Learning the lessons of farming with a long view

When raising vegetables, Billy Carter of Eagle Springs, N.C., practices as much sustainable farming as possible. He raises watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, sweet corn and these strawberries.
Photos by Rocky Womack.

Billy Carter of Eagle Springs, N.C., farms in a sustainable fashion. He follows closely what chemicals he applies, and doesn’t apply, and he practices a three-year rotation, which helps control soilborne insects.

However, he knows that is not enough sustainable effort for managing his 100 acres of crops, which includes strawberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes and sweet corn. He also conducts soil and nematode assays every year, so he knows where his soils are as far as nutrient value and pest problems. “We will use fumigants in our vegetable crops when it’s necessary, but we try to do a nematode assay so we know whether that’s really needed or not. Then, we make decisions based on that,” Carter says. “Starting from that point, we’re looking at trying to understand what’s going on in a particular place that we’re going to plant so we don’t just come at it with a shotgun-blanket type of approach.”

Nematologist Weimin Ye with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services recommends growers collect a soil sample in the fall, then send it in or deliver it to the NCDA&CS offices in Raleigh, N.C., to do a diagnostic nematode assay.

Once the grower receives the nematode assay report, he studies its findings. Ye says the typical report will list the species of nematodes, populations, hazards they can cause to the crop and how to manage them. If nematodes are present, he recommends growers first try rotating their vegetable crops with other crops. If that doesn’t solve the problem, he says growers can use a nematicide on only the fields that need it.

A soil sample costs $3, Ye says, and it takes one to three weeks for his office to do a diagnostic nematode assay and complete a report.

Drip, drip

Once crop production starts, Carter evaluates weather conditions to determine if or when he should apply fungicides and pesticides. He doesn’t want rain to wash off the insecticide. If he sprays, he may have to reapply, which can lead to extra money spent when he doesn’t need to. Too much rain can also create a fungal problem, so he must time his fungicide applications carefully for the best effect.

Another sustainable measure Carter has taken is to switch more of his vegetable production from conventional overhead irrigation to drip irrigation. His intention is to conserve water and apply a crop protectant at the same time. He raises most of his vegetables under plastic culture, where he uses drip irrigation; however, he continues to use overhead irrigation on bare-ground vegetable production.

“We find it’s sort of a whole approach to the use of crop protectants,” Carter says. “You can get into some real issues if you’re doing all overhead. You might need a fungicide, but you also need to irrigate, so it’s a timing issue. There are a lot of ways to minimize the need to apply. One of them is the cultural practice as far as trying to supply water to the crop, but it also has a net positive effect of being able to usually apply less fungicide, particularly to a crop like tomatoes, where if you’re overhead irrigating you’re going to be forever keeping your foliage wet and encouraging [disease]. In that regard, it’s all very helpful as far as an integrated approach as to how you do it.”

Beneficials

Insects can cause detrimental harm; however, not all are worth killing. When planning his spray program, Carter tries to anticipate the potential use and harm a crop protectant will have.

“Certainly on the insecticides, we always try to look at the impact it’s going to have on our beneficials,” he says. “Our first focus will be on bees, because so many of the crops that we do rely on bees for pollination.”

Carter rents 100 honeybee hives from Josh Richardson, a beekeeper in Ellerbee, N.C., to help pollinate his plants.

Carter says native bee populations in his area typically have been decimated by insects and diseases that didn’t exist 20 years ago, so he rents to make up the difference. Some of the bees do double-duty. Once they pollinate one crop on the farm, they are moved to another crop that is growing in the same season. For example, once the strawberries are pollinated by June, Richardson will move some of the hives to the later-planted melon crops.

Typically, the first beehives for melons are transported in around May 10, so the first female flowers can be pollinated. Carter brings in more hives throughout May and into early June.

About mid-March, strawberries are well on their way to growing. Ordinarily, Carter starts picking them by mid-April, but the cool, wet weather this winter and early spring may change that. “We just pulled our row covers off when it warmed up this past weekend,” he said during the second week in March. “I suspect we’re probably going to be the end of April this time because of the season. It’s later than ordinary. They are not usually dormant at this point. We only have a few flowers as opposed to most years when there are more.”

