Farming is often considered a science based practice, and for good reason. Whether you are growing corn, soybeans, sweet potatoes, peppers, pumpkins or cantaloupes, there is scientific based research backing your farming practices. In recent times especially, our farmers have moved to a more technologically advanced farming system that includes precision chemical and fertilizer application, GPS and GIS mapping systems, and more computerized tractors and combines. With all of the new scientific advancements at our farmers’ hands, there is still a need for artistic skills both in and out of the field.
If you are traveling around Lee County right now, you will notice two of the largest art forms of farming there is to behold. One is the smell of curing tobacco, and the other is seeing the leaves fall from cotton plants while the bolls still remain intact. The process of curing tobacco and defoliating cotton are like no other we experience in agriculture. The science behind the art is what is going on in the tobacco leaf while being cured, and what is going on in the cotton plant while the leafs are dropping.
Curing tobacco requires following a regiment of placing the tobacco in the barn, heating the barn and creating enough air flow to dry the leaves, while at the same time maintaining a certain moisture level within the barn. The art behind the science in curing tobacco is that the farmer must maintain a certain level of moisture and temperature for proper starch and sugar conversion to take place within the tobacco leaf, without over-drying or over-heating the leaf. Maintaining the perfect level of heat and moisture is something that the computer-controlled system is not capable of doing. The farmer must observe leaf texture, moisture and heat units according to the feel and smell of the tobacco in the barn to make the correct adjustments to properly complete the curing process.
Cotton defoliation combines science and art to provide optimum harvesting conditions for cotton growers. The process of defoliating cotton requires our cotton growers to apply a herbicide to the plant that allows the leaves on the plant to fall, while allowing the bolls with lint to remain intact. The science behind this process is that the herbicide used to drop the leaves is a natural plant hormone that triggers a hormonal response in the plant that abruptly stops all vegetative growth on the leaf, while not affecting the reproductive sites of the plant such as the cotton boll. The art of defoliating cotton lies within the farmer’s ability to monitor the size, shape and vigor of the cotton plants and to make the decision when to apply the defoliant, and how much of the defoliant to apply. One simple mistake such as applying either too much or not enough defoliant, or applying the defoliant when the cotton has not completed most of its reproductive life cycle could result in the leavs not dropping.
A true definition of art in agriculture could be described as the farmer’s ability to use his or her senses such as sight, smell and feel to adjust their scientific based practice. Using these senses are required more and more in an ever-evolving scientific world such as agriculture. Every time you pass by a defoliated cotton field or smell a curing barn of tobacco, then you know that is our farmers’ testament to their artistic abilities.
Kim Tungate is Agriculture Extension Agent, Livestock and Field Crops for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.