Are we running out of farmers? Can we believe the news? Will the hardy souls we depend on for food and fiber become an endangered species?

Don't panic. It's not in the cards — not yet. Still, experts have warned that, in the future, our land will shed farmers like cotton bolls aborted in a boll weevil plague. The few farmers who remain will do it bigger and do it better — or not at all.

In North Carolina's Pamlico County, and across much of the nation, the future has arrived.

Bounded by water on three sides, Pamlico has been an isolated coastal county which has never had population of any sort to spare — farmers or otherwise.

“If we go back 20 years or so,” advises Fred May, cooperative Extension agent, “we had only about 15 or 20 full-time farmers total here in Pamlico. But I think that number will be down to no more than six or eight farmers by the end of this decade. Half our farmers will be gone”

For much of his professional life, Fred, 58, has kept a steady, guiding hand on the county's agricultural direction. He has offered encouragement, provided education, and seen his determined farmers work through hurricanes, floods, bugs, crop failure, and stingy markets.

Pamlico County farmers are now pitted against two challenges they may complain about but can't turn back — the calendar, and a new bridge which opens the area up to bulldozers, brick and mortar.

“As far as the calendar goes, the years are simply catching up with a whole generation of U.S. farmers,” Fred says. “The average age of farmers is now almost 60. As these people retire and pass from the scene, most will not be replaced. There won't be room for them.”

The farmers who do survive will see their operations grow as they split up the available acreage into more economic units — one of the few effective hedges against increasing economic pressures.

New neighbors

“Our farmers will have to get used to more neighbors now,” Fred advises. “A new bridge system finished over the Neuse River in 1999 is making Pamlico more accessible to the city of New Bern and the interior of the state, and the population that arrives will pressure agriculture in the future.”

The bridge complex, completed about two years ago at a cost of $110 million, is designed to handle up to 49,000 vehicles daily — almost double the capacity of the old structures.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, suburbia's push into farming areas has caused rancor at times on both sides. Growth in traditionally rural counties boosts land values and brings more conveniences, but also tends to put more prime farmland under concrete and force property taxes upward.

“These are some of the things our farmers are up against here in Pamlico County,” Fred asserts. “Only the best will survive.”

One of those survivors, Fred is certain, will be 37-year-old Alston W. Spruill who farms near Oriental, a picturesque waterside village more celebrated for its fishing and boating than for its soybean and corn yields.

“Al is a young, progressive farmer who is in tune with agriculture's bottom line,” says Fred. “He knows how to put together and execute a successful game plan, he pays attention to detail, and knows the importance of management and marketing. That's what it takes to succeed, and he has it all.”

Al Spruill has agriculture in his blood. His grandfather grew Irish potatoes, corn and soybeans in some of the same soil Al farms today.

“Everything was done by hand back then, and mules supplied the power. There was a lot of drudgery in this business when my grandfather worked this place,” Al comments.

Al's father experienced that drudgery and sacrifice, and decided to try out the service to see if drill sergeants would be more understanding than cautious bankers.

“He missed the farm, and pretty soon came back home where he felt he belonged,” says Al. “I tagged along behind him and helped out with chores every chance I could. There was never any doubt in my mind what I wanted to do.”

But first would come college. In 1986, Al was awarded a BS degree in agricultural engineering from North Carolina State University. After two years with Southern States Cooperative, he became a partner in the family farm operation, which his father had expanded from the original 200 acres up to almost 600 acres.

When his father retired in 1992, Al took over as sole proprietor, bringing to the task a lot of maturity, a considerable determination, and 700 acres of rented cropland. It was only the beginning.

“I didn't own any land at the time, and took a good, hard look at whether it was best to own or rent,” Al recalls. “As I put a pencil to it, I saw that renting is much more cost-effective. Since I can't afford to buy large tracts of land anyway, I have accumulated just enough acreage for job security and the future of my family. That land is a good long-term investment. But as an over-all strategy, renting is the way to go.”

In keeping with that philosophy, Al today owns 320 acres of land while farming a total of 1,800 acres.

On his farm, Al Spruill is conservative and solid in his decision-making, but doesn't hang onto the traditional way of doing things if he sees a better way.

“We used to plow everything to death,” says Al. “From the time we harvested until we harvested again, we never stopped plowing. We plowed all winter, plowed all spring, plowed all summer, and started plowing in the fall as soon as we had cleared the crops out. Now we don't plow anything except for land forming or land leveling.”

This philosophy has converted Spruill into a staunch advocate of no-till and Roundup Ready agriculture, and has allowed him to dramatically slash his equipment inventory.

