For centuries, farmers have operated largely at the mercy of nature's fickle temperament, whether this was expressed as a late freeze, a prolonged drought or a scorching temperature spike.
Now, a growing number of them are pushing back, thanks to what climate researchers have learned about El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), recurrent and normal temperature variations in a large swath of the eastern Pacific Ocean that influence climate conditions in the U.S. Southeast.
Jesse Scott of Malvern, Ala., is among the growing number of producers pushing back against nature using climate forecasts based on what scientists have learned about ENSO.
"I usually plant around 100 acres of dryland corn every year," Scott says, "but from 2006 to 2011, we had really bad rain-fed corn yields."
This hard reality prompted Scott to reduce his dryland corn acreage from about 100 to 20 acres. But after learning about climate forecasting a couple of years ago at a meeting sponsored by the Southeast Climate Consortium and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Scott changed his mind.
Based on 2012 climate forecasts, Scott planted 95 acres of corn — a decision he has never regretted. His 2012 yields averaged 90 bushels an acre. His crop also happened to fetch a high price, making the decision even better, he recalls.
Brandon Dillard, a regional agronomy agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, compares the progress made in climate forecasting to what happened with fertilizer adoption during the last century. A few early forerunners like Scott bought into it, posted significant gains and, in the process, inspired other producers to embrace forecasting.
Also, much like fertilizer adoption, the more farmers buy into it and the more scientists study and build on what they learn, the more refined and useful climate forecasting becomes, says Dillard, one of several Extension educators at the forefront of efforts to help farmers benefit from these new insights.
"When we first started this, one of the goals was for farmers to use forecasting to change how they farmed," Dillard recalls. "I initially thought this was a bit of a stretch, but we're beginning to see this knowledge become more refined and with this refinement has come more tools and information."
Florida's state climatologist, David Zierden, has spent much of his career helping Southeastern row crop producers gain a better understanding of how climate forecasting can contribute to greater farm productivity and less risk.
"We've made some progress," Zierden says, speaking at the 14th annual Wiregrass Cotton Expo, Feb. 15 in Dothan. "We're getting a handle on the predictability of seasonal rainfall and temperature.
"It's not everything we need to know, but we're making progress."
One point driven home to Zierden and other scientists in the last couple of decades is how much drier the month of May has become.
"The message we're trying to hammer home is that May in the southeastern United States has gotten drier," he says. "May is a critical period in the growing season when we are trying to get seed in the ground and a stand established before the onslaught of summer dryness.
"While June rain hasn't changed that much, May rains have declined to an average of about 2 inches — half of what was expected 25 years ago."
Scientists have gained other insights from a close study of the ENSO pattern, which, when not in a neutral phase, is expressed either as an El Niño or La Niña phase.
Warmer surface water temperatures in the Pacific are associated with the El Niño pattern and typically contribute to wetter- and cooler-than-normal winters and springs in the Southeast.
Cooler water surface temperatures with the La Niña effect are typically followed by winter and spring climate patterns much warmer and drier than normal, Zierden says.
Research has demonstrated that corn and wheat yields are affected by these phases, which become more pronounced closer to the Gulf Coast.
"Curiously, when we have El Niño — rainy or stormy winters —we actually get reduced corn yields across the Southeast, while the warmer, drier winters and springs associated with La Niña bring higher corn yields," Zierden says.
Climate researchers were initially stumped by these findings until follow-up discussions with Extension specialists and agents cleared up the confusion.
"We finally figured out what was happening," Zierden says. "Given enough water, especially with irrigation, the warmer temperatures and increased sunshine early in the season — May and April [during La Niña] —get corn off to a good start."
On the other hand, in the cloudy, rainy conditions associated with El Niño, corn starts off slowly, he says.
At Auburn University, Dr. Brenda Oritiz an Alabama Extension specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Soils, cautions that these connections should be studied on a county-by-county basis.
Sorting out how these patterns play out with cotton initially proved challenging. Then a series of crop simulation models developed by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Georgia shed some much-needed light on the problem, Zierden says.
