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Texas A&M Agrilife and Southern Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Association Team Up on ‘Field of Dreams’

By Susan Himes

An alignment of the right land and the right team in place is leading to creating an agricultural research “field of dreams.”

When agronomist Reagan Noland, Ph.D., took a position with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service five years ago, one of the things that excited him the most was the prospect of conducting field trials and being able to support the region’s cotton and crop producers.

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Center in San Angelo had some land leased at the time, which Noland was thankful for, but it wasn’t ideal for his research and extension goals. Several local producers also generously let him do small-scale trials in their fields, but this was logistically challenging for both him and the producers. It also limited the opportunities for public engagement and extension programming.

“Cotton has been an economic driving force of this region for a very long time,” he said. “It is both a livelihood and a legacy that we hope to maintain, and it was a priority for me to find ways through science to support and grow the industry.”

Noland kept searching for available land that would fit his criteria, but that was challenging in and around San Angelo. In the meantime, despite the topography, lack of irrigation and any number of other challenges, Noland worked with the land he had access to.

Southern Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Association

The Southern Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Association, SRPCGA, has supported the research done by Texas A&M AgriLife in San Angelo since its inception. Noland began working closely with them when he first started. They understood the importance of his research and the larger-scale and more complex studies he could do if he just had the land for it.

The SRPCGA, consisting of cotton producers and ginners within the Concho Valley area, became partners with Noland in the search for the “perfect field.”

“We understood how important it was for the type of work Dr. Noland was doing on crops to secure land where he could control more of the variables and conduct studies and comparisons over many years,” said Bill Thompson, executive director of SRPCGA and retired AgriLife Extension economist, San Angelo.

Perfect partnership

Three years after joining the San Angelo center, Noland got a new colleague in the office next door. Entomologist Greg Wilson filled the center’s vacant integrated pest management position and before long, he, too, was dreaming of acreage where they could conduct larger-scale field trials and research.

Noland said he had gotten his hopes up many times before only to have potential fields “just not work out.” Now it was also Wilson sharing these hopes and disappointments.

“We came close a couple times, but it just didn’t work out,” Wilson said. “Finding a long-term lease on farmland that not only fit our criteria but was also in a centralized location was starting to feel like an impossible task.”

But then, one day last year, Thompson heard about some farmland about to become available. It was in Wall, about 10 minutes from San Angelo. The land belonged to the Wall Independent School District and consisted of 34 acres, which had previously been used to farm row crops.

The SRPCGA was ultimately able to lease the land for Texas A&M AgriLife use for the next 10 years.

“Everything finally aligned for us,” Noland said. “Greg and I had talked about what the land we needed would be like in a ‘perfect world.’ We talked about flat ground with irrigation and around 30-40 acres in a location that was convenient and accessible to producers who came to see our trials and attend field days. That is exactly what we got.”

The farmland will also allow for studies on other row crops.

“Nobody we work with is only a cotton farmer; every single one of them also grows grain crops, hay or something else,” Noland said. “Our cotton research is key, but research on other crops like wheat and sorghum is also very important to our producers and the region.”

He also said it is incredible to have complete control over a piece of land to conduct good, consistent research covering a range of different issues, factors and management inputs.

“Having this land to work on — I really do feel like the luckiest extension specialist in the nation,” Wilson said. “The Southern Rolling Plains Cotton Growers have been amazing in making this happen.”

The dream becomes reality

One morning two months ago, Noland and Wilson stood on the newly leased farmland beaming as if it was Christmas morning. A nearby cotton producer and SRPCGA Board member had volunteered his time and equipment to help till the rows. As the heavy machine rolled onto the field, their excitement was palpable.

The men, alongside their team, removed and replaced field markers in coordination with the equipment’s progress and discussed what all they hoped to do with the land they now had to work with.  

Noland said the vision for the acreage is a checkerboard of plots of different crops and treatments all the way across the farm.

“Ultimately we’ll have integrated projects studying crop rotation, tillage regimes, fertility, reniform nematodes and so much more,” Wilson said. Reniform nematodes affect cotton production in the region and can significantly limit yield.

Noland said inputs and technologies are changing constantly — as are the problems farmers face.

“Our research is about being efficient with inputs, mindful of the environment, economically resilient and productive for our community,” Noland said. “This farm allows us to continue that mission.”

Pest and weed issues are rapidly developing and evolving, he said, so producers can’t just keep farming the same way.

“We have to adapt,” Noland said. “We have to evaluate carefully exactly what our inputs are and how to optimize the system.”

Community focused

In addition to their cotton and row crop research, Wilson envisions the farmland as a prime opportunity for the community.

“I’ve already discussed with the Texas Master Gardeners the idea of having a garden section where they can grow tomatoes, black-eyed peas and other vegetables and plants,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a community garden would also be an opportunity to teach others about agriculture. He said part of the acreage will be intentionally open to the public as a demonstration space.

Wilson and Noland would like a covered pavilion someday where producers could gather for field days, and the public could meet for agricultural education programs. They don’t want to get ahead of themselves, but they both have big plans for helping producers and benefiting their entire community. After all, dreams do come true.

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