Along with the “normal” challenges of farming, cotton grower Jason Sturgeon is caught between an encroaching urban population and the life he loves.
“In the last 10 years, development has exploded in this area,” says Sturgeon, who farms in western Lubbock County, Texas. “In fact, this farm is the farthest east on the west side of Lubbock that you'll find. This area is about to be houses.”
At 318,679 people (Metropolitan Statistical Area), Lubbock is the 11th largest city in Texas, the second largest west of Interstate 35, and is projected to grow 7 percent through 2022, according to the Lubbock Economic Development Alliance website.
Farming in the backdoor of urban development has proven to make everyday tasks difficult, Sturgeon says. “Moving equipment around is almost impossible. We have back roads that we go down, but it's still really hard to get equipment moved around. When you have houses all around you, spraying is also a lot tougher — you’ve got to make sure the wind’s out of the right direction.
“Then, there’s the problem of dealing with people not respecting your land. The closer you are to the city, the more you have people dumping things or driving out in your field when you're irrigating — if they see mud, they think it's fun to drive through it. A lot of people don't understand farming, and that makes it tough.”
Sturgeon, who farms with his father, Don, and a few part-time employees, leases land and owns some of his farmland. At least one of the leased-farms is being sold for urban development, leaving him worried about the future.
“It’s a big concern,” he says. “Farming so close to town, I know I’m going to eventually lose part of the land. It's so hard to find land available to rent or buy, and because it is somewhat close to town, it's unbelievably expensive to buy.”
Renting is a challenging option as well. With few acres available in his area, it leads to stiff competition when land does become available. “What I'm probably going to have to do is try and go further out from the city. But the problem with that is, I don't want to give up what I might still have around here for another five or 10 years. So, I'm going to be spread out with land 30 miles away, plus what I have here. It's tough, because it's not like I can just go a couple of miles away and pick up another piece of ground. I'm going to have to go a lot further out, and that's my biggest concern.”
Drought and cover crops
The moderate to extreme drought plaguing much of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, is also posing challenges for Sturgeon in 2018. “We usually do cover crops under our pivots, but this year I chose not to do that,” he says. “I like cover crops —they work great — but in a dry year, man, it’s tough.
“In 2017, it was so wet in the spring that we got our cover crops up and going good — one of the first times we've never had to water them. Everything was doing well, and then we ended up getting into a drought in late April, early May. We terminated the cover crop and never got any rain after that.”
The windy, hot conditions that followed made it difficult for his cotton crop to emerge. “The cover crops took all of the moisture. We just couldn't get the ground wet again.”
With an extended drought predicted for 2018, Sturgeon says he doesn’t think he can keep up with the moisture needs of a cover crop and the cotton. “We like that way of farming, but water is just too hard to come by — and it's so expensive.”
Instead, he says, he’ll take advantage of his residual chemicals. “Since I'm not having a cover crop, I’m going back to Treflan this year. We use whites and Duals behind the planter, and we’ll come back in the summer and lay-by with Dual. Since I don’t have a cover crop, I'm also looking at using Valor under the pivots.”
See: Farmer’s wife/dermatologist urges farmers, ranchers to protect their skin, http://bit.ly/2DqqFh6.
While Sturgeon has completed the required training for dicamba, he says he’ll avoid using the herbicide to save costs, unless it becomes necessary. “I know I've got it if I need it. It's so expensive, and our expenses last year were quite a bit higher — when you spray the XtendiMax and a drift-control agent, and everything else you need to spray plus Roundup, it's a high dollar shot. We're going to see if we can minimize spraying it this year.” Nearby orchards and backyard gardens also make him leery of spraying the herbicide.
Fertilizer is another area where he hopes to cut costs this season. “We take soil samples every year. The fertilizer in our soils is pretty good — we've got a good fertilizer bank. Last year we fertilized heavily, so this year we've got a good amount of phosphorus still there; I think we're going to back off the phosphorus and save a little money.”
While Sturgeon normally applies about 30 percent of his nitrogen before planting, with side-dressing or spoon feeding the rest later, this year he says he might cut that percentage down a bit and see what he’s got come summer. “If it doesn't rain, we're not going to make a crop, so maybe we can save a little money on fertilizer.” He says his irrigation expenses in 2017 were a third of what they normally would be, but that the current drought may offset last year’s savings.
This year, Sturgeon says he’ll be focusing on varieties that are the most resistant to Verticillium wilt and bacterial blight. “Wilt and blight are getting worse every year. In 2017, we planted some varieties that hadn’t had blight issues in the past, but they did last year — some of the varieties were extremely susceptible. One of the top ones that I planted last year was hit really hard by the blight. The bottom third of my crop was gone — all I had left was the top crop. There was a lot of boll rot and black arm, so I had entire fruiting branches that were gone.”
But a blight-tolerant variety he planted on one of his drip-irrigated fields proved to be successful in resisting the disease. “It made about 400 to 500 more pounds than the rest of my cotton, all because of the blight. That just shows you how bad the blight was.”
Blight seems to be a bigger problem than wilt, says Sturgeon, “We’ve always had wilt, but the blight has been something new, and it worries me more than anything. Of course, if it doesn't rain this season, it's not going to be a problem.”