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Agronomic Services — News Release


Traditional farmer finds success with non-traditional crops

PINEY WOODS — For most of his life, Bill Osborne was a dairyman and a tobacco farmer, just like his father before him. Then a few years ago, he broke with tradition, sold the dairy, built some greenhouses and started growing his own tobacco seedlings. The next year, he did something even more radical: he grew cabbage plants in the greenhouse—in float beds just like his tobacco.

Cabbage seedlings had never been grown that way. There was no information on how to do it or even if it could be done. That didn’t stop Osborne. He turned to Tim Hambrick, a regional agronomist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, for advice.

Today, Osborne manages a successful greenhouse operation that produces cabbage, strawberry and tobacco seedlings for transplant. He sells nearly a million tobacco seedlings over several states. His greenhouses are full about eight months out of the year, and he’s still looking for ways to improve his use of space.

“Bill Osborne is an excellent farmer to work with,” Hambrick said. “He is interested in the hows and whys of producing a quality product, and he’s not afraid to do what it takes to achieve high quality.”

Osborne first called on Hambrick three years ago when he was starting out in the greenhouse business. His tobacco seedlings developed a fungus that was affecting the roots. Hambrick helped him overcome the problem and produce vigorous plants by monitoring nutrients in the leaves and adjusting his fertilizer applications.

“I had to spray fertilizer solution over the top of the plants,” Osborne said. “Magnesium and sulfur were nutrients that needed to be added. The fertilizer kept the plants going until the fungicide started to work three or four days later.”

That visit was Osborne’s first introduction to plant tissue testing and solution analysis—two tools that are indispensable for greenhouse producers. These tests, which are available through the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division, give growers precise information about the nutrient levels in the plant and in the fertilizer solution, as well as information about the chemistry of source water. With this knowledge, growers can adjust fertilization programs to give their crops exactly the right amounts of nutrients at just the right time.

When Osborne first decided to try growing cabbage in float beds, he proceeded cautiously. “We watched everything closely,” Hambrick said. “There was just no information on growing cabbage in a float system. We wanted to keep an eye on it.”

But the cabbage took off. “We planted the seed one day, and the plants were up the next day,” said Osborne’s wife Jill. “We couldn’t believe it.”

“Cabbage is the easiest thing I’ve ever seen grow,” Osborne added.

He and Hambrick monitored the crop’s progress by taking solution and tissue samples at regular intervals. Within five weeks, the plants were big enough for transplanting. A local producer of field-grown cabbage bought the entire lot.

“We had no real problems growing cabbage,” Osborne said, “and it hardly needed any fertilizer.”

Growing both cabbage and tobacco, Osborne was using his greenhouse space from February through June, but he wanted to do even better. He decided to add strawberries to his calendar because they could be grown from mid-August through mid-October.

And, luckily, Alleghany County has the altitude necessary to produce a healthy plant. High altitude and cool temperatures help protect strawberries from a fungal disease known as anthracnose.

Unlike cabbage though, growing strawberries proved to be a challenge. “I probably never would have been successful with strawberries if it weren’t for Tim,” he said.

Osborne felt certain he could grow the strawberry plants, but he wasn’t sure who would buy them. He didn’t know of anyone in Alleghany County who grew strawberries on black plastic. Again, Hambrick helped out.

Since Hambrick’s territory covers several counties, he made some inquiries among strawberry growers to see if any of them would be interested in buying plants from a first-time producer. A Surry County grower surprised him by ordering about 68,000 plants, enough for four acres. Another grower from the same county ordered about 30,000 plants.

With orders in, the real work began. Again, there was little information to go on. Regional recommendations for fertilizing strawberries were geared toward the crop in the field, not the plugs in the greenhouse. By using tissue analysis to monitor the crop, Osborne and Hambrick came up with an appropriate fertilizer program.

“If we had grown the plants at the rate recommended for field strawberries, the plants would have been knee high,” Osborne said. “Strawberry plugs grown in the greenhouse just don’t need that much water or fertilizer.”

Osborne is so encouraged by his new ventures that he’s considering expanding even further to produce strawberry plants for the Florida market. And you can be sure he’ll be calling Hambrick from time to time. “Tim’s been a big help,” Osborne said, “and he’ll come any time you call him.”

Hambrick has been advising farmers as a NCDA&CS regional agronomist since 1998. Based in Dobson, he serves an area that includes Alleghany, Forsyth, Guilford, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties.

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 regions 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 Division’s Field Services Web site at, or call J. Kent Messick at (919) 733-2655.


Last Update June 1, 2009


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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