The models revealed that early planting dates under the neutral phase — which happen to be the current and forecasted ENSO phase for spring and early summer 2013 — decrease the chances for low yields and also enhance the prospects for high yields. On the other hand, late planting dates produce exactly the opposite: an increased chance of low yields and reduced opportunities for high yields.
"Putting all this together — and with the understanding that I'm neither an Extension specialist nor an agronomist — I think it demonstrates that planting early, getting a stand established and taking advantage of existing soil moisture from winter and early spring rainfall better equips the crop to withstand the dry periods that follow in May and June," Zierden says.
Ortiz has also been at the forefront of efforts to acquaint Alabama producers with the merits of climate forecasting. While underscoring that these techniques are no panacea, they provide farmers with an added layer of protection, she says.
"Farmers have to understand that when we speak of climate forecasting, we're talking about probability, not an ironclad guarantee," she says.
"On the other hand, when you think back to the serious drought from 1953 to 1954 when farmers had little information and few, if any, tools, we're better prepared than we've ever been."For more, please visit the ACES Climate & Weather Information site.
The deepest insight Paul Mask ever gained into the value of precision farming occurred more than a generation ago, years before the term became commonplace in agriculture.
A fiercely determined and, as events later proved, farsighted central Alabama dairy producer had worked out a strategy for managing fertilizer application costs.
Using a Soil Conservation Service map, the dairyman divided all the small fields he farmed into sections and then soil tested each of them, basing his fertilizer applications on what was revealed by each test, recalls Mask, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System assistant director for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources and an Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.
As Mask recalls, this dairyman, years ahead of time, had learned to "use mapping and soil testing to gain a clear picture of this farming operation."
Despite all the changes that have occurred in precision farming—despite all of the huge strides that have been posted within the last couple of decades—Mask still believes this persevering dairyman's innovative insight still supplies the governing principle for the adoption and use of this technology.
That, as Mask sees it, is the essence—and the promise—of precision farming: using technology to gain a clear and comprehensive picture of one's farming operations to secure the highest measure of farm efficiency and profitability by reducing input usage, insulating against risk and enhancing sustainable farming practices.
"That's always been the challenge," Mask says. "To me, it's never been about adopting individual pieces of technology—rather, it's about how the adoption of this technology leads to a change in mindset."
Dr. John Fulton, an Alabama Extension precision farming specialist and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering who filled Mask's shoes a decade ago after he assumed his current administrative position, sees the next challenge as helping producers become firmly anchored to this guiding principle.
"In the last decade we've made strides showing farmers how to use precision farming technologies to avoid over-application and increase efficiency," Fulton says.
The next big challenge is helping producers acquire a comprehensive understanding of this technology and its wider uses.
"Basically, it boils down to this: How do we take all this agronomic data and process it and, by gaining knowledge from it, make more informed farming decisions?" Fulton asks.
"Right now, data management is the challenge—about the biggest one we face."
While acquiring the big picture has always been the implicit goal of precision technology adoption, Fulton says that there has been a tendency for producers to lose sight of this fact.
"For our part, I think we have done a good job helping our producers adopt the right technologies for their operations," Fulton says. "Likewise, I think we've done a really good job helping them understand how they grow with this technology over time to maximize benefits."
Now comes the challenge of showing producers how to integrate all of this technology seamlessly into a larger picture, he says.
"Hopefully, what we learn from all of this is that everything is interrelated and that a single farming decision doesn't take place in a vacuum but affects the whole operation."
This systems approach to farming made possible by precision farming adoption is a skill that farmers no longer can discount, especially considering that a number of economic factors are forcing producers to expand or increase production to stay profitable.
"Both statewide and nationwide, farmers are trying to get bigger in order to cover input costs," says Brandon Dillard, an Alabama Extension regional agent in southeast Alabama.
"This tech provides them with ability—to get bigger without a lot more people and equipment."
Despite the promise this seamless approach offers, Fulton says cultivating this mindset is proving a challenge for some farmers who have always valued their autonomy.
