Key lies in wide rows, public varieties, low planting populations, non-GMO production, cover crops, livestock, intercropping, and more
Below is an excerpt from an inspiring article about Arkansas farmer Adam Chappell, who saved his farm from imminent bankruptcy and made it profitable by turning his back on conventional farming (including the GMO/herbicide model) and embracing innovative farming, including methods that will be familiar to organic and agroecological growers.
We recommend reading the article in full at the URL below.
Commenting on the article, independent consultant and coordinator of the Heartland Study on children's health, Dr Charles Benbrook, said, "This is an absolute MUST READ for anyone who wonders whether what many of us have been preaching the last 10-20 years is full of s**t, or 'real'. The experience and transformation of Chappell's 8,000 acre farm encapsulates both what is wrong with most of GE-based conventional ag, AND what it is going to take to fix it."
A skeptical farmer’s monster message on profitability
by Chris Bennett
AgWeb, Jul 7, 2020
Adam Chappell was a slave to pigweed. In 2009, several years prior to the roller coaster rise and fall of commodity prices, he was on the brink of bankruptcy and facing a go broke or go green proposition. Drowning in a whirlpool of input costs, Chappell cut bait from conventional agriculture and dove headfirst into a bootstrap version of innovative farming. Roughly 10 years later, his operation is transformed, and the 41-year-old grower doesn’t mince words: It was all about the money.
How does a farmer pull the handbrake on an agronomic system, toss pride out the window, and start again? Ask Chappell. Maverick, contrarian, skeptic, trailblazer, or pragmatist, the tags fit Chappell to a T. Blessed and cursed with a manic mind in constant motion, he conducts a symphony of wide rows, public varieties, low planting populations, non-GMO production, cover crops, livestock, intercropping, and more — all with a keen eye fixed on savings. “Money fuels my engine,” he says. “Call it soil health, conservation, sustainable, regenerative, or any other buzzword of the day—frankly, I don’t care. My savings have been incredible and I just call my farming what it is: survival and profitability.”
In 2009, Chappell was neck-deep in Palmer amaranth, fighting a weed plague, and noting the gradual inefficacy of herbicides. Woodruff County, a ground zero location for Palmer amaranth armed to the teeth with multiple modes of resistance, spawned pigweed packed with hellish genetics. “We were fighting an uphill battle and spending so much money on chemicals, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Each season, prior to spring, Chappell began burndown in February and followed a pattern common among Mid-South growers: a mix of glyphosate, 2-4D, dicamba, and a residual in hopes of staying clean until planting. Next, he’d bed up, and almost without fail, get a 3” or 4” soaker and watch as a flush of pigweed jumped from the ground—depending on the muscle of the residual. In response, Chappell re-bed to bury pigweed seeds, or sprayed gramoxone depending on bed condition. It was clockwork frustration, and the Palmer parasite sucked cash straight from Chappell’s pocket.
Once a crop was in, the pigweed melee was back to full-bore. Cotton, for example, got Reflex two weeks prior to the planter, and then gramoxone and Direx behind the planter, followed by shots of glyphosate and Dual. In a final stab, Chappell rolled with hooded sprayers for a direct application of MSMA and Caparol. And each year, the patient pigweed came back, stronger than ever and ready to claim more ground. “It was bam, bam, bam, on herbicide inputs. The answer floated by the big companies was more and more chemicals, and meanwhile we were steadily going broke,” he recalls.
Chappell began looking for help in the early fall of 2009, a lifeline to relieve heavy chemical costs, but he was essentially a man on an island. Where to turn?
Watching endless videos on organic production, Chappell stumbled over an upload from a Pennsylvania pumpkin grower planting no till into tall, green grass—6’ cereal rye. Significantly, the field was clean. No weeds. A few more weeks of research later, Chappell rolled the dice and planted all he could afford—300 acres of cereal rye. The following spring, pigweed control was substantial, and Chappell didn’t till and didn’t need any burndown work on the 300 acres, but he jumped on the rye, hesitant to let it grow over 1’ tall: “We were scared to plant into it and kept it short that first year, which we don’t do now. Everybody told us if you let it stay green, you’ll have cutworms and armyworms, but I’ve since found out that what you’re told and what is reality are two different things.”
In the moment, even for a farmer with degrees in botany and entomology, Chappell didn’t care about science or soil health; all that mattered was a major Palmer decline. “I wasn’t worried about why or how because I could see with my own eyes that pigweed was few and far between. They weren’t nonexistent, but the ones that did get loose, we could walk out there and pull them up. No chopping crew and no chemicals necessary.”
The next season, Chappell planted 1,300 acres of covers, followed by 2,300 acres in 2011. Despite his optimism, Chappell’s operation was about to undergo four years of body blows. Both Chappell’s father, Dewayne, and Seth, lost homes to heavy flooding in 2011, and severe drought took a toll on operations across the Mid-South in 2012. In late 2013, commodity prices began a rapid decline, and in 2014, the Chappells were skinned by Turner Grain in one of the most infamous agribusiness scandals of the modern farming era.
Yet, in the middle of the turmoil, particularly in the 2012 drought, Chappell noted marked differences on cover crop ground planted with multiple grass and legume species, far beyond weed control. “Our crops under covers were so much better, even better than no till or conventional ground. It wasn’t a big yield bump in my corn and soybeans on covers, but it was the money spent to get those yields. And in cotton, the cover difference was in irrigating once every 10 days and making 1,200 lb. per acre, instead of irrigating twice a week and making 1,000 lb. per acre.”
“That was when a light bulb truly came on in my head. We started making room in the budget, prioritizing cover planting in the fall, and covering every acre when possible. Cover crops were no longer optional—they had to be on every acre. No doubt, if we hadn’t changed our way of farming, we’d have been out of business. In my opinion, farming has become a convenience-first enterprise, and not a profit-first enterprise. So many of the things I see in farming that make no sense really come down to convenience.”
Cover crop seed, combined with planting costs, runs $15-$20 per acre on Chappell’s operation, a significant cost across thousands of acres. However, the expense is a bargain, he contends, compared with the dollars he once spent on fall tillage, fall-applied herbicides, winter burndown, spring tillage and bed preparation. ...
Non-GMO crops make up 90% of Chappell’s grain acreage, and he leans heavily on the low cost of public varieties and the potential for saving seed. “Non-GMO is all about profitability. Take a public soybean like UA5014 that yields so well and can be saved. The next year, the only costs you’ve got are whatever the market value of the soybean seed is and getting it custom cleaned. ..."