An ag pilot and an organic farmer — seems something of a paradox. But in Sudan, Texas, they’re family. While veteran aerial applicator Johnny King sprays for area farmers from the sky, his son Chad is on the ground combating weeds with a double-row rotary hoe and a steady stream of hoe-hands.
“It’s old-school farming,” says Chad of his organic acres. “I love it.”
Forty years ago, with a passion to fly, using a county road for a runway, and an area on the brink of a bollworm outbreak, Johnny established King Ag Aviation. For many years, spraying for bollworms was the bread and butter of his operation, and it was routine to use human flaggers on the ground to mark where he had sprayed and where the chemical needed to be applied next.
While the development of Bt cotton quieted the bollworm outbreak, human flaggers were still needed to guide Johnny as he swooped mere feet above the crops, spraying everything from weed killer to fertilizer to defoliants. As soon as they were old enough, Johnny’s sons, Chad and Russ, became members of his ground team brigade.
TURNROW OVER SKY
“They loaded these airplanes from the day they could do the work,” says Johnny. “Chad was pre-Satloc guidance system, so he did a lot of flagging. I had him running from field to field — don't ask me if he had his driver's license.”
Chad eventually received his licenses, not only to drive but to fly as well. But when it came to making a career decision, he chose turnrow over sky. It wasn’t just farming that piqued his interest; it was organic farming — a production method he credits his dad for bringing to his attention.
Read more about pilot Johnny King, Ag spray pilot Johnny King dubbed a shade tree operator
“There was some CRP ground with water under it that had been in the program for over 20 years and was about to come out. Dad had seen a couple of farmers transition from conventional farming to organic and they were doing pretty well. So, he encouraged me to look into it and that was the catalyst for it all.
“As long as I can remember, I've been fueling airplanes, washing windshields, and flagging on the ends of turnrows,” says Chad, who also farms conventional acres. “In all honesty, I've really never liked chemicals that much, so I started doing some research and ran into a guy named Jimmy Wedel, down the road from me, who had been an organic farmer since 1989.”
Wedel, of Muleshoe, Texas, took Chad under his wing, like an apprentice. “He helped me at every corner. He basically held my hand and walked me through the first year; it was invaluable knowledge.”
That was eight years ago on Chad’s first circle of organic production. Today, he’s farming 1,200 acres of organic crops, mostly irrigated, but some dryland.
Asked what he loves about organic farming, he says it’s the challenge and the people within the specialized market. “I’m working with these niche markets, with only a handshake, and sometimes no contract at all — it's just verbal, and you’re getting a good premium for your crop. Your yield's a little lower, but as far as the challenge and the management side of it, I love it.
“We have inspections, paperwork, and the micro-management per field. I have to drive by these fields every day because there's always something different going on.”
And with micro-management also comes challenges. “If I ever go somewhere for four or five days in June or July and then come back to my organic crops, it's a totally different world. Those weeds don't stop coming. I always have somebody lined up with a cultivator or have a hoe crew that's in a good rotation.”
But with conventional crops, with GMOs and the dicambas working well, he says, “We can spray it, leave for a week, and not worry so much about the weed situation.”
To manage the weeds, Chad has three groups of hoe-hands who have been working for him since he started farming organically.
“They know they have a job with me. I pay them hourly. I'm not rushing them to the field. They're getting more of the weeds. It's not a contract deal in which the faster they get it done, the more money they're making. They take their time and do a good job.”
And while some would argue that paying for hoe-hands is expensive, Chad says, “We can spend as much per acre spraying conventional crops. You can go overboard conventionally, throw every chemical in the book at the problem, and get a lot of money into it. I do spray some, but I hoe a lot. I put a little more money into my organics, but I’m getting a lot more out of it.”
DOUBLE-ROW ROTARY HOE
Chad says he couldn’t farm without a double-row rotary hoe (two rotary hoes put together, front and back), especially in cotton and corn. “Anytime I water in May or June, or anytime water goes over the top of the crop, or I have over a half-inch of rain, I go over it with my home-built double-row rotary hoe.”
Two or three days after a rain or a watering, Chad says, he’ll run over the crop with the implement. “It pulverizes the topsoil. If there's any weed seed germinating, trying to take root, it gets rid of it.
“It gets a lot of the morningglory and pigweed, which if you don’t control early on will overtake your field. Once the crop gets a little bigger, and it takes hold, I run that tool through the field when the crops are big, about 10 inches.”
Which explains why Chad plants higher seed populations — he knows he’s going to thin it out using his rotary hoe. “If it weren't for this tool, there would be no way, with the pigweed and morningglories, to sustain an organic crop.”
Chad grows organic peanuts, corn, and cotton, along with some milo, wheat, and soybeans. According to the National Organic Program, the organization that sets rules and regulations for U.S. organic farmers, organic crops must be rotated annually.
“We can't grow the same crop back to back,” explains Chad as he’s harvesting his organic Valencia peanuts. “That's the reason for the rotation and all the different crops I grow.”
While he didn’t grow any soybeans in 2018, he says they are an excellent rotation. “I never make a good yield on them, but as far as rotation, it’s a legume, and the cotton crop afterward grows out the roof.”
Another management practice Chad employs on his organic acres is annually deep breaking the soil with 10 tons of manure.
“Deep tilling is my Treflan. If I don't deep break my fields annually in the winter, I have a weed problem like you just can't imagine. So, I have to break all those weeds under. If I do that, it seems to last me throughout the year.”
He also credits his tillage/manure combination for helping his crops withstand weed, drought, and insect pressures better than his conventional crops.
He also uses cover crops, labeled as green manure because they can’t be terminated with herbicides. “I turn it under with the breaking plow and usually let it get up to 10 inches or so. It provides a little nitrogen. That's what I lack in the organic game: nitrogen. With the green manure, I have plenty of phosphate and potassium. It's nitrogen that’s always low.”
Even though Chad makes his living forgoing the very products that have made his father’s business a success for the last 40 years, he says his dad is an inspiration to him. “His work ethic — he just doesn’t stop. He’s like a machine. And to be an organic farmer, you’ve got to have that ethic instilled in you.”