The Beauty and Complexity of Mother Nature: A Series about the Process and History of Farming in Franklin and Southampton

By E.B. |
Posted on August 12, 2015
| Posted in History & Heritage

The Visit Franklin Southampton VA blog series “Cultivating the Crop: A Series about the Process and History of Farming in Franklin and Southampton” provides readers with an inside look into the entire farming process from the view of one of our own, local farmers. This month’s blog take a look at the beauty and complexity of Mother Nature and how her presence or lack there of plays a major hand in the success of our local farming industry.

Tonight I can see a vivid, double rainbow fade into the eastern horizon as I write my thoughts on the beauty and complexity of Mother Nature. In my area we received a welcome 0.2” of rain and I would estimate that most of the region received about the same or more. This added to the 1.0” that we received, this past Thursday will go a long way to maturing local crops. As this slight rain delay keeps farmers out of the field, they are sure to be riding to every farm, checking rain gauges, and tallying the totals on a worn out, note pad.

After a phenomenal start to our growing season in the Southampton and Franklin area, we all experienced a very unusual rain event. Beginning on the 2nd of July and persisting for four days most of the area received, between 4 and 8 inches, of rainfall. Rainfall in early July is always a welcomed sight but some producers experienced some water damage to their crops. Water damage comes in all fashions. Obviously there are issues with crops being drowned out by ponding water but less apparent is the effects caused by water leaching nutrients away from crop roots. Nitrogen, potassium, and sulfur are the big three when we think of fertility loss, due to leaching. Our coastal plain soils are unable to hold these key elements, as massive amount of water moves through the soil profile.

Some producers in the western regions of Southampton County that received reduced amounts of precipitation have relished in a crop potential that rivaled that of last year. Area corn was positively impacted more than any other crop. Corn during the tassel, silking, and ear production can utilize massive amounts of moisture. Any cornfield that was fertilized for high yield, should produce just that.

The high temperatures just prior to the early July rain had produced cotton and peanut growth like I have never seen before. In agriculture there are key dates during the growing season that represent where a particular crop should be, developmentally. Many cotton fields were blooming well before the 4th of July and many peanut fields were lapping the row middles. The excessive heat also promoted, drying down of our local wheat crop. It is always a benefit to harvest dry wheat, early in the growing season so that double crop soybeans can be planted in a timely matter. Experts suggest that every day after July 15th, that a soybean is planted you sacrifice a ½ bushel of yield potential.

Though the rain was beneficial to most crop fields, it did keep area farmers from their field duties for several days. Cotton and peanuts were both growing at such an aggressive rate, that plant growth regulators (PGRs) had to be applied to, literally, keep the crops at a manageable size. Some cotton fields appeared to grow right through PGRs and were approaching mammoth size before the high fruit load began to slow the assent.

Field chores for the last months have been monumental. Some producers have been replacing leached nutrients, while others applied PGRs. Insect control and weed control also dominated the work schedule.

One of the less glamorous, yet vital tasks of local crop producers is scouting fields for pest and pathogens. It takes a keen eye to discover detrimental insect and fungus pressure, before yield loss is realized. There is a term, known as economic threshold, used by agronomists, and farmers. The economic threshold, determines, whether or not the damage from a pest or pathogen warrants the cost of a pesticide application. There is an uninformed, portion of the population that believes, farmers are constantly treating crops with copious amounts of pesticides. One quick glimpse at a crop production budget reveals the astounding cost of treating pests. I would rather walk a field ten times scouting for insects than to invest thousands to treat it only once. Worms, stinkbugs, plant bugs, and leafhoppers have been the primary insect pest in our mid summer cotton, peanut and soybean crops. Fungicides have and will continue to safeguard the peanuts and soybeans against a plethora of diseases that can be a detriment to a grower’s, bottom line.

I have always heard it said from the older generation, that in this area, we are always 10 days away from a drought. Just like the nutrients, our tidewater soils are unable to hold much water either. During late July and into August much of the area had not seen substantial rainfall in 15 to 21 days. The Franklin Southampton producers were not by any means in dire straights, yet, but surface moister was limited and the hot sun was taking its toll. We eventually got rain and for much of Franklin and Southampton, it was substantial. It could have been a few days late to produce the unbelievable cotton yields of 2014. The cotton crop for the most part is set. Fewer and fewer white blooms atop the canopy signalize the crop has cutout and is in its final stages of maturity. Soybeans and peanuts, however, still have time to add bushels and pounds.

Do I think we can produce yields seen in 2014; I did until most of our area went two weeks, plus, without rain and enduring above average temperatures. I, honestly, didn’t think our area was even capable of those levels of crop yield, until last year. Yes, it is always an amazing accomplishment to break yield levels and records; but when the sun sets on the final day of harvest, all a farmer really strives for is to pay the bills and support their families.

There is not a farmer alive that does not relish the day, when new paint arrives in his or her shop yard, after a home run crop season. These same farmers have also seen disaster years that left them pondering how to make ends meet. Any local producer that has been in the game for more than a few years knows the hardships. One lean year can delete all the financial gains, rewarded from several above average years. When you factor in, extremely low commodity prices, plateaued input prices, and a possibly just above average yield, heads are going to scratch and belts are going to tighten.

It appears to me that the secret to longevity in this deeply rooted career path, in our area, is a lifetime of consistent base hits. Consistent singles, doubles and an occasional triple will generally keep an operation relatively profitable and ensure a next season. Record yields, as seen in 2014, are few and far between, and are great for trophies and bragging rights. It’s the high averages, year in and year out, which might just get you in the hall of fame.

From My Field to Your Home,

E.B.