Data generation and management are the bread and butter in the future of crop production, and under some licensing agreements, farmers are using this technology in exchange for allowing equipment companies open access to the farm data collected on ag machinery.
"That's a hurdle for many producers," Fulton says. "They don't like the idea of turning over all their data to a company.
"There's always been a strong tradition of freedom of choice in farming. They're not only worried about how all this data will be used but also how it will affect their control over their operations and their identities as producers."
Even so, in this highly charged global farming economy, producers have no alternative, Mask says.
He cites Brazil and other emerging agricultural powerhouses as the reason why precision farming adoption on a wide scale will be inevitable.
"Unless we learn to use every input in the most efficient way possible, we will no longer be equipped to provide products at the least cost. It's really that simple."
The Lewis and Clarke expedition into the sprawling prairies and thickets of the Western wilderness may be romanticized today, but some 200 years ago it was an undertaking inspired by hard political reality.
President Thomas Jefferson, who had just completed purchase of the vast region known as Louisiana, dispatched the two explorers to take a thoroughgoing inventory of the resources in this virgin land. He wanted to know what in this vast territory could be exploited by a young farming nation as it pushed relentlessly into the deep reaches of the so-called Western back country.
And exploit Americans did — for more than a century before nature began pushing back with a vengeance, says Dr. Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.
Long before the laying of the Continental Railroad, hundreds of thousands of farm families had pushed beyond the Mississippi into the Plains, over the Rockies and ultimately to the California coast. Railroads only made this relentless pushing easier — and faster.
"There was nothing we couldn't exploit — and we did," Mitchell says.
Even as early as the 1860s, a few foresighted statesmen had perceived that Americans were dealing with limited resources — thinking reflected in the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which established a network of agricultural schools to impart scientific farming methods to young farmers.
"Congress perceived we were running out of land and that we had to come up with some way of sustaining agricultural production with the resources that we had," Mitchell says.
With the establishment of agricultural research stations following passage of the Hatch Act of 1887, scientists, including the late John Duggar of what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute began laying the groundwork for what we know today as sustainable agriculture.
"His (Duggar's) basic premise was that we could sustain cotton production by following a few simple practices — rotating crops, keeping the land covered in winter," Mitchell says. "(That) underscored that so long as land remained productive we could sustain agricultural production."
Duggar is remembered for affirming that "agriculture will come into its own when her fields are green in winter."
The Chickens Come Home to Roost
Unfortunately, few farmers then were heeding the calls of Duggar and other conservation-minded scientists. By the 1930s, the proverbial chickens had come home to roost in the Midwest. A decade-long drought was made worse by farming practices that paid little heed to the environment.
Precious topsoil that had accumulated over centuries crumbled in the summer heat and was blown hundreds of miles by brisk prairie winds.
The worsening effects of this Dust Bowl drove about 25 percent of the population of the Great Plains off their farms — and environmental tragedy explored recently in The Dust Bowl, a four-hour PBS documentary by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns.
When historians contend that the Dust Bowl changed the face of America, they are not exaggerating.
The Deep South, blessed with plentiful rainfall, escaped the Dust Bowl's effects, but plowing was nonetheless eroding topsoil at an alarmingly rapid rate and exacting a heavy environmental toll.
"By the 1930s, Alabama farmers had five-million acres of cotton under cultivation and about that much corn," Mitchell says, adding that "irresponsible farming practices had ravaged the land, much as they had in the Midwest."
The South's Challenge
Instead of being blown into the wind though, topsoil in the South was washed by ample rains into lakes, rivers and streams. After more than a century of row-crop agriculture, much of the state's soil had settled at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The personal fortunes of individual farmers were not all that were bound up in this tragedy—so, too, was the nation's long-term security.
The Dust Bowl forced policymakers to see the nation's soil reserves in a new way: As a national security issue, because without adequate reserves, the nation couldn't sustain farming.
