Mother Nature can vex even the most knowledgeable farmers. Her clout was clear as crop scientists displayed the fruits of their agricultural research at Clemson University's Pee Dee Research and Education Center annual field day.
"Like farmers all over South Carolina, the cotton in our variety trials has really suffered from all the rain this year," said Mike Jones, a cotton specialist at the center. "Cotton doesn't like wet feet. If the plants are standing in water, the roots won't grow. Then when the weather dries out, they don't have the root system they need."
"You don't usually think of water being a stress, but this year it is," said John Mueller, who directs Clemson's Edisto Research and Education Center and maintains research plots at Pee Dee. "And it's been cooler, so we're seeing a lot more disease and pest problems."
As if to accentuate the point, Mother Nature conjured up more clouds for the Aug. 6 event. More than 250 farmers stoically endured intermittent rain showers to get a firsthand look at research projects ranging from conventional row crops such as cotton, corn and peanuts, to less traditional crops like turfgrass and biomass for energy production.
In the midst of the wettest season most farmers can remember, researcher Todd Campbell explained how he was trying to create a drought for his cotton crop.
The scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture is studying the effect of drought on the length of cotton fibers; information he hopes will lead to genetic advances that will help farmers grow more marketable cotton even when the rains fail.
"We laid down this plastic mulch that is used for strawberry production in order to keep the soil dry. We've been monitoring moisture and we're just approaching drought conditions, believe it or not," said Campbell, who works at the Pee Dee Center for USDA's Agricultural Research Service. "At the end of the season we'll be able to determine drought effect on fiber length and the genetic targets we need for breeding programs."
But too much water was the issue with most of the crops on display.
"We planted our corn pretty much on schedule, but we've had problems ever since it came out of the ground — problems the likes of which I haven't seen before," said David Gunter, a Clemson Extension corn and soybean specialist.
"It came out of the ground and just stopped," Gunter said. "Eventually the weather got better and the corn came on, but we've had more disease than I've seen in a long time. If you have a disease book on corn you'll find just about anything in it in this field."
One of the bright spots on the field day tour was the peanut research plots, although experts urged farmers to keep a close eye out for disease this year.
"Peanuts have fared better than most any crop so far. They've taken a lot of water, but they still look pretty good," said Scott Monfort, who leads the Clemson Extension agronomy team. "We've had some problems not fixing nitrogen, some yellowing; but those peanuts are still working. The biggest thing we have to work on right now is to get some fungicides out. The plants may look good now, but the disease is coming. It's out there."
Plant diseases encompass much of the research at the center. In between raindrops, Shyam Tallury, a new peanut breeder at the Pee Dee center, introduced farmers to wild peanut varieties he is using to breed new varieties that are resistant to common diseases.
The same holds true for research in tobacco.
"Our research is all designed to reduce disease and increase profitability," said Bruce Fortnum, a plant disease specialist and director of the Pee Dee center. "Economic development has been the mission of the Pee Dee center since its beginning more than 100 years ago. Our research focuses on helping South Carolina farmers achieve greater profitability from the crops we can grow best in this region."