Real Results for Real People

CALS brings North Carolina the AgAdvantage

Extension and research: You could call them North Carolina’s AgAdvantage. Because that’s what North Carolina’s producers are saying.

Whether they are operating in the mountains, piedmont or coast; whether they’re involved in growing traditional crops or trying something new; and whether they grew up on a farm or got into the business some other way — these factors matter little. Because together, these farmers are saying things like “Researchers solve production problems,” “We need North Carolina Cooperative Extension now more than ever,” and “I wouldn’t have a successful operation if it were not for N.C. State.”

Here we bring you a few of their stories — stories of farms being started, production problems being solved and dreams being fulfilled. And these are no small matters for North Carolina. Agriculture and agribusiness — food, fiber and forestry — account for almost a fifth of the state’s income and employees.

University helps farmers stay ahead of emerging pests

John (left) and B.B. Griffin

Working on Bertie County land that their family has farmed for generations, cousins B.B. and John Griffin know a thing or two about growing cotton. But when it comes to staying a step ahead of pests, diseases and other production challenges, they say, they’ve come to rely on their College of Agriculture and Life Sciences agents and scientists for timely solutions.

To explain what they mean, the Griffins cite stink bugs, which have in recent years emerged as one of the most economically important cotton pests. Today, virtually all N.C. cotton is genetically engineered with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to control caterpillars. As caterpillars have declined, so has the need to apply insecticides — but with the drop in spraying has come a rise in stink bugs and other insects that aren’t susceptible to Bt.

To help farmers address the problem, agricultural scientists from land-grant universities in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama began working together. They found that stink bugs are most likely to cause economic yield losses during a relatively narrow window in the growing season — the third through fifth week after cotton plants bloom.

N.C. State University entomology Extension specialist Dr. Jack Bacheler and technician Dan Mott developed a tough plastic field card that growers and crop scouts can use to figure out whether to spray. It illustrates how the boll damage threshold changes according to week of bloom. The card has pictures illustrating the type of damage that stink bugs do and explains the use of the new “dynamic,” or changing, threshold. It also includes holes that growers and scouts can use to more accurately gauge the size of vulnerable bolls on which the new threshold is based.

Bacheler estimated that at least 20 percent of North Carolina cotton growers use the cards, potentially saving themselves a total of $8 million a year by limiting yield loss and eliminating unnecessary sprays. These cards are being evaluated throughout the remainder of the cotton belt in 2011.

As B.B. put it, “You don’t want to spray when you don’t have to. And you certainly need to spray when you need to. Now, thanks to scientists working together across state lines, we have a way of knowing when it’s the right decision.”

It’s just one example, John added, of the many ways that Extension and research help farmers get timely answers to problems that threaten their livelihood.

“Some people say that the large farmers are beyond Extension. But that’s not true,” John said. “We need them as much or more than anyone else, and we need them as much now as we ever have.”

Extension helps Rockingham farmers fulfill retirement dreams

Paul and Kristi Marshall

When Paul and Kristi Marshall imagine their retirement, they see a farmhouse overlooking a thriving muscadine vineyard, a pear orchard, a field of Christmas trees, a juice processing plant and perhaps even bed-and-breakfast cabins.

Fifth-generation farmers, the Marshalls bought a tobacco farm near Reidsville in 1989. Though both left farming for what they call “public jobs” – she as a systems analyst and he as a designer for an electronics manufacturer – they always hoped to return to the land.

Among their goals: giving their children and grandchildren the kind of intangible quality-of-life benefits they enjoyed while growing up and providing themselves with a fruitful retirement.

As the two have worked to turn their dreams into reality, they’ve often enlisted the help of agents with Cooperative Extension’s Rockingham County Center and of agricultural Extension specialists with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NCSU. Agriculture agent Kathryn Holmes has often been at their right hand, delivering advice on everything from farm business planning to pest management to safety.

“Over the years, Kathryn has advised us on the more progressive ways, or the better ways, of doing things,” Paul said. “And also the most economical, the most efficient,” Kristi added.