"Over time you lose your productivity and your ability to feed yourself not only as a person but as a state and country," says Dr. William Puckett, director of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Alabama.
Alabama and other Southern states turned out to be the indirect beneficiaries of the national response to the Dust Bowl crisis.
The Advent of Soil Conservation
The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service to reflect its expanded mission, was established in 1935 to provide farmers incentives to preserve eroding topsoil.
Borrowing the demonstration models that had been perfected by an earlier generation of Cooperative Extension educators, soil conservationists have always prided themselves on using voluntary approaches to enlist farmers in soil conservation.
Puckett says that, from the beginning, his agency has operated on the principles of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the pioneer of soil conservation and the first Soil Erosion Service administrator. Hammond always emphasized that direct interaction between a farmer and a government employee was typically not the best way to propagate good soil conservation practices. Instead, soil conservation districts were organized to serve as an intermediary between farmers and the agency employees, underscoring that soil conservation efforts represented as much an innovation in thinking as it did in technology.
Efforts initially aimed at securing soil and sediment control have since been expanded to conservation efforts targeted to soil, water, air, plants, animals and energy.
An Enduring Legacy
Burn's documentary has provided Puckett and other conservation advocates with an opportunity to remind 21st century Americans of the myriad of ways that conservation practices that grew out of the Dust Bowl crisis literally have changed the face the country.
Perhaps no other natural event in recent times underscored the value of soil conservation more than the severe drought of 2012. Despite one of the driest summers on record, U.S. farmers produced more corn and other crops in 2012 than they did in the 1980s.
Puckett says the effects of these advances are plainly visible today— almost 80 years later.
"One thing I like to tell people is that if they take a Sunday afternoon drive with the family, they will see the mark of conservation efforts wherever they go," he says.
Two experts fear that a host of factors are coming together to create a storm, possibly even a perfect storm, across Alabama's forest landscape— the reason why they are stepping up efforts to warn timberland owners about this potential calamity and to advise them about the steps they should take to avoid it.
Among the main factors: sagging demand for forest products — a hangover from the 2008 market crash.
"Our forest industry is not doing well," says Dr. Ken McNabb, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System forester and W. Kelly Mosley Environmental Professor in Auburn University's School of Forestry.
"The domestic housing market is suffering, harvest levels are down, and consequently, landowners who have depended on timber harvesting have been adversely affected too.
"In addition, some forest landowners are less likely to invest in management activities like replanting, weed control, and thinning when profitability is low."
The industry is also threatened by a host of systemic issues.
For Dr. Becky Barlow, an Extension forester and Auburn University associate professor of forestry, that point was driven home with stark clarity this year when her 9-year-old daughter accompanied her to a forestland owners meeting.
"She turned to me at one point during the meeting and asked, 'Why are these people so old?'" Barlow recalls.
Her daughter's pointed observation underscored one of the major challenges facing the forestry industry: The advanced ages of many, if not most, active Alabama forestland owners — a factor that carries major implications for the forestry industry.
McNabb says these older landowners tend to hold entirely different views on ownership than the younger generations who are now stepping in to fill their places.
"The people who currently own the land grew up on the land. They're connected to it, and it's a part of their history," he observes.
As this older generation passes, he fears much of this land will pass to a younger generation of absentee owners — children and grandchildren who often live far away from these rural localities and who do not share the same perspectives on landownership.
Compounding the problem is what McNabb describes as fragmentation.
Two factors — sagging timber markets, coupled with the rapid advancement of urban and suburban sprawl into what was once untrammeled forestland —have provided many landowners, especially younger ones, with strong incentives to sell their holdings to developers.
The end result: forestland that is increasingly being reduced to smaller parcels — a factor that is not only undermining the U.S. forestry industry's ability to compete globally, but is also seriously undermining biodiversity.
Forests are a dense ecosystem that not only comprise trees but also many other types of species, many of which require minimal amounts of space to thrive.
"As this land is cut into smaller pieces, habitat is being altered too," McNabb contends. "Species need sufficient corridors of land to thrive and to grow. There are long-term implications to many of these species — and to biodiversity in general — as these tracts are reduced."
