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Agronomic Services — News Release


Regional agronomist helps tobacco farmer make transition

—Peter Hight grew up on a farm in Warren County, and today still manages his family's peach orchard. He knows the kinds of problems farmers face, and he knows how to help solve them. In his position as regional agronomist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, he has plenty of opportunity to exercise this talent.

Peters job takes him to growers all over Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, Vance and Warren counties. One day while advising a grower in Vance County, Peter heard about another grower who was just starting a tomato greenhouse operation. Peter promptly paid him a visit to see if he needed any help. He did.

Danny Wilkerson had grown tobacco in Granville and Vance counties for 36 years. As demand for tobacco decreased, Wilkerson found himself considering other crops. This year he had taken the plunge and devoted half of his greenhouse space to tomatoes. It had required a lot of planning and a good many changes, and even so, it still felt like a venture into uncharted territory.

In January, Wilkerson and his son Todd had seeded an entire 200x35-foot greenhouse with 'Trust' tomatoes, a cultivar bred especially for greenhouse conditions. These special tomatoes grow well under lower light intensities, tolerate shorter day lengths, are resistant to diseases, and have an indeterminate growth habit that enables plants to keep flowering and producing fruit. These qualities don't come cheap. At 21 cents per seed, Wilkerson had a significant investment to protect, and Hight was the person to help him do it.

Hight outlined some of the services provided by the Agronomic Division — soil testing, plant tissue analysis and solution analysis. He explained how these services could be used to optimize crop fertilization and plant yield and why they are particularly important for high-value greenhouse crops.

"I had never taken a tissue sample before," said Wilkerson. "Peter showed me how to sample and explained the importance of sampling regularly and frequently. Todd and I sent in six samples over a period of ten weeks."

Tissue analysis is a laboratory test that is similar to a soil test. Tissue analysis is more exact, however, and tells a grower if a crop currently contains the right amounts of nutrients to produce a good yield. If it does not, fertilizer can be added to prevent a nutrient problem from developing.

The Wilkersons analyses revealed two potential problems. The first was low potassium levels. Potassium is essential for the development of firm, quality fruit. Lack of potassium can cause soft, mushy fruit that is more susceptible to disease. The Wilkersons solved this problem by following Agronomic Division recommendations for adding potassium to the nutrient solution.

The second problem the tissue analyses revealed was an unusually high nitrogen-to-sulfur ratio. The main danger here was the chance the plants would become tall, spindly and woody, and be unable to bear the weight of the fruit. At Hights suggestion, the Wilkersons added Epsom salts, which provide sulfur.

Solution analysis is another test the Wilkersons used to their benefit. Hight showed them how to take samples of the pond water they wanted to use as a backup water source for the greenhouse. Then they took samples of the nutrient solution used to feed the tomatoes. Samples were taken at the beginning of the line and at the end of the line to assess uniformity of delivery.

For a total of $12 ($4 per sample), the Wilkersons had three water samples analyzed. By studying the nutrient content of the water and its various chemical properties listed on the solution report, Hight was able to verify that the Wilkersons' nutrient delivery system was functioning as it should.

The Wilkersons needed no introduction to the soil tests that Hight recommended. They were growing their tomatoes in a bark-and-sand mixture and already knew the importance of soil testing. The two samples they sent in for the free analysis indicated nutrient levels were low. This was not a problem, however, because the nutrient solution was providing an adequate supply.

"The $36 we paid for six tissue samples and three solution samples was good insurance," said Todd Wilkerson. "Thanks to those samples, we had large, near-perfect fruit on the vine in April."

The Wilkersons are successfully marketing this fruit in several ways. They sell to several nearby restaurants and wholesale to a grocery store in Durham. Meanwhile, the "For Sale— Vine-Ripe Tomatoes" sign in their front yard keeps Danny's wife Marie busy at the fruit stand set up in their carport.

"It's very rewarding to help growers like the Wilkersons make a successful transition," Hight said. "If other growers need information or advice on crop fertility issues, I hope they will feel free to contact me." Hight is the NCDA&CS regional agronomist serving Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, Vance and Warren counties.

The Field Services Section of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division employs 14 regional agronomists to serve 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 for the name of the regional agronomist for your area, 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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