“We had to go to eight-row equipment when we got into the cotton business in 1990,” Al explains. “That meant investing in two huge 200-horsepower tractors which could pull disks and ripper-bedders. I am getting rid of one of those and putting very few hours on the other one. When we phase this last one out, we'll replace it with a 145-horsepower utility tractor.”

Not only is Al unloading a considerable amount of metal with his no-till program, he also sees major savings in fuel, which is escalating in cost almost day by day. Whereas he was burning up two tanker loads of fuel every year — about 15,000 gallons — he is now getting by with about half that much.

“We are still spending some time at the wheel, but we're not making trips that are tough on the equipment. Conventional-tillage wears machinery out. Pulling a sprayer won't do that,” he asserts.

Financial gap

When Al tried cotton for the first time, he was looking for a crop that could compensate for the financial gap that full dependence on grains was creating.

“My father and I were still farming together, and we realized that 400 acres of grain wouldn't support two families anymore,” says Al.

Tobacco wasn't much of an option. Although he held a small allotment, with access to limited rental acreage, he questioned whether he would have the chance to grow tobacco on a scale that would make it profitable. And he saw an uncertain future for the crop.

“On the other hand,” Al notes, “cotton looked like a pretty solid bet. We decided to give it a try.”

Cotton would be a new venture for Al, as well as for many Southeastern farmers his age. They were too young to have experienced firsthand the crippling boll weevil assaults that all but erased cotton's presence in the region for two decades.

“Since I had never raised cotton before, I took to it slowly, starting with about 200 acres in 1990. It showed a lot of promise, so I gradually increased to the point that I am now, growing about 1,000 acres of cotton,” he reports.

Quick study

Al caught on quick with his cotton venture, posting two-bale yields on a regular basis. His historical average is 970 pounds of lint per acre, except for 2000, when a tropical rain system hovered over the area, dumping 10 inches of rain in 10 days.

“We had a good boll count to begin with, but lost a lot of them. Our yield wound up at 803 pounds, which wasn't too bad under the circumstances,” Al says.

When he put his new game plan into action, the hub of the whole system was no-till. On a cold, blustery January afternoon earlier this year, Al Spruill and his friend Fred May sat down in Al's farm office to describe how it works. The routine is choreographed for rapid-fire activity as crop follows crop.

“Just as soon as we harvest corn, we start pulling soil samples directly behind the combine,” Al explains. “We normally come in with small grains right behind our corn, but not in 2001. This year we'll be rotating our 1,000 acres of cotton with about 400 acres of wheat and 400 acres of corn. The rest of the cotton, about 200 acres, will be behind cotton.”

Before the cotton is even defoliated, soil samples are pulled for the wheat crop, which will follow. The samples are analyzed immediately so that reports are back in time for cotton harvest.

“We mow the cotton stalks as quick as we can” says Al, “and put out the lime or fertilizer or whatever the samples call for, then come directly behind that with a no-till drill, planting the wheat right into the cotton stubble. That's a super time-saver without all the cutting, disking and chisel-plowing. Now one man with a seed truck can plant 75 acres a day by himself.”

Some supplemental nitrogen may be applied in January or February if wheat tiller counts are low. Top-dressing goes onto small grains in late February. The wheat is cut during the first or second week of June.

“We like to burn the wheat stubble off,” Al comments. “It's an excellent management tool, and I don't want to lose it. But burning creates havoc with people who may ride by and see the whole field on fire. Also, we face regulations about the smoke and soot burning creates. As new people move in, we'll see more pressures like this.”

Hessian fly is a new concern and a mystifying one, reports Extension agent Fred May.

“We saw the first severe problems in Pamlico County wheat in 1999,” May comments. “Al worked with us and helped us identify it. We're not sure about the cause. It can devastate a wheat crop. We're looking for answers. There are some varieties which offer resistance.”

When considering his weed control program, Al says it's a “no-brainer” what he wants to do. Roundup is the call whenever and wherever possible — especially in cotton.

“I am dead-set on planting Roundup Ready cotton, which I've done the last couple of years,” Al comments. “I'd like to keep on doing that. I can raise soybeans and corn without the Roundup Ready system. I want to save the technology for my cotton. It's a lot more cost-effective than raising conventional cotton, which calls for increased herbicide costs.”

Al Spruill has tried it both ways, and has proven to his own satisfaction that a Roundup Ready cotton program is $20-30 cheaper compared to growing conventional varieties.

