cabbage loopers, and pink bollworm.
“I don’t know exactly what the yield was, but in one field, we picked something close to four bales per acre. I set the baskets on the picker for two bale cotton and it usually takes 20 or so rows to fill it. In this particular field after seven or eight rows the basket was full. I knew we had some cotton in that field,” he recalls.
In 2008, he went full tilt with Phytogen, noting that lower technology costs, weed management options, high yields and good quality help him manage risks. Final yield results aren’t in for the 2008 cotton crop, but it looks good, Rountree says.
With more experience in peanuts, the Virginia grower says he takes more risks with his peanut crop. “The new fungicides that have come out in recent years, especially Omega, don’t completely solve the disease problems we face growing peanuts in Virginia, but it does make these problems manageable.” Omega 500F, the next generation chemistry of fluazinam, is the only available crop protection product from the pyridinamine chemical class. Omega attacks pathogens at multiple sites to provide effective control of Sclerotinia blight in peanuts and white mold and late blight in potatoes.
“In the old days, if you got Sclerotinia in your fields, it was all over. We had a few fungicides — they were better than snowballs, but not by much,” Rountree laughs.
The development of Sclerotinia resistant peanut varieties that include the BOO, or barley oxalate oxidase gene, should pump even more life into Virginia’s peanut economy. Though good contract prices and good yields the past two years have brought some land back into production, the state still lags well behind its traditional peanut acreage.
“I’m hoping to plant some of the new transgenic peanuts as early as 2010, if they can sort out all the legal stuff and figure out who will build the seed supply,” Rountree says.
He adds that the BOO gene is just the tip of the iceberg. “Dr. Phipps (Pat Phipps, longtime Virginia Tech peanut pathologist) already has the genes to add CBR and leafspot resistance,” he says.
“What we really need in peanuts is something equivalent to the modules we use in cotton. Again, this technology could further reduce costs and risks in handling and transporting peanuts,” he adds
“While making one of many, many trips at 35 miles per hour from our farm to Norfolk (where his buyer is located), pulling a trailer loaded with peanuts, I figured up how many miles I drive in a typical year — just transporting my crop. It is the equivalent of driving from Norfolk, Va. to Little Rock, Ark., dumping the trailer loaded with peanuts and driving on to Phoenix,” Rountree says.
“The combination of seed technology, harvest technology and pest management systems all factor into growing high quality, high yielding cotton and peanuts — that’s the answer to managing risk,” the Virginia grower says.