Holmes also helped the Marshalls write a grant proposal that allowed them to establish North Carolina’s largest pear orchard. They are growing 140 pear trees — 10 each of 14 different European and Asian varieties — and testing the survival rate, fire blight resistance and marketability. They want to determine whether dessert pears can be a viable alternative to traditional crops such as tobacco.
The pear project is supported by a grant from the nonprofit organization Rural Advancement Foundation International, or RAFI, and the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

The Marshalls are also experimenting with Christmas trees with the help of Dr. Dennis Hazel, an Extension Christmas tree specialist.

As for the future of the farm they call Riverbirch Vineyards, the Marshalls hope to get into beekeeping. They plan to build a home on the farm and move there. They recently won a RAFI grant to get into juicing and fruit processing. They see a day when they might make gift baskets for sale through a local foods organization. And they want to convert two barns into a bed-and-breakfast.

The plans are big, but, as Holmes has advised, the Marshalls are taking it one step at a time.

“We just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Paul said. “And Extension has been with us since day one on everything we’ve done. The hours that Kathryn and all of her cohorts at the Extension office in Rockingham have put in and the support we’ve gotten from N.C. State University – we never can pay that back. There’s no dollar amount you can put on that.”

The Marshalls said that participating in research and demonstration efforts is a way to return to the farming community what Extension has provided them. And, Paul said, it is a way to encourage farmers to work together and improve the local economy.

On-farm research leads to solutions for Bertie County farmer

Joey Baker

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, said Bertie County farmer Joey Baker, than by having researchers conduct trials on your farm.

Baker farms more than 3,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina and is president of the N.C. Peanut Growers Association. He said he depends on the university and Cooperative Extension for answers to some of his most vexing issues. And for the past six or seven years, he has hosted NCSU experiments on his farm.

Cooperating with the university gives Baker 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 said.

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 late-season sprays don’t have much benefit, but early-spraying according to the advisory or at the first sign of the disease is cost-effective.

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

“Seeing tiny Sclerotinia infections during severe drought … really stands out,” she said. “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 Extension 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 said. He 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 … Extension agents, and they can usually answer my questions right off the top of their head,” he said. “There’s nothing like having a firm answer that you can depend on.”

Nursery collaborates with N.C. State to solve production challenges

John and Jill Hoffman

From its greenhouses and farm in Rougemont, Hoffman Nursery sells ornamental and native grass liners — or starter plants — wholesale to customers all across the United States and Canada. But when the company’s owners need solutions to production problems, they frequently look much closer to home — to the agricultural research and Extension experts at N.C. State.

CALS scientists are conducting three research projects in collaboration with the nursery and its owners, John Hoffman and Dr. Jill Hoffman. The experiments are designed to create a superior cultivar of a popular ornamental grass and to solve problems related to pest and weed management.

The work has the potential to benefit not just the Hoffmans but the entire nursery industry, one of the most valuable sectors of North Carolina agriculture. In 2009, greenhouse, nursery and floriculture crops generated more than $900 million in cash receipts.

One of the NCSU projects involves developing a seedless cultivar of the ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis. Sometimes called silvergrass, this perennial grass is among the most popular in U.S. landscapes, but in some places, it has a tendency to reseed and cause problems in the landscape.

To get around that problem, Drs. Tom Ranney and Darren Touchell, plant breeders stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, are using biotechnology tools to create cultivars that won’t reseed and spread. They are testing plant material in the mountains, while the Hoffmans are conducting field trials at their piedmont location.

John Hoffman said the nursery helped fund the Miscanthus research because he expects there to be strong interest in cultivars that don’t reseed.

“We think it’s certainly a worthy plant for the landscape,” he said. “We thought if we could come up with something that wouldn’t reseed, it could go nationwide and, possibly, worldwide.”

In a second project, the nursery has partnered with N.C. State to consider ways to encourage beneficial insects – ones that prey on pests – to thrive in greenhouses. Specifically, they are looking at the Black Pearl pepper plant as a so-called banker plant to support the survival and reproduction of the minute pirate bug.

The bug is sometimes used to control thrips, spider mites and aphids, three of the most economically damaging pests of ornamental plants grown in greenhouses. Using beneficial insects provides an alternative to chemical pesticides, but the insects can be expensive and aren’t guaranteed to persist in greenhouses after their initial release.

