Innovative Solutions: Farming with Science and Creativity

“If a farmer stopped farming every time she/he encountered a little bad weather or a little bad luck, pretty soon we’d all starve.” – Carter Swancy, Riverview Farm, GA.

In the local food production system, unpredictable natural occurrences are considered especially heinous. In North Carolina, the dedicated farmers who battle these vicious obstacles are members of an elite squad belonging to the Davidson Farmers Market. These are their stories. (Dun dun).

Rows of tomatoes on Correll Farms.

1. Spanning 8 acres, tomatoes are one of the most valued crops on the Correll farm. On a recent site visit, I asked farmer David Correll about the challenges of maintaining such needy plants. He then explained the story of his foe: the two-spotted spider mite. Around July each year, this mite feasts on the tender tomato plant. As the mite feasts, the tops of the plant turn brown and dry with a lack in moisture.

Lately, the Correll farmers are coordinating with Dr. Jim Walgenbach and his lab at NC State to introduce controlled species of predatory mites onto the infested tomato plants, with hopes to reduce spider mite presence. Naturally, predatory mites that eat the spider mites will follow the spider mites. The Walgenbach Lab maintains colonies of spider mites and their predatory mites for year-round toxicological and behavioral studies research in greenhouses. When Correll needs the predatory mites, the scientist will introduce tomato plants, infested with the mite-eater, every 80 feet throughout Correll tomato rows. As a result, the predatory mites will eat off the mites preying on the plants. This tactic of integrated pest management is a much cheaper alternative to miticide sprays.

Farmer Cheryl Correll says, “I like to believe in Mother Nature, like let the mites come and eat all this stuff up! Some things you can’t control, and that’s good. It’s a balance.”

Barbee peach orchard. Notice the circular-shaped scorch in the ground, remnant of March’s fire burning episode.

2. On a recent site visit to Barbee Farms I asked farmer Tommy Barbee, “out of the hundreds of food varieties you grow, what is your favorite?” “Peaches,” he quickly replied.

Barbee began to tell us some of the frustrations he has faced while growing this fruit-favorite. Like any farmer, he constantly has to deal with freak incidents of nature. For example, last year Barbee farms lost over 600 trees to a bacterial canker disease. The disease once attracted destructive Asian Ambrosia Beatles. The beetles, attracted to the aroma of the bacterial canker, drilled toothpick-sized holes in the tree trunks. Many of the trees surviving today still bear wounds from the disease.

More recently, damaging winter frosts have kept all peach farmers scrambling to rescue their orchards. For the second year in a row, cold winters in NC have created destructive frost and hindered peach harvest. As Barbee toured us through his orchard, he pointed out several “burn spots” from bonfires – the remnants of his efforts to melt the frost from killing the trees. Last March, Barbee farmers maintained bonfires in over 50 barrels. For a solid week, they burnt wood in these barrels to create a vortex of heat surrounding the cold peach trees.

Efforts to save the peach trees during the day.

Efforts at night to keep the trees warm.

Barbee recounted the disturbing memory and told me, “That was a week from hell. We pretty much did not sleep for a solid week… burning fires at night, cutting wood during the day.” Other NC peach farmers suffered the same fate. Calvin Phillips of Peaches N’ Cream Farms told me he had to do the same. On their farm, they also utilized windmill power to facilitate warm air circulation throughout the orchards.

“Peaches can give you more nightmares…” said Tommy. “They seem to be one of the more challenging crops for people” interjected Abby, Manager of the DFM. “They are,” continued Tommy, “and I guess that’s what makes them so damn appealing to me, because I want to beat this. Yes, it’s a challenge. I’ll show them!”

Tommy Barbee holding “his favorite” crop.

3. At Big Oak farms in Denver, NC, all cattle freely graze in rolling pastures. During hot summer months, they tend to roam and wander into the woods for shade, where they can also find a shallow stream of running water.

Farmer Dawn Smith with one of her cows.

Mike Smith, farmer of Big Oak, had to come up with a solution to keep the free-roaming cattle from getting lost upstream. With a home-made approach, Smith created his own solution out of plastic pipework. His invention hinders the cows from getting lost and wandering upstream. At the same time, the contraption allows the stream’s running water to pass through the pipes. Now, Smith can rest assured knowing that his cattle can roam the lands without getting lost and into trouble in the creek.

Farmer Mike Smith’s home-made invention.

Scientists. Caretakers. Engineers. Artisans. Inventors. These are some of the identities I have observed in my local farmers. In order to be successful in maintaining a farm, sustaining a livelihood, and providing food, a farmer has to battle the unpredictable and uphold flexibility. At times you might not think about the effort and time local farmers put into their crafts. They will do whatever it takes to get the foods you love to your plate. Thank them.

Posted by Emily