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Momeyer farmer improves organic tobacco crop with agronomic advice

When the tobacco buyout happened in 2004, Kelvin Bass took the opportunity to move away from tobacco production and focus on two enterprises he had started earlier: pick-your-own strawberries in 1983, and retail nursery and floriculture production in 1986. He expanded the garden center to sell more plants near Momeyer, in Nash County, thinking that was the end of his run with tobacco.

Bass, who holds a degree in biological and ag engineering from N.C. State University, has never shied away from trying something new, whether it was a new crop or a different production technique. He had worked with Cooperative Extension in the past on test crops, and he was a regular user of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ agronomic services.

“Some things work and some things don’t,” Bass said, mentioning a Christmas tree experiment that was not especially successful. “It’s easy to get stuck on the tried and true, but we were small enough to try some different things.”

Tobacco had been good to his family, but he figured the timing was right to make the transition. The nursery business grew, even adding an ice cream shop, but then the economic downturn of 2008 slowed business. Bass once again needed to figure out something to add to his farm to help financially.

While he thought he was through with tobacco, he discovered there was growing demand for organic tobacco, and the crop was commanding a premium price. As he looked at the numbers, he believed there was an opportunity for organic tobacco to add to his bottom line.

Some of his 350 acres of farmland had already been out of production for a couple of years, allowing him to obtain organic certification more quickly. Generally, fields cannot have had any pesticides used on them for three years in order to become certified organic.

“I had land just laying for two years, and we just kinda backed into the organic market,” Bass said.

As a third-generation tobacco grower, Bass figured he had the experience and know-how to produce a crop from seed to harvest. So some of his greenhouses returned to producing tobacco transplants, something he had done with his conventional tobacco crop.

And that is when he discovered one of the many challenges of organic production. Some of the transplants were slow to grow, and growth was inconsistent in part because of the slow-release nutrients he needed to use for organic production.

“Last year, I tried this and I tried that, and I think some of them were actually working against each other,” he said. He ended up having to buy transplants, which was costlier.

Hoping for better results this year, Bass consulted with Mike Wilder, an NCDA&CS regional agronomist who works with growers in Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, Vance and Warren counties, to see if they could get better results.

And so began a learning process for both grower and agronomist, a process they have worked through together for improved success.

Wilder convinced Bass to do weekly solution sampling to monitor nutrient levels. That allowed them to make adjustments on a regular basis as the plants grew. “In the end, he grew out a good crop,” Wilder said.

“For conventional tobacco, we’ve got the recommendations down pretty good,” said Michelle McGinnis, who oversees the 13 regional agronomists in the state. “With organic tobacco, the fertilizers are a lot different and the alkalinity is very high, and growers can’t use traditional means to balance that.”

Because organic production of tobacco is a newer area, there hadn’t been any real tried-and-true scientific recommendations developed. That’s one reason Wilder recommended steady solution testing. By regularly testing the water in the float beds, Wilder and Bass would have more information on nutrient levels at different stages of growth and could work to balance the nutrient levels along the way to optimize growth. They were also able to assess alkalinity levels at different stages and how the plants responded.

“I hope, with this, we can eliminate trial and error. Before, we were just shooting in the dark,” Bass said.

At one point, it seemed like the growth of the transplants just stalled. “After two basically failures in a row, I was getting frustrated when it seemed the transplants were just sitting, but then they came on, and it was amazing how quickly they recovered,” Bass said.

The proof was in the better quality transplants this season, enough for the 70 acres of tobacco he grew.

Researchers at N.C. State University are now working on a project at the Central Crops Research Station in Clayton that is focused on nutrient recommendations for organic float bed transplant production. McGinnis said she is hopeful the research work, coupled with the observations Wilder and Bass have made this season, will help agronomists develop better recommendations to offer organic growers in the future.

“This is a fairly new production system that we have been looking at the last couple of years. We are trying to fine-tune for recommendations, and we are learning more by working with growers like Kelvin Bass who are willing to try some new things,” McGinnis said.

Bass was happy with this year’s results. He said one take away from this year’s transplant process is “that we will probably start everything earlier in the greenhouse next year, because organic fertilizers are slower.”

NCDA&CS Public Affairs Division, Andrea Ashby, Director
Mailing Address:1001 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1001
Physical Address: 2 West Edenton Street, Raleigh NC 27601
Phone: (919) 707-3001; FAX: (919) 733-5047

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