Dale Thompson of Hilltop Angus Farm in Montgomery County, N.C., decided two years ago he wanted to grow strawberries. He knew cattle, but planting a half acre of berries on plastic-covered rows was a totally new venture.

He made it through the first year by trial and error and with help from friends. The second year, he discovered the benefits of working with a regional agronomist from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“I wanted to have a small strawberry patch,” Thompson said. “I’ve always loved strawberries, but you can’t get fresh berries out here so I thought I’d grow my own. I talked to local farmers about it, and one of them helped me lay out plastic and set about 8,000 plants.”

The first season Thompson sold berries on the honor system. People saw the sign, stopped and left money in a box on a table. One of those people happened to be Kent Messick, chief of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division Field Services Section.

When Messick found out that Thompson was a new grower, he told him about the state’s agronomic testing services, particularly plant tissue analysis. He showed Thompson how to collect a plant tissue sample and explained its usefulness in making a crop’s fertilization program more precise. He also gave him the phone number of NCDA&CS regional agronomist David Dycus, who worked Thompson’s area.

“I’m always on the lookout for any growers who aren’t using NCDA&CS agronomic services,” Messick said. “Our state provides several low-cost testing services that many other states don’t, but what really sets us apart are our free on-site visits and troubleshooting assistance.”

The following April, Thompson decided to give the service a try. He had noticed a dry, discolored area in the middle of his field. It was a slightly elevated area, and he suspected a problem with the watering system. He found the phone number Messick had given him and gave Dycus a call.

“Dycus came out to the farm, walked through the field and recognized the problem was spider mites,” Thompson said. “I happened to be away from the farm at the time, but he called, explained the problem and discussed my treatment options.”

“In my job, I focus on nutrient and nematode problems,” Dycus said, “but my background is much broader so if I see a pest or disease problem, I usually recognize it. In this case, even though mites were the obvious issue, I felt it was a good idea to go ahead and collect a tissue sample to find out whether increased fertilization could help alleviate other problems.”

After the field visit, Dycus and Thompson exchanged eight to 10 e-mails. They discussed land preparation and rotation, the possible need for fumigation, watering issues, fertilization, strawberry production techniques and the need to monitor nutrient levels and nematode populations. Based on results of the plant analysis report. Dycus recommended that Thompson put out Epsom salts to provide additional sulfur for the crop.

“Dycus helped me make this a really good strawberry season,” Thompson said. “Without his help it would have been a disaster.”

“One of the great benefits of the regional agronomist program is that it offers field consultation and advice tailored to the specifics of the situation,” Messick said. “Although the state’s current budget woes have greatly curtailed travel, our staff is still able to provide a great deal of personalized, individual assistance. Site visits, though fewer, are more strategic and productive. There is a lot more consultation by phone and e-mail.”

The division has 13 regional agronomists, like Dycus, who can make on-site visits, evaluate suspected nutrient or nematode problems, and give advice on collecting agronomic samples, liming, fertilization, composting, irrigation and nematode management. To contact the agronomist assigned to your area, visit http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.