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.

Landscape altered

By the time Smith fulfilled his longstanding dream of working as a cotton entomologist, the landscape had altered dramatically — and for the better. Improved liquid and foliar sprays were allowing growers to get a tighter grip on weevils.

This new arsenal enabled growers to target weevils, though the practices remained highly labor intensive — not to mention time consuming.

“Basically, this involved waiting until after the 4th of July and then spraying every five days with phosphate insecticide until cotton was mature.”

Dramatic changes, some good, some near disastrous, followed in the early 1990s, beginning with one of the most positive and far-reaching changes in cotton farming: Boll weevil eradication.

In cotton production terms, weevil eradication was the equivalent of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Yet, farmers soon faced a near disaster as tobacco budworms developed resistance to some of the  pyrethroid chemistry, which up to that time, had proven highly selective and more environmentally friendly. Smith remembers them as horrendous years for many growers.

Fortunately for Smith and growers, field research of cotton genetically modified to resist budworm was already well under way.

One of the most radical advances in cotton technology had arrived: Transgenic Bt cotton.

Adoption of transgenic cotton moved rapidly. By 1996, some 77 percent of Alabama acreage was planted in Bt cotton.

“Borrowing that term I don’t like, it underscored how quickly we got on the treadmill, seeing how adoption would keep us in business,” Smith says. “And we wouldn’t have been in business if we had not adopted this technology.”

The last decade serves as a testament to just how much growers have benefited from the technological strides of the last 40 years.

“With caterpillars out of the picture, we have been reduced to spraying for an occasional escaped worm as well as the bugs and sucking pests.”

Cotton producers now spray only three to five times a year — a far cry from only a few decades ago, when weekly sprayings dominated the life of producers throughout most the growing season.

Transgenic technology has also brought two changes that Smith hardly could have imagined and that have ensured the survival of cotton producers.

By enabling only a couple of people to manage vast acreages in cotton land, it has enabled family operations to remain in business. Moreover, by vastly reducing the growers’ reliance on insecticides, it has also enabled cotton producers to coexist peacefully with their non-farming neighbors — a crucial advantage in areas of rapid urban sprawl, such as parts of the Tennessee Valley.

Again, that’s why Smith has never bought into talk of treadmills. Cotton production technology isn’t locking farmers in place, it’s moving them forward in ways they never could have imagined only a few decades ago, he says.