The stakes couldn't be higher: In addition to a myriad of economic challenges, Alabama forestland is also threatened by another especially insidious and underestimated enemy: invasive species, such as privet and cogongrass.
"With species such as these, we're talking about far-reaching economic and environmental implications that we do not yet fully understand," Barlow says.
Cogongrass, a highly incendiary weed, is not only contributing to a higher incidence of forestland fires, but, along with privet and other invasive species, is also pushing out many of the native species as well as creating hostile environments for planting new tree seedlings.
At the top of Extension's agenda is training aimed at equipping forestland owners, old and young alike, with the tools they will need not only to enhance forestland profitability but also to deal with these challenges, all of which pose immense threats to the long-term survivability of the forestry industry.
"That is one of our concerns especially with younger landowners — what they don't know," Barlow says, adding that a top training priority is acquainting forestry with global information system (GIS) technology that offers cost-effective ways to map and assess their land assets and also to manage them profitably.
Another major objective will be helping landowner to create additional sources of revenue from their land — a paramount concern in these lean economic times — and, in the process, to enable them to remain competitive.
Agroforestry practices, which involve raising crops or livestock under the tree canopy, remain one attractive option for many.
"Pine straw harvesting is a good example," Barlow says. "They don't have to do much in terms of land preparation, though these practices could make a lot of money, provided they know how to plan and manage these efforts carefully."
Silvopasture, which combines commercial forestry with the livestock grazing in ways that benefit both, is an option for some landowners.
"All of this relates to our ability to remain competitive on a global scale," Barlow says. "In this depressed market, landowners are searching for multiple paths to profitability.
"These approaches offer landowners an opportunity to use their assets more efficiently and profitably."
While Dr. Ayanava Majumdar readily concedes that urban farming will never replace conventional farming entirely or solve world hunger, he remains steadfastly convinced of the valuable, even critical role it will play in removing urban food deserts and securing equitable food distribution in the future, especially in Alabama.
The possibility of what urban farming could become — and even more important, what it could do on behalf of tens of thousands of Alabamians, particularly the most disadvantaged ones —is what keeps him so relentlessly busy applying for grant funds, organizing workshops and forging partnerships with other like-minded people and groups.
Majumdar is fully convinced that urban farming potentially could make tens of thousands of Alabamians not only healthier and happier but, in some cases, even more prosperous. In addition to providing improved food distribution to the needy, urban farming would also benefit local communities through the creation of more jobs as well as more educational opportunities for urban residents to learn about the benefits of sustainable living.
His challenge, as head of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Commercial Horticulture group and state coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is making sure others do too.
He's the first to admit he's got his work cut out for him.
"This is not going to happen until food is of high quality, readily accessible to consumers and affordable," he says.
His first order of business: seeing that these three criteria are met.
As Majumdar sees it, urban farming amounts to a kind of restoration — an attempt to reinstate something that earlier generations of Americans took for granted: food producers not only located in or near urban settings but also heavily integrated into city life.
"We're talking about a community movement of self-sustenance," stresses Majumdar. "A village has always been defined as a self-sustaining community.
"We're trying to get back to the village concept where people know each other and trade with each other and where these reciprocal relationships are self-sustaining."
This practice, while taking deep roots in other parts of the country, has proven a bit of a hard sell in Alabama, even though the state has the most to gain from widespread adoption of this practice, Majumdar says.
"We're talking about a state where the vast majority of the people — 3.4 million — live in urban areas and where inner-city poverty levels run as high as 16 percent in some places," he says.
On top of that, Alabama is dealing with spiking rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, all of which conceivably could be mitigated if more urban areas, especially economically hard-pressed ones, were supplied with more fresh fruits and vegetables.
High production costs remain the biggest obstacle. Urban farming is highly labor intensive, which largely accounts for why locally grown produce has typically remained a luxury food available only to those willing to pay premium prices.
However, this is changing as more farm equipment manufacturers have begun taking notice of the growth in urban farming.
