Northeast Ag Expo gives producers a glimpse of farming’s future

More than 200 farmers, scientists, crop advisers and others came out under a sweltering summer sun for an event with roots deep within agriculture’s past and with branches reaching far into farming’s future.

This year, planners of the Northeast Ag Expo joined forces with those of N.C. State University’s Precision Agriculture Field Day to put together an event that focused on cotton and high-tech farming. It took place Aug. 11 in Gates County.

With help from area producers and agribusinesses, North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents in six counties – Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans – have been putting on the Northeast Ag Expo for 16 years. They use a tried-and-true, century-old extension format: showing producers the latest technology and research pertaining to agriculture through on-farm demonstrations.

As old as the field day format is, the event’s subject was decidedly modern: Researchers and Extension specialists from N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focused their lectures and demonstrations on precision agriculture, which is seen as key to farming’s future.

Precision farming begins with the idea that within a farm field is great variability. Farmers can get a better idea of that variability through new technologies such as global positioning satellites or aerial images and geographic information systems. And if they can use that information to adapt their practices more precisely to the actual conditions that exist in different parts of their fields, they can reduce crop losses and costs for fertilizers, pesticides, seeds and other so-called inputs. And they can increase yields and profits.

Part of the goal of this year’s field day was to give farmers a better understanding of when it’s most economically beneficial for them to employ precision agriculture, said Al Wood, an agricultural agent in Pasquotank County.

“Some of our farmers are using yield monitors and have been doing that for a good while, but if you start getting into the variable-rate applications – variable-rate fertilization or variable-rate seeding technology or variable-depth tillage – not many of them are doing it yet. There’s a high percentage of them that are waiting on the fence,” he said.

More than 200 people gathered at the Gates County Community Center for morning lectures.
More than 200 people gathered at the Gates County Community Center for morning lectures.

“So what we did this morning, we had the classroom instruction where we talked about the basic mechanics of the technology and whether or not it’s economically feasible, and then this afternoon they got to actually see that technology demonstrated in the field,” he said. “Although we may not answer all the questions that they may have about these various technologies, hopefully we will carry them further along in making a decision about whether this is something that is useful and applicable to their farms and whether it will be economically feasible.”

Each year, the Northeast Ag Expo rotates to one of the six participating counties, according to alphabetical order. Usually, the event focuses on a commodity that is important to the host county, said Paul Smith, a Gates County agricultural agent who coordinated many details of the day. That’s why the event included information about cotton tests and precision cotton management.

Previous expos have featured small corn, soybeans, sorghum, aquaculture, horticultural crops, peanuts and other crops, and next year’s expo in Perquimans County will likely focus on small grains. So this year’s focus on precision agriculture was a departure from the routine – a departure that the expo planning team welcomed when the organizers of the Precision Agriculture Field Day proposed a joint event.

“It’s timely: We are getting a lot of questions about technology now,” Smith said. “We felt like partnering with the Precision Agriculture Field Day would give us the opportunity for farmers in the northeast to actually see this technology, what it does and how it works.

“The greatest burden farmers have now is labor, and this technology is reducing the need for labor and so it’s answering the farmers’ prayers,” he added. “It’s the way of the future.”

The expo and field day started with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast sponsored by the N.C. Pork Producers at the Gates County Community Center in Gatesville. Following breakfast, N.C. State scientists talked for a little less than two hours about precision land preparation, variable-depth tillage, precision farming’s economic benefits and precision cotton management. Douglas Wassum of the U.S. Department of Agriculture spoke, too, about Natural Resource and Conservation Service cost-share programs.

Gary Roberson of NCSU discusses planting with GPS row unit shutoff.
Dr. Gary Roberson of NCSU discusses planting with GPS row unit shutoff.

Then the gathered throng took to the road, traveling in their cars and trucks to the nearby Umphlett Brothers Farm, which produces corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton. There, about 20 vendors displayed equipment and exhibits, and scientists talked about cotton tests, planting with global positioning system (GPS) row unit shutoff, sprayer-mounted crop sensors, GPS accuracy and variable-rate seeding. The N.C. Farm Bureau sponsored a lunch, held under tents to keep participants as comfortable as possible on a day when temperatures approached 100 F.

Robbie Umphlett loaned his farm for the late morning and afternoon events because, he said, he values what Extension has done for him.

“They give you a way to look at new things without you having to do it on a large scale until they’ve seen that it really works,” he said. “And they will tell you like it is.”

Umphlett came back from a beach vacation to take part in the field day, noting that the annual ag expo has given him plenty of ideas for improving his farm. To give an example, he pointed to a nearby cornfield.

“There is 20-inch row corn right beside you. I saw that at the Northeast Ag Expo several years ago, and I’ve been looking at it ever since,” he said, “and I adopted it this year all the way.”

Learning takes place not just during the formal presentations, Umphlett added, but also during the meals and breaks between demonstrations.

“Today I’ve seen a lot of different farmers, I’ve seen the Extension people, the chemical reps, the equipment dealers, demonstrators – you get to talk to all of them. And everyone is in a relaxed situation where they don’t mind talking to you,” he said. “You learn a lot in a lot of different ways by attending events like this – by listening and looking. Some things you might not ever use again, but there’s a lot of things to look at that make you think. You learn a lot if you pay attention.”

– Dee Shore

The Northeast Ag Expo agent team is Heather Lifsey, Chowan County; Tommy Grandy, Currituck County; Mark Powell, Camden County, Lewis Smith, Perquimans County; Paul Smith, Gates County;  and Al Wood, Pasquotank County.

Members of the Precision Agriculture Field Day committee were Drs. Michael Wagger, Carl Crozier, Alan Meijer and John Havlin, of the CALS Department of Soil Science; Drs. Dominic Reisig and Clyde Sorenson, of Entomology; Dr. Ron Heiniger, of Crop Science; Dr. Gary Roberson, of Biological and Agricultural Engineering; Graham Boyd, of the Plant Food Association of North Carolina; Milton Vaughan, of Trimble; Dr. Pawel Wiatrak of Clemson University; and Suzanne Stanard, CALS Communication.

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