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Agronomic Services — News Release

TUESDAY, AUG. 1, 2000

Regional agronomist gives good advice to mountain farmers

— Herbert Cheeks and his son Glen farm more than 550 acres in Clay County, and they do it successfully. At a time when mountain real estate is at a premium and the prices of agricultural commodities are the lowest in years, making a farm prosper in the mountains is a real achievement.

The elder Cheeks credits the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer with helping fine-tune his production practices. "The Department has helped me stay in farming," he said. "I don’t know what I’d have done without it."

The Cheeks’ primary contact with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has been through their work with regional agronomist Yarborough.

Yarborough knows the mountains, and Cheeks has put his knowledge and expertise to good use on his Clay County farm. The NCDA&CS employee has a host of talents including playing the guitar and crafting furniture out of fine wood, but his passion is agriculture.

From his home base at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, Yarborough visits and advises farmers in some of the least accessible areas of the western N.C. mountains. His territory includes Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Swain and Yancey counties.

The territory may be large, but the problems tend to be the same. Farms in the mountains are remote with little access to commercial agricultural resources. Land is expensive. Growers must find niche markets for their products to maintain cost-effective and sustainable operations.

Cost effectiveness and sustainability are two things Yarborough knows a lot about. If you ask him, he’ll tell you the key to both is no-till agriculture.

With no-till, the ground is not plowed before planting. Seeds are drilled directly into the stubble of the previous crop and fertilizer is injected into the soil. The benefits are both economic and environmental.

Economic benefits include reduced fertilizer and fuel costs. Because fertilizer is injected into the soil, less is washed away by rain or lost to the atmosphere so less needs to be applied. With no-till, farmers also make fewer trips through the field with heavy machinery, thus reducing fuel costs.

The primary environmental benefit is soil conservation. Soil that is not plowed retains more moisture, is less likely to erode, and maintains higher levels of rich organic matter. These qualities ensure a legacy of productive agricultural land.

Fifteen years ago, when Yarborough began advising farmers, few of them believed no-till could work. "No-till, no gather" was the common saying.

Herbert Cheeks was one of the farmers adventurous enough to experiment with no-till in the early 1980s. He was not impressed. However, in 1988, a conversation with Yarborough convinced him to try it one more time — on a 20-acre field of corn.

Yarborough made sure that Cheeks saw demonstrations of how to use no-till equipment and how to check sprayer tips correctly. He advised him on the critical aspects of fertilization.

Cheeks’ no-till corn was an amazing success, and he decided then and there that all of his crops would be no-till. He now raises about 550 acres of row crops with additional acreage devoted to alfalfa, grass and cattle. He claims he could only manage about half this acreage if he were still using conventional tillage.

"Conventional tillage requires about five trips through the field. Just one trip through the field to rip up the ground before planting used to cost me about $400 in fuel alone," said Cheeks. "With no-till, I go through the field once to plant and maybe two more times if I need to spray."

With no-till, the placement of fertilizer and the timing of the application is critical. However, a good agricultural advisor can guide farmers through these complexities. Yarborough now advises Cheeks regularly on soil testing, fertilization, liming, and crop rotation.

Because no-till enabled him to farm more acres and be more profitable, Cheeks has been able to expand his operation so his son Glen, 27, can farm with him. This year Glen is renting an additional 140 acres in Cherokee County and managing them on his own.

The Cheeks’ refer to this land as the "mission farm." It had been bedded in previous years for vegetable production so Glen was forced to use conventional tillage this year to level out the land for corn and beans. However, he has already taken soil samples and prepared a lime and fertilization program for next year’s crops, which, of course, will be no-till.

Yarborough is committed to helping farmers like the Cheeks’ make a living on the land they love. "I’m not just interested in production agriculture," he says. "I’m interested in saving agricultural production. When we lose a farmer, we lose more than just one man. We lose an entire generation. We lose knowledge."

Yarborough is available to visit or consult with any grower who needs help taking agronomic samples, adjusting fertilizer programs, pinpointing nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, identifying nematode problems, or interpreting agronomic reports. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (828) 456-3943.

The Field Services Section of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division has 14 regional agronomists located throughout the state. For more information or for the name of the regional agronomist for your area, 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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