A conservation-tillage perfectionist, Barry Martin of Hawkinsville, Ga., improves his land year after year by using heavy rye cover crops.

As a result of his success as a cotton and peanut farmer, Martin has been selected as the Georgia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Martin now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

A farmer for 40 years, Martin farmed 800 acres last year, including 200 acres of rented land and 600 acres of owned land. His land includes 200 acres of timber, mostly planted to pines in non-irrigated corners of crop fields. He’s also planning to add additional longleaf pine trees.

In addition to cotton and peanuts, he grows corn, wheat and sorghum. His irrigated crops last year included 250 acres of cotton, 125 acres of peanuts, 100 acres of corn and 175 acres of wheat. He also grew 93 acres of sorghum and 40 acres of rye.

His per acre yields last year were impressive, about 1,250 pounds of lint for cotton, 5,900 pounds per acre for peanuts, 207 bushels per acre for corn, 60 bushels per acre for wheat, 40 bushels per acre for sorghum and 25 bushels per acre for rye.

“Some of my cotton last year yielded close to three bales per acre,” he says, “and my twin-row peanut yields were the highest I’ve ever produced.”

With conservation-tillage, Martin is able to farm mostly by himself. Two friends help during planting and harvesting. One is a former Deere mechanic and the other is a retired neighbor. Martin says local farmers also help each other when the need arises.

He designed and built a cover crop roller implement to manage the rye residue. He used 16-inch diameter steel well casing and attached it to the old frame of a six-row ripper-bedder. Metal bars welded to the well casing drum help crimp the rye stems. “By rolling rye, we help prevent weed germination,” he says. “Rolling helps control pigweeds resistant to glyphosate.”

Rolling alone won’t control all the weeds. “You still need a burndown herbicide,” he adds. “Last year, I sprayed first and then rolled. This year, I rolled first and then sprayed.”

Martin plants and subsoils in one trip, dropping the seed into a two- to three-inch-wide slot, while maintaining his cover crops on the soil between his crop rows.

Test with black oats

Though rye is his cover crop of choice, he has extensive experience growing other covers. For instance, his farm was the site of a three-year test involving black oats, a cover crop widely used in Brazil. The project showed that black oats helped control pigweeds by shading germinating weed seedlings. Information from this study helped secure funding for a USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service pilot project aimed at controlling glyphosate-resistant pigweeds.

Black oats, however, are easily killed by frost. “This far north, black oats don’t produce the biomass we get from rye,” says Martin.

He’s a bit more optimistic about crimson clover cover. In the fall of 2010, he planted AU Robin crimson clover on a small acreage. Early in the following spring, he used herbicides to kill strips of clover, and then planted his corn into the killed strips.

He allowed clover in the row middles to grow and produce seed before killing the stand 21 days after corn emergence. He believes this system will encourage clover reseeding. Clover also contributes nitrogen to the soil and may allow Martin to reduce nitrogen fertilizer costs.

Strong commodity prices in recent years have allowed Martin to market his crops at a profit. He doesn’t use a market advisor but relies on Georgia Farm Bureau market news reports that he receives several times each day. In previous years, he sold cotton through the Autauga Quality Cotton Association.

Recently, he started marketing his cotton, corn and wheat through a local company, Heart of Georgia Peanut and Gin.

A few years ago, he contracted some of his cotton at prices up to $1.39 per pound. For this year, his cotton contracts will pay him 91 to 95 cents per pound. He contracted 2011 corn at $7 per bushel and 2012 corn at $6 per bushel. A contract on his 2012 wheat crop will pay $8.25 per bushel.

He markets his peanuts by contracting with Birdsong Peanuts. The contract price for this year’s peanut crop is $750 per ton.

Martin grew up on his family’s farm. After high school, he joined the National Guard, and in 1972, his mother helped him buy a few pieces of farm equipment. He started farming that year on 150 acres of rented land. This land had grown pine trees in the old Soil Bank program, and Martin cleared it to be able to plant cotton and peanuts.

His dedication to conservation and sustainable farming earned Martin recognition in 2011 by the Planters peanut snack food brand, a division of Kraft Foods. Co-sponsored by the National Peanut Board, this honor designated Martin as the first winner from the Southeast of the Naturally Remarkable Planters award.

As the 2011 recipient, Martin received $10,000 to donate to a community project of his choice. He designated the Pulaski County Cooperative Extension Endowment as the recipient.

Martin serves as board president for the Ocmulgee Electric Membership Corp. He has been a member of its board since 1972. Since 1994, he has served on the Pulaski County Farmers Appreciation Committee. Also starting in 1994, he has served as an advisor on agricultural and natural resource issues for the Pulaski County Extension office.

His wife Alice played an important role in his farming career. Her income as an elementary school teacher paid most of their bills during his early years of farming. She retired from teaching in 2004.

The Martins have three adult children. Marc is an assistant vice-president at the Bank of Perry. Monica is a teacher at Pulaski County Elementary School. And Mitzi is a registered nurse who works at a dialysis center in Hawkinsville.

Wants to be best

“I live and breathe farming,” says Martin. “I don’t want to be the biggest farmer, but I want to be one of the best at what I do.”

Steve Brown with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Ronnie Barrentine, Extension agent in Pulaski County, nominated Martin for the award. Barrentine admires Martin for developing a systems approach to conservation-tillage.

“This involves maintaining a ‘system’ of cover crops and old crop residue on the soil surface year-round,” says Barrentine. “He is building better soil, improving the soil’s organic matter, increasing the number of beneficial soil organisms and he is improving the water holding capacity of his soil.” 

As the Georgia state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Martin will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a second $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 23rd consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $884,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Georgia include:  Timothy McMillan of Enigma, 1990; Bud Butcher of Senoia, 1991; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 1992; John Morgan of Mystic, 1993; Alan Verner of Rutledge, 1994; Donnie Smith of Willacoochee, 1995; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 1996; Thomas Coleman, Jr. of Hartsfield, 1997; Glenn Heard of Bainbridge, 1998; Bob McLendon of Leary, 1999; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 2000; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2001; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 2002; Jim Donaldson of Metter, 2003; Joe Boddiford of Sylvania, 2004; Jimmy Webb of Leary, 2005; Gary Paulk of Wray, 2006; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2007; Wayne McKinnon of Douglas, 2008; Bill Brim of Tifton, 2009; Robert Dasher of Glenville, 2010; and Carlos Vickers of Nashville, 2011.

Georgia has had three overall winners, James Lee Adams of Camilla in 2000, Armond Morris of Ocilla in 2002 and Robert Dasher of Glennville in 2010.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Martin farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-10. The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, a retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist who is president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., from Greenville, Miss.; John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; and farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008.