On-farm research yields profit-saving results for Bertie producer

When it comes to growing crops like peanuts, cotton, corn and soybeans, knowing the latest research-based recommendations can mean the difference between making a profit or racking up losses. And there’s no faster way of getting that information, says Bertie County farmer Joey Baker, than by having researchers conduct trials on your farm.

Baker grows crops on more than 3,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina and is president of the N.C. Peanut Growers Association. For six or seven years, he has hosted N.C. State University experiments on his farm.

Baker has depended on the university and its North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service for answers to some of the most vexing issues he encounters as a farmer.

By cooperating with the university, Baker says he’s gained early and firsthand insight on questions ranging from how new corn varieties perform under real-world conditions to when is the best time to apply disease-preventing fungicides on peanuts.

As an example, he points to a trial that plant pathologist Dr. Barbara Shew conducted to determine the optimal timing and number of fungicide applications for Sclerotinia blight, one of the worst peanut diseases.

“Spraying is expensive, and so spraying at the wrong time can take the profit potential out of peanuts real fast,” Baker says.

Based on what Shew learned at Baker’s farm and elsewhere, scientists developed a weather-based Scleronitia blight advisory system that alerts growers when it’s time to take action. They found that sprays made late in the season don’t have much benefit, but early spraying according to the advisory or at the first sign of the disease is cost-effective.

Shew says that conducting trials on Baker’s farm has given her insights into crop diseases that she might not have reached by working solely in a laboratory.

“Seeing tiny Sclerotinia infections during severe drought … really stands out,” she says. “With just one rain, I’m sure an epidemic would have exploded overnight. Another lesson was seeing the fungus actively growing in 100-degree heat. That’s not supposed to happen. Weather models and lab studies showed the same thing, but I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself on several occasions.”

Shew is just one of the university scientists and educators who’ve assisted Baker. Dr. Alan York has been an asset when it comes to weed control in cotton, Dr. Tom Isleib has developed soon-to-be-released peanut varieties that Baker is eager to use on his farm and Dr. David Jordan has been helpful with tomato spotted wilt virus on peanuts, Baker says.

Baker also cites extension agents Richard Rhodes of Bertie County and Craig Ellison of Northampton County, which is where the farmer lives.

“I stay in contact with my North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents, and they can usually answer my questions right off the top of their head,” he says. “I depend on them heavily. And the university specialists are also responsive when I contact them directly.”

“Crop prices are good right now, but input prices are going up, too,” he adds. “So there’s not a lot of margin for error. In this environment, there’s nothing like having a firm answer that you can depend on.”

-D. Shore

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