Wendy Trueblood, a nursery employee, had heard about using Black Pearl in greenhouses, and she contacted Dr. Steven Frank of CALS’ Department of Entomology for advice on how best to use the plant. Because no research had been done on the topic, he enlisted one of his graduate students to find answers. Sarah Wong, a master’s degree student, is comparing greenhouses with banker plants and pirate bugs to houses without them.

The third research collaboration between Hoffman Nursery and N.C. State is also focused on controlling pests – specifically, weeds. With funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Interregional Research Project No. 4, most often referred to as IR-4, Dr. Joseph Neal of the Department of Horticultural Science is studying herbicides for ornamental grasses.

Right now, few herbicides are labeled for pre-emergence and postemergence weed control in ornamental grasses, mainly because pesticide manufacturers have little incentive to invest in the expensive process of developing and testing products for use in such minor crops.

Neal’s research is designed to help fill that gap by identifying new pest management tools for ornamental growers.

These ongoing research projects are just the latest efforts linking N.C. State and Hoffman Nursery.

Jill earned her master’s and Ph.D. in toxicology from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in the 1980s, and John took courses with the late Dr. J.C. Raulston, a CALS professor and namesake for its JC Raulston Arboretum.

While operating a landscape business he started in 1981, John noticed a growing interest in using ornamental grasses and thought he could create a business to capitalize on that interest.  His hunch was confirmed by Raulston, who told his students that grasses were, along with aquatic plants and bamboo, the plants of the future.

In 1986, the Hoffmans bought 45 acres in rural Durham County. Since then, Hoffman Nursery Inc. has matured into a successful horticultural business with more than 60 greenhouses and 35 full-time employees. They constantly strive to improve their efficiency and to be good environmental stewards, Jill Hoffman says, exploring ways to recycle water, make the best use of energy, mechanize production and shipping, and more.

The nursery’s Director of Sales and Marketing Shannon Currey said that collaborating with N.C. State researchers also leads to more efficiencies. Not only that, collaborative research is a mutually beneficial: NCSU has a chance to stay in touch with the industry and be aware of real-world problems it faces, while the nursery gains access to leading-edge solutions.

Anson County farmer starts with Extension to get on award-winning track

Bryan Cash

Bryan Cash is justifiably proud of his cattle herd in Anson County. When he bought his first cows more than a decade ago, he knew very little about what it took to raise them. But now, he has a herd of close to 70 healthy cows, plus 42 calves that are thriving.

“Everything that you see out there today, I wanted it, and I did it, but without my Extension agent Richard Melton, (the farm) wouldn’t be where it is today,” said Cash, Anson County’s Outstanding Farmer of the Year in 2008. “Everything I learned, I learned from Richard.”

And by everything, Cash means solid practices related to nutrition, record-keeping, reproduction, genetics, health, marketing and more.

Cash began cattle farming in 1999 to supplement his earnings as an N.C. prison correction officer.

“I didn’t know anything when I first started. I got to the point where I would sell some calves, and they would be a year old but they wouldn’t weigh but about 400 pounds,” Cash said. “I knew that wasn’t right. I didn’t know where to go, but I wanted to get better.”

On other farmers’ recommendation, Cash turned to Melton. The day they met, the agent listened and advised Cash about nutrition and genetic improvements. He also encouraged Cash to buy a good bull.

In months and years to come, Melton – now Extension director in nearby Union County – would be there when Cash castrated his first animal and the first time the farmer artificially inseminated a cow.

Today, Cash relies exclusively on artificial insemination for his herd, and fellow Anson County farmers often call him for help. He estimated he’s artificially inseminated 300 cows in the past year.

Cash makes time every day to look after the herd, and he believes in taking good care of what he calls his momma cows. “You need to keep her in good shape. If you do, she’s going to work for you,” he says. “If not, she can’t give you but so much.”

From Melton, Cash learned that 30 days before they are expected to deliver their calves, it is important to give cows vitamin E and a vaccine to prevent reproductive and respiratory diseases. He also learned that when each calf is born, they should get vitamin E and their umbilical cords should be sprayed with a solution that prevents infection.

“I don’t know where else I would have gone to get to where I am today. When I made the phone call to the Extension office, things started shaping up,” Cash said. “Richard’s knowledge pushed me and got me to where I am today.”

— Dee Shore

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