This year, Ricky Fulk and his family planted 32 acres of vegetables on black plastic with drip irrigation. That might not sound unusual until you realize they live in the rocky, rolling foothills of North Carolina, in the shadow of Pilot Mountain — not in the Coastal Plain.
Curious travelers along old U.S. Highway 52 have been known to pull over and ask questions about the plastic-covered rows. The fields even grab the attention of locals, who are more accustomed to seeing rows of tobacco.
Some of the land Fulk farms had been in tobacco since 1746, and he had grown it himself for the last 20 years. Now, tobacco is history. He has no regrets.
“We have not missed tobacco at all this year,” said Fulk. “We were not making any money. Now the whole family is involved in produce, and we’re all loving it.”
In 2004, when Fulk was deciding to transition to produce, he discussed his plan with Regional Agronomist Robin Watson of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Watson was familiar with vegetable production on black plastic in the eastern part of the state and suggested that Fulk give it a try in Stokes County.
Fulk wasn’t sold on the idea at first. No one else locally had ever done it. He wasn’t sure how feasible it would be on clay soils, or whether it would be worth the extra time and investment. He cautiously decided to experiment with half an acre of cucumbers.
Watson guided Fulk through the new venture. He stressed the importance of pre-plant testing to measure levels of soil nutrients and to check for the presence of plant-parasitic nematodes. He explained the set-up of the drip system and the timing of watering and nutrient application. He demonstrated how to use tissue tests to adjust fertilizer input precisely throughout the season.
“Growing crops on black plastic and fertilizing through drip irrigation gives a grower more control than he ordinarily would have,” said Watson. “Water and nutrient application can be easily regulated throughout the season. Disease problems are fewer, and harvest is generally cleaner. There’s more precision and less worry.”
Fulk is now an ardent proponent of plasticulture, and his enthusiasm for it is spreading throughout the county. “By the end of that first season, I could see Robin was right,” he said. “Yield was at least twice what it would have been in bare ground, and the quality was good.”
Fulk has steadily increased his acres in production as well as the variety of crops. His repertoire now includes bell peppers, broccoli, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and watermelon. About 90 percent of his produce is contracted to a company in Virginia. The rest he easily markets close to home.
Since Fulk grows high-value crops with unique nutritional requirements, he knows the importance of fertilizing precisely, especially this year as costs continue to rise. Following Watson’s advice, he collects plant tissue samples at regular intervals throughout the season and submits them for nutrient analysis. Based on the test results, he knows exactly how to adjust his fertilizer input.
“Tissue testing is a necessity,” said Fulk. “With tobacco, you could shut your eyes and know what you were going to do every year, but it’s not that way with vegetables. Once you get the chemistry right though, you can produce, produce, produce!”
Fulk depends on the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division laboratory in Raleigh to help him get the chemistry right. Laboratory analysis requires two to three days for plant and solution samples. Soil samples require at least a week and nematode samples at least two weeks. Turn-around times can be longer at certain times of year. Lab results are posted online for easy access.
Fees for analysis of most agronomic samples are minimal, though out-of-state growers pay a little more. Soil testing continues to be offered free of charge for North Carolina residents. “Tests are well worth the investment because they help growers optimize their use of expensive inputs,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
Details on fees and sample submission are available online at www.ncagr.com/agronomi/sampleinfo.htm.
North Carolina growers have the added advantage of being able to consult with a regional agronomist about how to implement tissue-report findings. Thirteen regional agronomists visit growers, evaluate suspected nutrient problems, help take samples, give advice on liming and fertilization, and help identify and manage nematode problems. A listing of agronomists is available online at www.ncagr.com/agronomi/rahome.htm.