"Cost of production has remained the No. 1 problem," says Majumdar. "Until recently, we've been operating in a technological climate still geared toward big-scale farming, but companies are already seeing the appeal of urban farming and producing scaled equipment tailored to the needs of these farmers."
Majumdar expects that the scaling down effects of this technology will work to enhance another built-in advantage of urban farming: its ability to adapt quickly to local needs.
The federal government and some state governments are already stepping in to provide seed money for start-up operations and to help with business practices and marketing — another factor that is fueling accelerated growth of this sector.
Even so, challenges remain. For example, technological improvements will take urban farming only so far: Some urban projects, after all, are simply too small to be mechanized, Majumdar stresses.
Likewise, the day-to-day demands of farming often require the efforts of the entire family, leaving precious little time to concentrate on drafting long-term business and marketing strategies deemed critical to success.
Add to that the lingering effects of the 2008 market crash, still playing out in many urban communities, which have stymied efforts to develop local markets.
"When the economy lags, buying power goes down and demand shifts, which create even more problems for producers," Majumdar says.
Much of Majumdar's efforts over the next few years will be working with members of his team and partnering with other public and private entities to provide much of this training.
He says his ultimate goal is to help build a thriving urban farming sector in Alabama that not only works seamlessly and but that also provides people in every urban locality in Alabama with access to fresh, locally grown produce at affordable prices. He and his team are working closely with the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, a network of farmers, consumers, and agriculture-related organizations that promotes sustainable agriculture throughout the state.
"Our goal is to be out there forging networks, integrating marketing markets and adopting scientific knowledge to local needs — basically, all the things Extension does best."
Dr. Charlie Mitchell is this week’s Backyard Wisdom guest. While his day job is as a soil scientist, Charlie is a certified Alabama Master Gardener and he’s passionate about growing fruits and vegetables. In this week’s podcast, Charlie and I discuss the importance of doing your homework before you purchase fruit plants to add to your landscape. You can listen to our conversation here. If you prefer an iTunes version, you can download it here.
One thing that he and I have both noticed that all too frequently the fruit plants and trees that will be offered in many large scale retail outlets are not well suited for growing in Alabama. The heat and humidity of Alabama summers create a challenging environment so it’s vital to plant those varieties or species best suited to our state.
For example, blueberries are an incredibly easy to grow fruit. But to be successful in Alabama, you need to plant rabbiteye blueberry varieties not highbush types.
Some fruits’ varieties are very limited in where they can be successfully grown, while others may be widely adapted. In addition, varieties that are adapted for the area's climate have a better chance of success. Make certain that the area where the fruit plant is to be grown receives at least the level of chilling characteristic of the variety. In other words, a variety of apple that requires 1,000 hours of chilling should not be planted in an area that receives only 850 hours or less. It is just as important to avoid planting low-chilling tree fruit and blueberry selections in a high-chilling area. For example, a 400-hour peach variety should not be planted in central Alabama. This variety will flower early and lose its crop because of freezes.
Treated tap water. We in the developed world tend to take this luxury entirely for granted, even though it remains one of humanity's most notable achievements.
As it turns out, though, one nation is taking a different — and by developed world standards, entirely counterintuitive — approach to water treatment. This tiny, prosperous tropical nation, known throughout the world as the Switzerland of Central America, treats little of its tap water.
Costa Rica has opted instead to undertake a wholesale effort to protect its water supplies at their point of origin — small wonder why forestry generation has become a major preoccupation of the Central American nation in recent decades.
[Extension Regional Agent Beau Brodbeck pictured at one of many irrigation structures built by the Costa Rican Government and supported by user fees.]
Lush green forests in this tropical nation not only enhance biodiversity and sequester carbon — pressing concern in this rapidly developing country —but also safeguard rivers, streams and lakes from soil depletion and contaminants stemming from badly eroded cropland and other types of intensive human use.
More than ever before, Costa Ricans are taking note of this fact.
