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Agronomic Services — News Release

THURSDAY, JAN. 25, 2001

Cranberry Farm leads the way in innovative waste management

CRANBERRY — Some people say Kirk Mathis runs his 1,100-acre farm in Wilkes County like a research station. He tries innovative ideas and is eager to find more efficient ways to do things. Over the years, he has relied on advice from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Division and has cooperated in conducting several fertilizer and animal waste field tests.

NCDA&CS regional agronomist Lynn Howard, who has advised Mathis for 15 years, has high praise for Mathis' principles, resourcefulness and adaptability.

"Kirk is always ahead of the game. He was taking soil and waste samples and keeping detailed animal waste records long before it was mandatory," Howard said. "And Cranberry Farm has earned a stack of awards along the way including the Conservation Farm of the Year award in 1975 and an award in 2000 for producing 200 bushels of corn per acre. When his average yield on over 900 acres of corn is 147 bushels, you know hes doing something right."

In 1997, the state established strict environmental guidelines for poultry producers and required them to document almost everything they did. Mathis was quick to realize that he needed a better way to keep records, or he would soon be buried under with paperwork. So he bought a computer and spreadsheet software, and had a neighbor tutor him.

That was three years ago. Today he has an efficient, computerized system for filling out the mandatory waste management forms. He simply enters pertinent information — like field size and fertilizer application rates — and the program makes all the calculations and prints out the results on a form set up exactly like the ones required by state regulatory agencies.

Mathis takes great pride in his farm, which has been in his family for five generations. His goal is not just immediate profit. He wants to make sure the land is tended wisely so it can continue to be productive for generations to come.

Cranberry Farm produces 150,000 broilers annually and is permitted for 450 head of beef cattle. In addition, Mathis grows 1,000 acres of corn, 75 acres of barley and about 25 acres of pasture. The grain is primarily feed for the livestock, and animal manure, in turn, is used to fertilize the grain.

This system works well. "We couldn't operate if we had to buy fertilizer nitrogen at $140 a ton," Mathis said. "Just look at what has happened over the past few years. The price of nitrogen fertilizer has gone from about $88 a ton to $145 a ton, but the price of corn hasnt gone up at all."

Cost savings are not the only reason Mathis uses poultry litter for fertilizer. By collaborating with Howard, Mathis has learned that poultry litter can improve soils if they are poor.

Years ago, soil test reports indicated that some of Mathis' bottomland fields had deep, sandy soils with an extremely low cation exchange capacity, or CEC, value of less than 3. Basically that meant there was little or no organic matter or clay to hold fertilizer nutrients. Plants growing in those soils were starving.

Conventional methods for raising CEC, like turning under legume crops, usually take a lifetime to achieve even a small result. Howard was convinced that by using agronomic rates of poultry litter, Mathis could achieve results much sooner. Mathis decided to give it a try, and sure enough, within three years, CEC values of the problem fields were between 4 and 5—an astounding increase for such a short period of time.

And the benefit of that increase was quickly seen in yield. "I got 25 tons of silage per acre from a field where I was lucky to get seven tons before," Mathis said.

He has also been cooperating with Howard for several years on a field test to investigate the movement of phosphorus through the soil. This study is important because of concern that excess phosphorus may pollute groundwater and waterways. Preliminary results seem to indicate that phosphorus moves through Wilkes County soils very slowly, posing little threat to groundwater.

Mathis' interest in the fate of phosphorus does not stop here. As President of the Wilkes County Farm Bureau, he takes an active interest in farm stewardship and any potential new restrictions on farmers. "We need regulations that take into account the fact that soils are different across the state," he said.

Howard and Mathis plan to continue their successful collaboration. "We do a lot over the phone now," Mathis said. "When I get my soil test results, we might spend 30 to 45 minutes going over each report. Farmers in North Carolina have the number one soil test lab in the nation."

Howard has been advising farmers as a NCDA&CS regional agronomist since 1980. Based in Granite Falls, he serves an area that includes Alexander, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Mitchell, Watauga and Wilkes counties. He can be reached by phone at (828) 313-9982 or by email at

The Field Services Section of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division has 14 regional agronomists located throughout the state. These agronomists are available to visit or consult with growers in their region who need help taking agronomic samples, adjusting fertilizer programs, pinpointing nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, identifying nematode problems, or interpreting agronomic reports. For more information or the name of the regional agronomist assigned to your area, visit the Agronomic Divisions Field Services Web site at, or call J. Kent Messick at (919) 733-2655.


Last Update August 1, 2007


NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division, Colleen M. Hudak-Wise, Ph.D., Director
Mailing Address: 1040 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1040
Physical Address: 4300 Reedy Creek Road, Raleigh NC 27607-6465
Phone: (919) 733-2655; FAX: (919) 733-2837

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