I'm sure that many of you have Valentine's Day traditions that you follow, whether it is taking your spouse to dinner at her favorite restaurant or maybe sending flowers and candy to your special someone.  For us, it is a Valentine's Day tradition to seed our tobacco greenhouse.  Sounds pretty romantic, doesn't it?

Although we quit growing tobacco four years ago, we still start the transplants hydroponically in our greenhouse to help our neighbors who still farm tobacco.  It’s important to for us to help out other farmers and, since we have some experience and the equipment, it’s a nice thing to do. Historically, tobacco was the crop that paid the bills for many farmers in southeastern North Carolina.  It was (and still is) a very labor intensive crop because it involves a great deal of manual labor.  Like many children in my area, my sisters and I grew up working in the tobacco fields in the summer.  I don't even want to think of the hours we spent in the fields under the hot summer sun.  Tobacco probably sent more children in our area to college than anything else (and not just financially!)  

The decision to quit growing tobacco was a difficult one.  Like many farmers in North Carolina, this is a crop that supported our family for generations.  My dad had stopped growing tobacco when I made the decision to go to graduate school.  It didn't appear that I would be coming back to the farm after I finished my education.  When I made the decision to come back home, growing tobacco was the only way our farm could support two families.  

Things have changed since that time.  We are now more diversified than we were then, as we now raise cattle and hogs, and are tending twice the number of acres of cropland to grow corn, soybeans, wheat and strawberries.  While growing tobacco, our busy season seemed to last all year long. The biggest change in our farm during this time was that I now had a family to support.  My wife and I have three children, and from the time we set the tobacco plants in the field (early April), until the last bale of tobacco was delivered to the buying station (late September), I would leave the house six days a week before the kids would get up and would come home in the evening after they were in bed.  On Sundays after church, all I wanted to do was sit in the recliner.  I was providing financially for my family, but I surely wasn't giving them what they wanted most – a dad and husband.  I had to make a big decision about balancing our family farm’s financial future versus the overall quality of life of spending time with my beloved family.

Fortunately, things have turned out really well for us the last few years at the farm without the tobacco crop.  We are continuing to grow our farm, and have begun irrigating many of our acres.  We seem to be doing a better job on our other crops and livestock now that they are getting more time devoted to them.  We have adopted numerous conservation practices ranging from 100 percent no-till, variable rate fertilizer applications, variable rate planting, prescribed burning of forest lands and leaving field borders for the wildlife.  We also utilize soil moisture readings to schedule irrigation cycles, and have partnered with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and N.C. State University on a pilot program comparing water usage and yields from sub-surface drip irrigation and center pivot irrigation.  We have been named N.C.'s Conservation Farm Family of the Year for 2012 by NRCS.

As for me, I am now getting to spend some quality time with the family, coaching their basketball teams, and even taking them on vacation occasionally.  It may have taken some time to come to this conclusion (I have been accused of being a bit stubborn), but I am definitely glad that we made it.  

So this past Valentine's Day, as we followed our tradition of seeding the greenhouse with tobacco for our neighbors, I am reminded of the reasons that I made the decision to evolve the farm I love.  When I get home tonight, I am going to take these reasons out to dinner somewhere nice.  It's not candy and flowers, but at least it is a start.

Farming Terms in this Column

  • Variable Rate Application – this is a system we use to apply fertilizer to our crops. It works off our Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in our spreader and sprayer machinery. The spreader can tell where we’ve already applied fertilizer, shutting off valves on the sprayer to avoid duplicate or over application. Likewise, we can apply to the most nutrient deficient areas of the field, rather than a wide spread fertilizer application. It’s not only better for the environment but also better for farmers financially.  
  • No-till – It’s exactly how it sounds – no tillage of the soil. Before we incorporated this practice, I spent countless hours in a tractor, taking a soil ripper, disk, or plow over the soil. Not only did this take away time from my family, but I had to own all the tillage equipment, used more fuel to run my tractor and also added countless hours to my tractor ( for comparison - in farming, we calculate equipment usage in hours, where in cars, people say miles). We now leave all the organic matter (corn stalks, soybean and wheat stubble) on the fields following harvest. We then plant directly into that organic matter the following spring. This is great for the soil – increasing microorganism movement, keeping left-over nutrients from the crops in the ground, and reduces soil loss and erosion.  
  • Prescribed Burning is an ancient technique used long before farmers settled in the U.S. Burning at the appropriate times and locations, is a great way to stimulate native grass growth among other vegetation. It’s also a way to control noxious weeds, naturally.

Article by Bo Stone