For many years, deforestation was an unusually serious environmental issue in this Central American country and others in the region as more land was tied up in production agriculture and timber harvesting.
In fact, only a few decades ago, Costa Rica dealt with one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, says Beau Brodbeck, an Alabama Extension System forestry, wildlife and natural resource management agent who recently completed an extensive tour of the nation.
Then, in the 1970s, the nation got serious about reversing this alarming trend. Initially, the government offered incentives, mainly tax rebates, to large timber companies to replant after harvesting.
These efforts were stepped up in 1996 when the government enacted Forest Law No. 7575, which explicitly recognized environmental benefits of reforestation not only to water quality but also to biodiversity, the reduction of greenhouse gases and energy consumption.
The law also established a National Fund for Forest Financing, a system of incentive payments for encouraging reforestation and forestland management. Part of the money for the program is secured through a carbon tax on gasoline. A percentage of each Costa Rican's water bill is also earmarked to support the program.
The program enabled Costa Rica to achieve negative net deforestation in the first few years of the 21st century.
Preserving water quality is a major focus of these efforts, especially as the nation's economy diversifies — a fact not lost on the nation's private sector.
"Costa Rica has several domestic beer and juice bottling plants that understand the value of securing consistent supplies of high-quality water and that have been at the forefront of national efforts to safeguard freshwater supplies," Brodbeck says.
Today, the Central American nation sets the standards for deforestation and forestland management for much of the rest of the developing world.
"It's definitely an achievement," says Dr. Wayde Morris, an Auburn University assistant professor of forestry who accompanied Brodbeck during this recent tour. "They developed a living program, one that has adapted and improved with time.
In addition to preserving a critical resource, Morris says one of the remarkable effects of the program is how it has instilled ordinary Costa Ricans, especially landowners, with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for stewardship.
"In my own research interviewing Costa Rican landowners, I never imagined how many would use the term "biodiversity" routinely in their everyday language," he observes.
"They're conscious of the multiple benefits of forestry that this program has secured."
Brodbeck, who is completing his doctorate in forestry, says the Costa Rican trip has afforded him a deeper appreciation for the variety of ways landowners can be enlisted in stewardship efforts.
"It was just very interesting to see this model and to draw parallels to other countries, including our own," Brodbeck says. "This program does a very good job not only of enlisting landowners but also helping them understand how their individual efforts contribute toward safeguarding this critical natural resource."
"Costa Rica really is on the cutting edge of these efforts."
It’s January, and gardeners are itching to get a head start on their gardens. You hear them talking about it at Master Gardener meetings and when they see each other in grocery stores. They are talking about it on Twitter and on Facebook. Even in Alabama, it is still too early to plant most vegetables, herbs and flowers that we associate with the spring and summer garden.
But Tony Glover, the county Extension coordinator in Cullman County, reminds us that there are a couple of things gardeners can do at this time of year.
He says January is a great time to thumb through the seed catalogs arriving in the mail or to surf online seed catalogs. In this week’s Backyard Wisdom, Tony tells us some of the reason you may want to start your own transplants, particularly tomatoes. He also has some great advice on how to be successful at seed starting indoors. You can learn more by listening here.
Gene Simpson has never been one to mince words.
As he sees it, the challenge facing poultry growers is simple — not easy to resolve but simple to understand. In an increasingly globalized market, growers are caught in a vise between flat-lined revenue and operating costs that have risen between 50 and 70 percent.
It is a chronic problem that Simpson and his colleague, Jim Donald, have been working for years to resolve — efforts now carried out through the Auburn University-based National Poultry Technology Center, which they organized some five years ago to focus their efforts. In the course of loosening this vise, the two have changed the face of U.S. poultry production.
Simpson and Donald cite a myriad of causes behind the cost spikes, with heating fuel at the top of the list. Another major contributor: U.S. government efforts to promote ethanol production.
"We're dealing with a situation in which this nation's energy and food production policies are in conflict," says Donald, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System biosystems engineer and Auburn University professor of biosystems engineering.
