You would think that 65 landlords would be enough for any farming operation. But the Strickland Partnership of Mount Olive, N.C., is actively looking for more.

“Because we have taken steps to efficiently and effectively manage our operation, we are in a position to add new landlords to our team,” said Reggie Strickland. But he notes that it is not an easy task. “It takes more than just selling commodities at top prices to be successful in production agriculture. Our goal is to be profitable for ourselves and our landowners and secure the future for generations of farm families.”

The family goes to quite a bit of effort to attract and keep good landlords.

“We pride ourselves in investing in assets and maintaining long-term commitments to our landowners,” he said. “And we spend a great deal of time evaluating our performance, so we can quickly spot problems and opportunities.”

Strickland Farming Partnership is a eighth-generation diversified crop and livestock farm operation. The family, which includes Garrett, his son Reggie, and Reggie’s nephew Will, still farms much of the land their ancestors farmed as far back as 1861.

Nearly 30 years ago, Garrett wanted to manage his father’s two tobacco warehouses and farm but couldn’t do both on his own. Fortunately for him, Reggie was just finishing at North Carolina State University’s Ag Institute and was ready to start farming. The timing was perfect, and the two started with 150 acres.

Today, they have 3,600 acres of row-crop land in Sampson, Wayne and Duplin counties. They produce tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, cotton, wheat, and soybeans and, since 1990, a hog operation.

Yields up on reduced tillage, irrigation projects

They think it's important to try to stay in front of developments in farm technology.

Three steps that they have taken in recent years appear to be very good additions to their farming strategy:

Reduced tillage:“Over a six-year period, we went from conventional-till to strip-till and finally all the way to 100-percent no-till,” said Reggie. “In doing so, we’ve seen great savings in time, labor, fuel, soil erosion, compaction and build-up of organic matter. We would not be able to farm the acres we have now without the use of no-till.”

Global positioning: They converted early on to the use of Global Positioning Systems and variable-rate technology to vary the rate of crop inputs we apply to our land. “By sampling and mapping our soils, GPS also allows us to apply fertilizer and lime only where it is needed and to variable rate our seed populations while planting,” said Reggie. “GPS allows us to combine the best production techniques with minute variations in terrain and soil, helping us achieve greater efficiency, increased yields and improved stewardship of our farms.”

They use Protech Advisory Services, a crop consultant, to use a GPS device to take a fertility sample from every 2.5 acres of the 3,600 acres they farm, adding up to about 1,500 soil tests. “We use the information to calculate lime and fertilizer requirements that will supply enough nutrients to the crop for optimum growth throughout the season.”

Irrigation: They are convinced that the center pivot is the best choice in eastern North Carolina. “When properly designed, operated, and equipped, a center pivot system conserves water, energy and time.” They began to think about irrigation investments and additions to the operation five to seven years ago. “With the increased cost of production in farming today, we were looking for a way to insure our return on investment of the crops we grow,” said Reggie. “Farmers have never irrigated very much in this part of the state for crops other than vegetables because irrigation is a very expensive investment. Depending on the site, it can run from $1,300 to $2,500 per acre.”

To test the concept, the Stricklands installed a center pivot on one of their rented farms after negotiating an agreement with the owner. “It was a joint venture,” said Reggie. “We asked them to commit to a 10-year lease for our farming operation. In return, we invested the total dollars needed to place center pivots on their land.” Everyone was happy with the results. “Even though the pivots placed into service in 2012 were installed late for the corn crop, they still made a remarkable difference in the yield,” he said. “The average increase from irrigation was 50 bushels for corn, and the soybeans under the pivot harvested 20 bushels more than the non-irrigated soybeans on the same farm.”

They have also placed several pivots on their own property and plan to place more in the future. “After the first year, we learned to plan for pivots two years in advance. Two additional pivots were in service for 2013, and another went in for the 2014 crop. “We tried tobacco and sweet potatoes under one pivot in 2013 to test their viability under pivot,” said Reggie. “But there was so much rain that it was hard to measure the results. We will look at this again.” Now, with a little experience under their belts, they hope to see increased yields from reduced tillage, irrigation and GPS. “In the future, we should see an increase of 100 bushels in a corn crop,” said Reggie.

Landlord communication essential

As mentioned before, there is one other practice that the Stricklands rank high in making their operation work: Communication with landlords.

“Our goal is to keep them informed throughout the year with an annual Landlord Appreciation Dinner in the spring and in a farm newsletter that we mail out three times a year.

“Because they deserve to know about the best practices we implement on their farms, we believe in a high level of communication with our landlords,” said Reggie. “We aim to tell our landlords 'what is going on' in our farming operation, striving to keep the text clear and concise and using a friendly tone to keep our landlords interested.”