Tag Archives: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service

Auburn Alabama Going Bananas!?

Catching up, I wanted to report about some intriguing research I stumbled across regarding growing bananas in the Coastal South, while attending the recent Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference held at Auburn University.

That’s right: Bananas. In Alabama. At Auburn. Is Auburn going bananas? It gets cold down South!

Dr. Elina Coneva, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service fruit crops specialist, and Edgar Vinson, research associate, Department of Horticulture, Auburn University, explain their research into the feasibility of growing bananas in south Alabama during a demonstration farm tour at Auburn University. The tour was held during the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference Feb. 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. Elina Coneva, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service fruit crops specialist, and Edgar Vinson, research associate, Department of Horticulture, Auburn University, explain their research into the feasibility of growing bananas in south Alabama during a demonstration farm tour at Auburn University. The tour was held during the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference Feb. 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The field trials are being held with hopes that local growers can provide a crop that competes with grocery imports. The trials are in their infancy; but so far 2 varieties survived last year’s 21- and 25-degree lows to harvest; they think at least one will survive this year’s 9-degree low; and this was in central Alabama, not the Coast. Trials are being held further south in Alabama, as well.

According to literature from the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES), the banana variety research plot at Auburn University’s Plant Science Research Center in Auburn, Ala., was established in 2011. Banana plants were provided by Dr. Greg Fonsah, an Extension ag economist and international banana production and marketing veteran from the University of Georgia at Tifton, GA.

This research, in my opinion, offers a huge potential resource for local and sustainable growing in the South. As ACES reports, bananas offer many different products that small, local growers can produce. “The fresh fruit can be used as dessert. Banana fruit can be cooked, fried or eaten ripe with stew. They can be used to produce beer, livestock forage, cooking wraps and plates, can be utilized as shade trees and for medicinal purposes. Banana fruit has low fat, cholesterol, sodium and salt content, and is extremely rich in potassium.” And they can be used for ornamental purposes, too.

But a major consideration for consumers interested in buying locally produced fruits and vegetables is that such locally grown products can be sustainably grown: not shipping them for thousands of miles and using up fossil fuels, or bringing up Fair Trade issues regarding worker health and equity. They can be grown as a local resource returning value to the local community.

Admittedly, I have not seen the UGA test site where ACES obtained its first varieties. Here’s an article about Dr. Fonsah and his work: http://www.caes.uga.edu/applications/gafaces/?public=viewStory&pk_id=4983

But I can say that I’m totally intrigued by the concept and hope that small, local and artisanal growers can add this crop to their offerings.

Thirteen varieties of bananas are being tested at Auburn University for their feasibility as a Gulf Coast cash crop. So far, two have shown promise, bouncing back from cold winter temperatures to produce a harvest. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Thirteen varieties of bananas are being tested at Auburn University for their feasibility as a Gulf Coast cash crop. So far, two have shown promise, bouncing back from cold winter temperatures to produce a harvest. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Varieties being tested at Auburn: ‘Gold Finger’, ‘Saba’, ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, ‘Pisang Ceylon’, ‘Double, ‘Dwarf Green’, ‘Dwarf Red’, ‘Raja Puri’, ‘Grand Naine’, ‘Cardaba’, ‘Viente Cohol’, ‘Sweet Heart’, and ‘Ice Cream’.

The tests will be carefully watched not only in Alabama, but across the Gulf States, I’m sure!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Leader in Organic Bug Control a Southern Superhero

I met one of the best kept secrets in organic agriculture during my recent travels.

If you live in the South, and grow organically, you know that it can be a challenge. Lots of people, in fact, believe that you can’t grow organic “where the ground never freezes and the bugs never die,” as my friend Nellie Neal calls the South.

Those of us who struggle to be “deep organic” and not use chemicals of any kind to control insects and diseases often feel a bit lonely, in fact. We have only our hard-won experience of losing some crops, saving others, to go by – without any firm scientific basis for our farm practices.

But that may be about to end, somewhat. There is an extension service entomologist in Thomaston, Ala., who is conducting research into deterring the most common insect pests from organic farms and gardens using natural methods.

Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D. – or “Dr. A” as locals call him – has been studying “trap crop” plants that can lure harmful insects from organic vegetable crops. So far, his success has been astounding.

Bug Doctor - Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a "superhero" to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Bug Doctor – Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a “superhero” to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

State coordinator for the Southern Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program, Dr. A is an Alabama Cooperative Extension Service specialist with Auburn University. I met him while presenting a roundtable discussion on “Gifts and Challenges of Rural Southern Communities” Sept. 13 for the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston. I was there on behalf of NCAT – the National Center for Appropriate Technology and it’s ATTRA program, the Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. (See NCAT.org or @NCAT_org)

Turns out, Dr. A. has a demonstration farm at the Heritage Center and is conducting his research there. I eagerly toured his demonstration plots after the roundtable discussions were over.

Sheephishly, I have to admit, I had actually read Dr. A’s work prior to coming to the Heritage Center. (See his article “Trap Cropping for Flea Beetle & Aphid Management in the July 2013 edition of ACRES USA.)

To be honest, I had no idea he was conducting his experiments in Alabama, or the South, for that matter. Maybe I just assumed he was “out there” somewhere, like the Rodale people in Pennsylvania, or the Land Institute in Kansas, or like our NCAT folks in Butte, MT. Not the South. I mean, really, who would have thought there would be a worldclass organic expert in a tiny town in Alabama?

To me, the most interesting aspect of his work so far has been on creating trap crops. Trap crops, as most organic growers know, are crops set aside to lure “bad” insects away from your valuable produce. (We use pollinator plants to lure “beneficial insects” to our would-be cash crops.)

Unfortunately, most organic growers also know that often our cash crops often become trap crops by default. Many of our “trap crops” become that way because insects attack them.  Every organic gardener or farmer has stories to tell about how one’s intended cash crop became so infested he or she kept it in hopes of keeping bugs there rather than attacking the other plants. Intended trap crops often don’t seem to work or work well enough. That’s where the science is lacking.

Recently, farmers and gardeners have been having problems with a bug called “leaffooted bugs.” If you grow tomatoes, you probably have seen them. They look like a squash bug but have odd shaped flat protruberances on their legs. After a leaffooted bug attack, tomatoes become mottled; with black circular spots. You’ve probably seen attacked tomatoes at farmers markets; most farmers don’t even know what hit them, until it’s too late.

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well.  This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well. This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that forage sorghum (NK300) will lure leaffooted bugs from tomato plants, if planted prior to tomatoes so that the panicle is produced before tomato fruition. The bugs don’t even see the tomatoes, they are so intent on the sorghum panicle, he says.

While walking by a row of his sorghum, he pointed to several of the bugs in the panicles, including a pair mating. “They love it!” he said. “This is their bedroom.”

Asked about whether sunflowers don’t do as well to attract leaffooted bugs (which I had found in my own fields), he said that sunflowers have a limited amount of time in which they are in flower to attract the bug. Sorghum stays attractive longer; though, he said, one could plant both, timed to allow an even longer season.

Bingo! If you’re looking at a long season, plant both to succeed each! Moreover, one can plant other trap crops for other bugs and other crops that can also mix and match with these.

For example, he also says that the sunflower/sorghum strategy has worked on stink bugs; but he is still conducting experiments. He suggests using bug vaccums.

Other findings from Dr. A –

— “Blue Hubbard” Squash planted as a perimeter can attract pepper maggots, cucumber beetles, squash vine borers and squash bugs with a 60 percent to 90 percent success rate.

— Clemson spineless okra can be used as trap crop to protect tomatoes and bell peppers from aphids, flea beetles and grasshoppers.

Dr. A certainly has his work cut out for him, but what he has discovered so far is simply phenomenal and has the potential to give Southern organics a huge boost.

Someone needs to start sewing a superhero suit with a big “Dr. A” on it. This organic crusader is treading where few in the academic and scientific community have dared to go — and finding weaknesses among the mightiest of the South’s insect pests.

For upcoming Food and Farm Forums conducted by the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, see: http://www.asanonline.org/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.