Consistently growing 70 bushels of soybeans per acre and 200 bushel corn isn’t unique in the Southeast, but doing it in a high mountain valley on the western tip of North Carolina is quite a feat.
Andrews, N.C., farmer Ed Wood humbly says the dozens of state and national yield awards hanging in his farm office are much more a result of rich mountain river valley soils and plentiful moisture in most years, than to his skills as a farmer.
Wood farms several hundred acres of grain crops on what is left of a once sprawling family farm along U.S. Highway 74, which is the main west-to-east corridor between Chattanooga, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C.
His farm is literally at the entrance to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, one of the Southeast’s top tourist attractions.
The streams that criss-cross his farm feed into one of the country’s top whitewater rafting rivers in the Southeast. And, his mountain valley is an ideal environment for gray leafspot and other diseases of corn and soybeans.
Despite his pleas to the contrary, operating a highly productive grain farming operation under these conditions takes skill, innovation and an unyielding commitment to detail.
Innovation and attention to detail come to Wood from a couple of sources. He has a degree in engineering from North Carolina State University, but his skills in applying technology to the farm likely comes more from genetics than a college degree.
Wood’s grandfather and namesake built the family farm before, during and after the Great Depression, an era when innovation and hard work were much easier to come by than money.
The family farm once included a dairy and livestock operation, black smith shop, in addition to row crops, and included tenant housing for on-farm workers, and even its own electrical supply — back when not everyone had electricity.
“My grandfather figured out a way to damn up a mountain stream and built a small electric generating plant. The electricity was used to power the dairy, tenant homes and other on-farm needs. This was back in the 1930s,” Wood says.
In later years his father built an airport, complete with a grass runway, and of course, bought an airplane to make use of the airport. The airport is now owned and operated by Cherokee County, but Wood still flies around the farm in the old Piper Cub airplane his grandfather bought back in 1947.
Reclaiming the family farm
Wood and his brother Keith, now an Extension farm agent in Cherokee County, N.C., used some of that same innovation to reclaim much of the family farmland, which was rented for several years after his grandfather died.
In 2010 Wood won second place in the National Corn Growers Association non-irrigated category, producing 287 bushels per acre. The award is one of numerous yield awards in both soybeans and corn, which were produced despite a constant battle with diseases that are unique to his mountain valley.
Pioneer, Monsanto and BASF all rent land from Wood to conduct fungicide tests, primarily for gray leafspot in corn.
While having an ideal location for disease research is conducive to renting valuable corn land to large corporations, it isn’t so ideal for running a sustainable grain farming operation.
The east-west orientation of the mountain valley helps produce a thick blanket of fog, which covers the valley up to about 200 feet above the ground, during the summer months. This heavy fog traps humidity and moisture near the ground, then typically burns away by mid-morning, producing both an ideal incubation and growing environment for gray leafspot.
Gray leaf spot of corn, caused by the fungus Cercospora zeae-maydis, has been known in the United States since 1924, when it was first reported in Illinois.
The disease was considered a minor problem in corn production, until no-till and minimum-tillage practices began to grow in popularity. In recent years the disease has become a limiting factor in corn production in many areas of the country.
Wood says diseases can be a challenge, but with the fungicides available and his years of dealing with the problem, gray rust and other diseases are not a primary limiting factor for yields.
He rotates corn and soybeans, but typically has a few acres of corn behind corn, which creates problems with his long-term no-till and minimum-tillage systems.
“I can’t plant corn behind corn in a no-till situation, because of the disease pressure. In those fields, I have to go back to conventional-tillage to turn under the crop residue and bury some of the disease causing organisms to help with disease management,” he says.
“I look at the environment we have and the land we have to farm as much more an asset than a liability,” Wood says.
“We have to do some things differently than grain growers in any other part of the country, but at the end of the day the rich soil and plentiful moisture trump the disease pressure, he adds.
Land is lacking
One of our biggest problems farming this mountain valley is a lack of land. “We could probably double our acreage and still have the equipment and labor to manage that size operation, but the land is just not available, Wood adds.
In their current operation, Wood and his son Mathew, with part time help from his brother Keith, farm around an airport, a train track that is no longer in use, one of the busiest tourist highways in the state and land taken out of production by a land-trust.
Western North Carolina, like most regions of the Southeast, is in a severe grain deficit situation. Large poultry operations nearby provide a constant market for grain.
More land would help local livestock producers indirectly by producing more local grain, but that’s not a reality that’s likely to change, Wood says.
Wood and his son also have a small livestock operation and grow 20-30 acres of hay crops for sale in local markets. They also grow a few acres of pumpkins, which are also sold locally.
A large poultry layer operation located nearby provides much of the fertilizer used on the farm, though it can be challenging because of the high protein, high calcium diets needed to produce eggs. The result is a higher soil pH, which they combat primarily with applications of manganese sulfate and periodic additional applications of sulfur.
Litter from the poultry operation is spread in the fall. Then, Wood comes back with a starter fertilizer when he plants corn, followed by 30 gallons per acre of UAN, when his corn gets to about knee-high.
Most everything about grain production in the western North Carolina mountain valley is a little different from other places in the state.
Weeds are no different. The toughest weed problem in his grain farming operation is burcucumber, which is not much of a problem anywhere else in the Southeast.
Burcumber is a summer annual climbing vine that closely resembles garden cucumbers, especially early in the growth stage. “If you’ve ever walked through a field of it, you will remember it. The burs get in your clothes and are virtually impossible to remove,” Wood explains.
One challenge Wood has not faced in his unique farming environment is glyphosate resistant weeds. While other farmers went to systems that relied heavily, if not exclusively, on glyphosate to manage weeds in corn and soybeans, the North Carolina farmer says he stuck to his long-proven herbicide strategies for weed control in corn and soybeans.
Glyphosate is a part of his herbicide program, especially for controlling burcucumber, but other families of herbicides are routinely used.
Standing in a field of newly planted corn, looking eastward to the Smokey Mountains and Nantahala Gorge, Wood says despite the many challenges of his mountain valley farm, he feels truly blessed to be able to make a living farming in this little corner of western North Carolina.
More from Southeast Farm Press