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Hornsby Hosted Plasticulture/Drip Irrigation Demonstration in Macon County

By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, Auburn, AL


Plastic with drip tape.
A specially-equipped tractor laid plastic and drip tape at the same time..

Roger Hornsby, a Tuskegee farmer who retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2007, is filling a niche in his local vegetable market. He has customers that want their produce locally grown and of good quality and most buy by reputation–his reputation. That is why he is sold on growing his crops in plasticulture using micro- irrigation.

He has proven that using this method of growing crops affords him better yields on less land, higher quality products, and half the water usage when compared to traditional farming methods.

Roger is so enthusiastic about the method that on June 29, 2010, he agreed to assist the Macon County SWCD/NRCS, and the Alabama Department of Ag and Industries to sponsor a Plasticulture/Drip Irrigation Demonstration on his farm to inform others about the benefits.

The demonstration started with Roger and his wife, Linda, telling the group about how great plasticulture with drip irrigation works for them. They raise their own plants from seed in a greenhouse, and since the plastic warms the soil earlier, their crops get a head start in the spring. This year there has been little rain but their plants don’t show it.

Roger said that the key to growing crops under plastic is having a good water source and quality seed. He installed a well to irrigate his 4 acres of vegetables. He pays more for high quality seed. but he gets back 2-3 times more yield. He used NRCS financial assistance to install an acre of plastic and for the drip irrigation.

Harold McLemore of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries spoke to the group about how his agency has the equipment for and been helping small farmers get started using this method of crop production for over 10 years. He says that plasticulture is very labor intensive in the beginning. After breaking the ground, the equipment attached to a tractor will make the beds, install the drip tape, and lay the plastic all at one time. Then you must connect the drip tape to your water source. Two people can lay about one acre of plastic and hook up the irrigation in one day You can often grow three crops before replacing the plastic and those crops can be up to three times what you could normally harvest from a conventionally farmed acre.

Fertilizers and chemicals can be applied through the water through the irrigation system. McLemore said, “You know that the fertilizer is where you need it, under the plastic where the plants are growing.”

According to McLemore, “The three most important components of this method of farming are good seed, adequate and controlled water flow, and the right amount of fertilizer. It is very difficult to convince a farmer than he needs to buy a can of seed that costs $80 when he has always bought a can for $8.” McLemore believes he has shown the farmers in the field that good seed is important and produces a significant increase in yields.

The group had the opportunity to walk through Roger’s fields and see first-hand his crops planted in plastic, mostly watermelons. Roger timed some watermelons to ripen for sale for the 4th of July week celebration. The plants and produce looked healthy and the watermelons were growing, sometimes, on top of each other.

After the walk through the fields, the group watched a demonstration of how the plastic and drip tape are put on the ground.
Gwen Lewis, NRCS District Conservationist in Macon County says, “Roger is a very conscientious and meticulous farmer. He is a stickler for details. Most small farmers are that way, getting the most out of the limited resources they have. NRCS has several financial and technical assistance programs that can help small farmers put good conservation practices on the ground. We take applications for most programs year round. I encourage all farmers who have a resource concern, or would just like to learn more about programs available, to visit your local NRCS/SWCD office.”

This demonstration was deemed a success. It allowed people interested in using plasticulture with drip irrigation to see firsthand the major steps involved and some quality yields. The group also judged the quality of the product as excellent when Roger cut up a few watermelons for tasting.

Roger Hornsby’s enthusiasm for plasticulture using drip irrigation is obvious after hearing him talk about how it helps him achieve excellent yields on a limited amount of land. The method has proven itself to him, and he hopes to have reached others who may want to try what he is doing.

Hornsby talks to group at demonstration.

Roger Hornsby (l) talks to group about the benefits of plastic and drip tape. 

Roger Hornsby and field of watermellons

Roger Hornsby (l) shows his watermelons that are growing, sometimes on top of each other.