Profile: Hubert Morris
North Carolina Peanut Producers Seek Pest Management Alternatives
|North Carolina farmer Herbert Morris and other U.S. growers cut expenses by $20 an acre by applying an over-the-row peanut insecticide only when they observed crop-damaging thrips. |
– Photo by Scott Marlow
While Hubert Morris was first and foremost a cotton and peanut farmer, he easily could have become a scientist. For several years, the North Carolina producer ran experiments to learn more about the “whys” behind successful cropping systems.
“I want to know what will work and what won’t,” Morris said. Naturally, he also wanted to learn about ways to improve profits. “A lot of this information leads to the bottom line, and we have found working with test plots is beneficial.”
Producing peanuts can be a chemically intensive enterprise. Annual pesticide bills can represent as much as 33 percent of a peanut producer’s costs. Morris and four other North Carolina farmers learned they could save close to $20 an acre in insecticide costs, thanks to a SARE-funded project looking at ways to control thrips in peanuts.
Working with the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), the group sought a less expensive way to control thrips, small insects that burrow into unopened peanut buds early in the season, than the in-furrow preventative pesticide called aldicarb.
Farmers typically apply aldicarb at about seven pounds per acre in furrows during planting as a sure-fire treatment, regardless of whether thrips will be present. Morris – who planted winter cover crops and no-till planted his spring crop into wheat/rye stubble to slow erosion and increase water infiltration – wanted a cheaper, less environmentally damaging alternative.
The farmers planted 16 rows of peanuts with aldicarb and 16 rows without it. Involving five farmers in the study allowed the group to replicate and randomize the experiment across multiple farms, allowing researchers to distinguish between random variation and true test results.
In the control plots, the farmers tried alternatives to combat thrips when outbreaks occurred: insecticidal soaps and introducing beneficial mites among them. Neither worked reliably. Then they tried a substitute insecticide, orthene, which is used as a foliar application rather than in-furrow.
The tests taught the farmers that they could cut from seven pounds of aldicarb an acre to about half a pound of orthene, saving $19 per acre. “It takes them from a preventative pesticide to using far less of an expensive and toxic product,” said Scott Marlow, who directs The Peanut Project for RAFI USA. “And they may not have to use it at all.”
The Peanut Project grew to a network of more than 60 farmers. Some of them cut pesticide use by up to 85 percent, realizing savings of as much of $120 an acre without reducing yields. Morris found in three of the four years he tested alternative controls, his “no-aldicarb” plots performed as well as the plots sprayed with the preventative pesticide. “The crop didn’t look as pretty, but the yield was just as good,” he said. “It’s a tremendous savings and an environmental benefit.”
Editor’s note: Hubert Morris, a great believer in on-farm research, died in 2002. Many of the farmers in this article have reconsidered their production decisions due to the changes in the Federal Peanut Program in the 2002 Farm Bill. As a result, many have significantly reduced peanut acreage and switched to other crops.