He starts pulling sweet corn and picking his first cantaloupes and tomatoes usually between June 15 and June 20. He begins picking watermelons around July 1.

Other trains of thought

Bees aren’t his only focus. Carter also reads product labels to see what his unintentional pest targets are so he can minimize the chemical damage to those.

In addition, at harvesttime he focuses on how many days he must spray so his workers can safely re-enter. “You have to anticipate their approach to the fields,” he says. “You have to be aware of the safest products that you can use, the least amount of times you can use them and get proper efficacy.”

Along the way, he has learned a few things about sustainable farming. “There’s actually two lessons there, and they sort of run counter to one another. In the past, whenever you got into the ritual of following a program, it actually worked fairly well. I can think of a particular program we used to use in tomatoes where you just essentially sprayed every five days, and you had a sort of rote pattern you followed.

“But what we’ve found, since we started trying to pay more attention, is that you can save yourself a pretty good amount of money by spraying when you need to spray and only when you do need to spray,” he says.

“We also have seen there were occasions where you would get imbalances in your program,” Carter adds, “and you would kill off beneficials. There have been times when we created an aphid problem because we were so focused on thrips with certain chemistries. We were actually creating the aphid problem because we were encouraging situations where aphids could thrive. All of their competitors were being eliminated by what we were spraying. It was not uncommon to have that occur, but you get into it and you say, ‘Why can’t I kill these things?’ You were creating the problem because you weren’t really looking at or reading the label and understanding that not only were you getting the target pests, you were getting everything in a broad-spectrum spray.”

Because of cool and wet weather, the strawberry crop on Billy Carter’s farm is later than usual. Only a few flowers were showing in the second week of March.

He learned that he needed to target his pests, but avoid repeating sprays when it was unnecessary. “We run into that issue, particularly with fungicides, where some of the chemistries have been overused,” Carter says. “They were extraordinarily effective when they first became available, and now they’re nowhere near as effective because the organism you were after has adapted, has mutated itself. So it’s essential to look at approaching it from different angles.”

Carter found that cultural practices, as far as timing of irrigation and sprays, can reduce the number necessary, and little things such as crop spacing also can have an effect. Even in strawberries, the orientation of the rows makes a difference.

“Sometimes, you don’t have control over how you’re watering rows because of the contour of the land,” Carter says, “but we found we do much better with rows that run north to south versus east to west because of the way it dries. Strawberries, even though most of it is on plastic culture and it’s two beds on a row, the way the sun comes over the bed it dries more quickly.”

Unintentional consequences

Over time, Carter’s sustainable vegetable production program has evolved. He realizes the importance of paying close attention to what the actual problem is or what he anticipates it to be. While he doesn’t raise organic vegetables, he does raise organic and conventional tobacco, and through his organic practices he must think progressively on how to culturally control and anticipate insects and diseases.

“That train of thought I think has carried over somewhat into our conventional production, because you try to look at how you can incorporate some of that mindset,” he says. “How you can get some of the forces of nature working for you instead of just combating it all the time.”

Produce market

Carter markets most of his produce locally. “We have an unusual situation where most of what we sell, with the exception of strawberries, is wholesale,” he says, “but it’s not going into a large chain or anything like that. We sell to a network of people who sell at roadside markets, farmers’ markets, flea markets and people who come here and purchase wholesale.”

Most of his market is within a 75-mile radius, and he piggybacks off the local peach producers. When buyers for peaches roll down from the north to the Sandhills, they swing by Carter’s place to purchase vegetables from him.

“We’ve just sort of evolved our business to fit into that,” Carter says. “It’s sort of archaic, but it works pretty well. We’ve had to tweak what we’ve wanted to do over time as far as quantities and when we need to have it. It’s primarily based on having something early that’s reasonably priced and of good quality.”

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.