Efforts to promote ethanol production drive up the costs of grain, the food staple of poultry production, imposing higher costs on growers at a time when they can least afford them.
Simpson and Donald concede that they can't fight city hall. What they can do —what they have done for years— is to provide poultry growers with workable solutions to deal with these spiking costs.
They've learned that the solution lies not so much in tightening belts as in tightening aging poultry houses.
"For the most part, it's all about energy conservation," says Simpson, an Extension economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.
Adding a measure of urgency to this issue is the absolute importance of maintaining birds in poultry houses at the correct temperature, Donald says.
Just being off by a few degrees translates into a tremendous erosion of cost savings.
As research and experience have demonstrated time and again, much of this solution lies in retrofitting poultry houses — modifying them to ensure optimal energy efficiency.
Two especially zealous retrofitters who have heeded Simpson's and Donald's advice are Dennis and Jeff Maze, a father-and-son team who operate Maze Farms in Horton, Alabama.
Their first broiler houses, built almost 40 years ago, are not only still in operation today but also, in terms of production efficiency, consistently rank in the forefront of all Tyson Foods poultry farms.
The Mazes credit this success to NPTC research efforts conducted on these three houses as well as five other houses on their farms. The research has focused on how such diverse practices as spray foaming and the use of various types of sidewall insulation and dimmable compact fluorescent light bulbs can enhance energy efficiency.
"What they have today are 40-year-old poultry houses that are not only environmentally well controlled and highly energy efficient but that also rank among the very best in the nation," Donald says.
If one lesson has been driven home to Simpson and Donald, it's that staying profitable requires growers' investing some of their hard-won profits into poultry house improvements.
"What we've learned is that we can cut a grower's heating bill greatly, sometimes by as much as 40 to 50 percent," Donald says. "Even in the most unimproved houses, if growers follow our recommendations, they will reduce their heating costs by a half and they will secure a payback in as few as four years."
On the other hand, producers who don't heed this advice often end up paying a heavy price.
"We've seen lots of growers who should update their houses but who dig in their heels and refuse," Simpson says. "They trek along for 10, 15 or 20 years and then face upgrades of as much as $40- or $50,000 a house in order to remain in production."
The proactive approach really boils down to the old maxim "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
"It's like changing your oil every 5,000 miles — yes, it'll cost you, but it will also save you a lot of grief later on," Simpson contends.
Alabama growers have responded to these efforts recently by nominating the NPTC for the Auburn University Dean of Agriculture's Project Team Award.
"This farm remains in the top 10 percent of all Tyson Foods farms in Alabama because of the applied research that has been conducted by the NPTC to make this farm cost effective," says Dennis Maze who along with his son, Jeff, was among several grateful farmers who nominated the center for the award.
For their part, Simpson and Donald credit their success to their long-standing emphasis on traditional Extension methods.
"We're old guys. It's the way we were taught — we're out there listening to the growers, our customers, focusing on solutions that are going to work for them," Donald says.
"That's the Extension philosophy."
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and resulting oil spill were a human-made disaster of a scope never seen before. While the well has been capped for months and oil is no longer spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of the disaster continue to be felt in Alabama and other Gulf Coast states.
Dr. LaDon Swann, director of the Auburn University Marine Extension and Research Center, sat down recently to record some of his thoughts and impressions on the current situation and the role of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System as well as what the future may hold.
Dr. Swann, who is also the director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, says many Alabama coastal businesses are at an economic crossroads. The challenges these businesses face are twofold, he says. First, they need adequate monetary settlements from BP, and second, they need for consumer sentiment to improve about seafood and coastal tourism.
Watch his comments here.
Swann calls the spill unprecedented and that long-term effects on the environment, the economy and on citizens are hard to gauge. He notes that while research funding is available for some environmental issues, less money has been made available to study the human impacts.
Extension is continuing its efforts to help residents of the Gulf Coast deal with the challenges they are facing as a result of the spill. Swann says one emphasis is ensuring that citizens get the most balanced and credible information available.
Watch his comments here.
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