Farms Learn to Thrive, Naturally More and More Switch to 'Sustainable Agriculture' to Reduce Costs

Article excerpt

TIFTON, Ga. -- New technology, better fertilizer and more chemicals won't save family farms, according to a horticulturist in South Georgia who is trying to persuade farmers to rely on more natural processes to improve their land.

Sharard Phatak has encountered many skeptics as he preached his message around the state.

But more and more farmers are switching to the techniques advocated by Phatak and others who believe "sustainable agriculture" is an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to farm.

Instead of fertilizer, practitioners of sustainable agriculture rely on cover crops such as crimson clover, rye and winter wheat to supply nitrogen for the soil.

Instead of plowing and harrowing their fields before planting, they practice "no till" farming. They plant new crops amid the stubble of cover crops or previous crops. That saves them fuel, labor, equipment costs and reduces soil erosion.

Instead of relying exclusively on insecticides, sustainable farmers rely on beneficial insects and microorganisms in the soil to give total or partial pest control. That saves money, it benefits wildlife and it helps the environment.

Phatak was troubled in the 1980s as thousands of family farms failed. During that period, he visited his father's farm in India. His father had switched from natural farming to modern practices -- heavy reliance on pesticides, chemical fertilizers and harsh treatment of the soil.

"You could see the quality of the soil was depleted," Phatak said.

He returned to the University of Georgia's Coastal Plain Experiment Station and began looking for cheaper and more gentle ways to grow crops.

Farmers have little control over seed, chemicals, fuel and equipment costs, he said. Because commodity prices are driven by market conditions, they also have little control over the amount they are paid for their crops, he said.

So, how could farmers increase profits and improve their chances of survival? Phatak wondered. He decided cost-cutting was the only way.

Rick Reed, Coffee County's extension director, said he was skeptical, but felt he had an obligation to assist farmers who were interested in the process. …