“With soybeans it's the exact opposite. I can control weeds in soybeans with conventional herbicides, where the prices have dropped. It makes sense because there are many products you can use to take care of weed and grass problems in beans. And there's no question the yield potential is there.”

His soybean weed control program is basically built on Classic or Blazer for sicklepod, and a Classic tank-mix or Blazer alone for morningglories. This may be followed in seven to 10 days with a grass herbicide such as Select or Poast.

“Al has scouts to check his bean fields to identify the weed problems and come in with a post-applied material instead of just doing a blanket application of Roundup,” explains Fred May. “I think he picks up 50 cents a bushel doing this. We both feel conventional beans show some edge over Roundup Ready by the end of the season.”

Spruill is concerned that seed producers are beginning to focus too high a percentage of their energies on Roundup Ready technology.

“We still need conventional beans,” he reminds. “But when you start talking to seed dealers about conventional varieties, you'd better reach them early because not much will be available. I'm scared they are going to just let this program fall behind.”

Narrow-row

Up to 90 percent of Spruill's beans are planted narrow-row, and all are double-cropped behind wheat. He plants no early soybeans.

“In our situation, we know we get no better yields with early-planted beans alone than with double-cropped behind wheat,” Al reports.

He likes to save 300-400 bushels of seed beans per season and have them cleaned for replanting the following year, but growers don't have this option with Roundup Ready crops. This has helped Al make up his mind to stick with conventional soybeans.

“With our saved beans, we can make the same yields as we would buying commercial Roundup Ready seed every year,” Al explains. “I know this is not what the seed companies want to hear, but I'm out here to make a profit and make a living. I can reduce my cost tremendously replanting my own seed.”

He prefers Group V or early Group VI maturities because he is able to delay bean harvest and dodge the peak picking period in his extensive cotton acreage.

Soybeans are scouted for weeds until they canopy, then scouts begin checking for leaf feeding insects, and later for pod feeders.

“In small grains we shoot for budget yields of about 50 bushels per acre, which is more or less a break-even level for us,” Al advises. “Of course, we hope for yields from 70 to 80 bushels, and the best we've had is around 90 bushels. Some yields in the county have been over 100 bushels.”

But those high numbers don't show up often, and Al is frustrated over his five-year average, which is around 30-35 bushels.

“I have good soil and scouting, so I don't see why I can't get out of the 35-bushel rut,” he says. “I just don't understand it. In 2000 it was only 21 bushels, but hurricanes were the problem then.”

Al Spruill's organizational abilities are apparent in every operation on the farm. Before the end of December, he had already received some reports back on soil samples from his 2001 cotton land, and had almost finished up lime applications.

“I think we tested the bottom of our nitrogen rates in 2000,” he says. “A lot of areas we put zero side-dress nitrogen, which left us with no more than 40 to 50 pounds total on cotton. I won't try to go that low again.”

Preplant

A Roundup burndown is scheduled on his cotton acreage each season in early January if temperatures are moderate. This is followed in March with application of preplant fertilizer. Micronutrients are added if soil samples indicate the need.

As he distributes his fertilizer, Al also conducts a broadcast Roundup burndown on cotton and corn sites.

“If we have escaped weeds or new weeds when it's time to plant our cotton, we'll put another Roundup application right ahead of the planter,” says Al. “Before cotton reaches four leaves, we may need another Roundup application or two depending on weed pressure.”

Plant growth control is standard operating procedure in Pamlico County, where soils are potent and moisture plentiful.

“This is definitely Pix country,” he says. “For 2001, we will be set up with a wick bar applicator for Pix on our side-dress rig, and also postdirecting a banded application or herbicide. We'll be doing three jobs with one pass.”

Water control

Al Spruill was one of the first farmers in Pamlico County to install water control structures, and now protects almost 90 percent of his land in this manner.

“We did it as a means to save water, keep it in the field, and keep sedimentation or nitrogen from getting into the streams,” he explains. “When you irrigate, you just fill your ditches with water. There's no loss to evaporation. It's a great concept.”

With an eye to the future, Spruill expects eventually to get into precision agriculture, including use of GPS technology and yield monitors.

“I'm reading everything I can get my hands on to learn about these concepts,” he says. “In the future, farmers are going to be called more and more to record and prove everything we do, and these systems will be standard on most farms.”

It's this kind of foresight hunger for knowledge that has convinced Fred May of Al Spruill's solid future in agriculture.

“Al has what it takes,” says the extension specialist. “And in the years to come, it is going take a lot to succeed in this business.”