Michael Ferro might seem an unlikely person to win an essay contest on cotton production in the Delta. Ferro is a graduate student in the entomology department at Louisiana State University working on a doctorate on beetles in rotting wood. He has a master's degree in aquatic entomology and undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry.
Notice there's no mention of cotton in this list of impressive achievements. “I was raised on a small farm in west central Missouri, Ferro said, “which is a ways from cotton. But I've been in an agricultural setting for a very long time.”
In Ferro's case, his lack of direct knowledge of cotton production allowed him to think out of the box for his grand prize-winning essay, which began with a quote from American physicist Richard Feynman: “If it's not against the laws of physics, it can be done.”
Ferro used his study of ecology, admiration of technology and love of science fiction to construct a possible cotton future, which was judged the grand winner in the graduate division of the Future of Delta Cotton Student Essay Contest. The contest is sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection and Delta Farm Press.
His interest in cotton began several years ago with exchanges between Ferro and a friend who was an agricultural engineer. “We would spend hours wondering how we could accomplish an activity on the farm with less energy, or less capital. It's a fun intellectual experience to sit down and look at something and ask, ‘Is it as good as it could be?’”
In Ferro's vision of one cotton future, organic cotton has been shown to be, in some cases, less environmentally friendly than conventional methods of production for some agricultural products. The key certification has become sustainable agriculture, in which agricultural industries have to meet strict criteria in three categories: energy and material inputs, ecological balance, and worker pay, safety and health benefits.
Ferro also imagines fields where harvesting machines are designed to run on pre-established tracks in the field and multiple machines are operated remotely by the farmer.
As for the more immediate future, Ferro believes cotton's profitability in the Delta is dependent on its price relative to polyester. “As the cost of clothes that are derived from petroleum goes up, we're going to go back to a renewable resource. As people move away from petroleum-based fabrics, cotton is going to be back. Cotton is a carbon neutral, renewable resource if it's managed correctly.”
While Ferro's background is not flush with cotton experiences, he has a deep appreciation for challenges facing cotton today. Ferro's grandfather was a crop duster and his father farmed when Ferro was young. “My father was always worried about what the seed was going to cost, what the taxes on the land were going to be and what chemicals were going to cost.
“But you never knew how much people were going to pay for your product. If it was bumper year, they wouldn't give you anything. If it wasn't, you got a ton of money per bushel for your 8 bushels. I've seen a lot of farms go boom and bust. It's a tough situation for a group of people that we need so much.
“Agriculture is so very important. I've never met a farmer who didn't want somebody else to take over when they were done. We have to do our best to make the situation for farmers better, socially and environmentally.”
After he earns his doctorate, Ferro would like to remain in academia and continue to do research. “There are so many different avenues you can get into. For example, in northern Europe, they've started a process where they're leaving strips of ground in fallow for predatory beetles to overwinter, which can get out into fields and start eating the pests. There's a situation where you have a good marriage of botany, agriculture and taxonomy.”
When told about his winning the $2,500 award, Ferro said, “I appreciate the honor. I submitted the essay thinking it would be a great way to hash out some ideas. I think this is a fantastic way to get ideas on how to deal with the future.”
Chris Carlton, entomology professor at LSU and Ferro's faculty advisor, said he knew Ferro was a serious student when he showed up on campus several months before he had been accepted to graduate school. “He has an incredible capacity to be visionary and synthesize information from diverse areas. We're all very proud of him.”
To read Ferro's complete essay online, visit www.FutureOfDeltaCotton.com.