Agronomists help N.C. farmers with crop recommendations
Six years ago, Amy Douglas left a career in civil engineering so she and her husband could raise their children in a bucolic setting. Today, they grow about six acres of produce and sell it at their roadside stand, The Farmers’ Daughter, in Taylorsville.
“When I decided to go into farming in 2008, there was no one growing strawberries within 40 miles of Taylorsville,” Douglas said. “I saw an opportunity. Now I have an established clientele who look forward to purchasing an assortment of local produce.”
Douglas didn’t start completely from scratch. Her parents, Vinson and Mary Ann Icenhour, have long grown vegetable and row crops. Even so, Douglas spent a lot of time doing her own research.
“I learned that with strawberries, regular tissue sampling is imperative,” she said. “But in the beginning, I had trouble getting good information on how and when to collect samples.”
While soil testing provides lime and fertilizer recommendations to help crops get off to a good start, tissue testing lets the grower see if a crop is taking up needed amounts of essential nutrients, said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “For high-value crops such as strawberries and greenhouse tomatoes, tissue testing is the best way to optimize yield and prevent unnecessary losses,” he said.
The Douglases found the information they needed when they attended a workshop and met NCDA&CS agronomist Ben Knox. He encouraged the Douglases, spoke to them about tissue sampling and escorted them to nearby greenhouse vegetable operations so they could evaluate the possibility of expansion.
Because the regional agronomist position covering Alexander County was vacant, Knox and colleague Steve Dillon helped the Douglases until Dwayne Tate joined the department. Knox has since retired, but the Douglases maintain close ties with both Dillon and Tate.
“Having access to two agronomists has worked out really well for us,” Douglas said. “They each have their specialties. If I see a problem, I can take a picture and email it to Steve and Dwayne. They get right back to me. I really depend on them. I contact Dwayne by email or text at least every two weeks.”
Douglas is in the process of refining her approach to greenhouse tomato production. This year, she installed a plastic ground cover for weed control, purchased four new fans to improve aeration, and picked out new pots and media. She has been using tissue testing to monitor crop nutrient status every two weeks. She hopes to plant a second tomato crop for fall harvest.
“Amy can grow things,” Tate said. “Our goal this year is to get the fertilizer program for tomatoes just right. Tissue tests have indicated low levels of potassium and boron. We’ve worked really hard to make timely adjustments. The good thing about tissue testing is that it alerts you to potential problems before they become real problems. If you wait until you actually see a nutrient deficiency, then you’ve already lost some yield.”
Douglas continues to branch out and try new crops. She sells Community Supported Agriculture boxes that contain a selection of her own produce — beans, kale, melons, potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes — sometimes supplemented with items from other local growers.
Douglas thinks carefully about which crops to grow. She has decided that pumpkins are too much trouble and not profitable for her local market. She wants to try sweet potatoes and cabbage in the fall instead of pumpkins.
“Whatever crops she decides on, I’ll do my best to recommend appropriate agronomic tests and help develop a suitable fertilizer program,” Tate said. “I’m a first responder.”
Regional agronomists are available statewide to make on-site visits and help solve nutrient- and nematode-related problems. Contact information is available online at www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.