In an agricultural world in which farms seem to be getting bigger and bigger, Surry, Va., brothers Michael and Steven Pittman like staying small just fine.
The Pittman brothers own and operate Itata Farms, a highly diversified crop and cattle operation. Keeping their land productive year-round is not only good for the land, but essential to their bottom line.
They farm 500 acres of corn, peanuts, soybeans and hay crops and run over a hundred brood cows. They hire no farm labor and they put the term ‘family farm’ to the test. Steven says his mother, now in her 70s still picks peanuts every year. Likewise, his father is retired, but remains a vital part of the on-farm labor pool when needed.
“We do everything ourselves, which means we are doing something on the farm-with crops or cattle year-round. And, we have to be innovative in using cover crops and taking advantage of government programs that reward people for taking care of the soil,” Steven says.
On all their land that is going back into corn, they plant two bushels of rye per acre. On peanut land, they bale the peanut hay, then come back with a modified soil repair tool they built in their shop.
Pittman, who graduated from Auto-Diesel College in Nashville, Tenn., does all the repair work on equipment. He also has the skills to modify equipment to work on his small acreage operation.
The deep tillage tool, or repair tool, was altered to provide better seed incorporation. They took a disk harrow, tore the gangs off it and mounted them between the repair tool and the roller and put two-inch fluted coulters at seven-inch spacings.
After peanuts are picked and vines removed, he sows the cover crop. Then, he comes in with the repair rig and cleans and smoothes the land. Then he applies a burn-down herbicide and plants directly into clean soil. This process, Pittman says, helps cut down on buildup of disease pressure and is a primary reason he is able to use a short rotation to grow peanuts.
Being compact means they don’t always grow crops according to the book, especially when it comes to peanuts. Pittman says they have two different crops of peanuts — irrigated and non-irrigated, though both crops get the same inputs, irrigation allows for some different rotation programs.
On their irrigated peanuts they are on a two-year rotation that most experts would deem foolish. They grow peanuts behind a wheat or oat-soybean double-crop and corn. In one irrigated field that has been in the two-year rotation well over 20 years, the 2008 yield was over 5,200 pounds per acre.
“We take all our peanut hay off immediately after digging, bale it, and feed it to our cattle. By keeping our irrigated peanut land clean and taking all the vines off, we feel like we are getting an extra year of rotation — from a disease standpoint,” he says.
Pittman says using Vapam and staying on top of his disease control program is essential to using such a unique rotation. In fields that don’t get Vapam, they plant Perry variety peanuts because of this variety’s disease resistance characteristics.
On fields which do not get Vapam, he uses Provost at the high rate of 10.8 ounces per acre. The Virginia grower says the high rate versus the low rate of Provost cost him $2.60 per acre per spray more than the low rate. However, he says, the extra 200-400 pound of peanuts per acre more than pays for the higher rate of Provost. While some growers would look at some of these newer chemicals as expensive, Pittman says he sees it more as an investment.
If we didn’t have cows and peanuts, we would’t need anything but a planter and a spray rig, because everything else is no-till. We have to break the land some where our cows walk around, but other than that, we have gone to all no-till on everything but peanuts, Pittman notes.
They plant soybeans behind oats, which allows them to plant beans the last week in May. If they waited to plant behind wheat, it would be another 3-4 weeks before they could plant beans. This allows them to be in a constant cycle of planting — going from planting behind oats into planting behind wheat.
In their farming operation everything has to have a proven result. To add to the science of their operation, the Pittman brothers do a number of cooperative research projects with Virginia Tech researchers at the nearby Tidewater Agricultural Research and Education Center in Holland, Va.
Virginia IPM Director, and long-time Entomologist at the research station, Ames Herbert says the Pittman brothers are among his most meticulous on-farm cooperators. “They are precise in everything they do and it shows up in their overall farm productivity,” Herbert adds.
All their spraying and fertilizer applications are done using the low end of a high tech GPS system that Steven says has virtually eliminated spray overlaps and generally made farming more efficient and less stressful. “Just in the short time we have had the GPS system, it has saved us more money on fertilizer alone than the cost of the system,” Pittman says.
He adds that some small acreage farmers may not see the economics of purchasing GPS equipment, but contends it is cost-effective no matter how many acres are farmed — the more acres the more cost-effective.
“Before we had the GPS system the best I could do using foam markers was to mix a tank for 24 acres and actually spray 21 to 22 acres. That was all I could get because of the overlap. With the GPS system, using the same amount of chemical and water, I can get 23.6 to 24.2, so I’m gaining about two acres worth of chemical by being online every time,” he says.
They bought the Farm Works system five years ago. As part of their farm plan, they try to upgrade the system each year by building on the original system. “When we first got our GPS, the first thing we did was spread fertilizer. My brother said, I’m going to step this off behind you.
“He stopped me and said, we’ve got to do something, this thing is two feet off here and three feet off over there. So, we went back and measured the row widths and every one was between 39.8 and 40.2 inches every row on a 40-foot row. All those years of stepping off our rows were wrong, which made the GPS system look wrong to us,” Pittman laughs.
The next step he says is to upgrade to a repeatable system that will allow him to plant and dig his peanuts to within an inch or so year after year. After that, who knows, he says.
“Staying small means staying timely. The land has to be productive year-round and has to produce at a high level to make the farm profitable enough to support two families, he adds.