On his business card, Ralph Dayton carries the words he lives by: “Live as if you'll die tomorrow, farm as if you'll live forever.”
He has been living by that creed since he left the confines of a New York law office and began farming more than a decade ago in his home state. At the beginning of a new century, he traded the suburban sprawl and development pressure of New York for the wide-open spaces of eastern North Carolina.
Riding around in his pickup with his trusty dog, Roo, Dayton reflects back on where he has been and where he is going.
When he came to eastern North Carolina, he bought 1,300 acres in need of attention. Four years later, the cotton yields are more than two bales to the acre, thanks to a fertility program aimed at spoon-feeding the cotton crop. He leases another 1,000 acres. He is thinking about switching to continuous cotton in lieu of soybeans and wheat. In addition, he is considering a move from conventional-tillage to no-till.
Following in his father's example, Dayton became a lawyer. He went to law school at Emory University. Before his father became an attorney, the family had been involved in farming on Long Island for more than 300 years.
Dayton's direction took him away from farming, but after three years practicing law, he decided to get back to his roots.
Initially, he and a friend started growing vegetables for gourmet restaurants in the Hamptons. Then, the farming bug sort of bit him. His friend dropped out of the partnership, but Dayton continued, specializing in a few hundred acres of sweet corn and string beans.
Realizing the inherent pitfalls securing labor and producing a perishable crop, Dayton eventually started raising grains.
Those decisions eventually led him on a search for an area not threatened with development.
“I looked all over,” Dayton says. That included Prince Edward Island in Canada, South America, Central America, Georgia, Florida, Virginia and throughout the Mid-Atlantic states.
“I felt like eastern North Carolina had a lot of promise and no threat of development, which is the situation I had come from,” he says. “This area is ideal. You have a lot of granaries and several cotton gins. Plus, the farmland is reasonable and the quality of the soil, of course, is outstanding. It's just a good agricultural economy.”
The farm he bought, however, was not in “ideal” condition.
The canals and ditches — the lifeblood of farming in the Blacklands of North Carolina — had been neglected over time.
Dayton cleaned out the canals and ditches and started to work on the fertility of the land. “I've done a fair bit of land leveling and that's something we'll be doing more of,” he says. He also set about liming the land to get it back in balance.
He has relied on help from a number of sources in learning how to grow cotton, including neighbors.
He considers fertility his first duty to the crop. “If you get certain elements where they need to be, you just get more out of your crop,” Dayton believes.
With the help of Impact Agronomics, Dayton has been getting on top of the fertility situation. Soon after cotton harvest, Impact's Todd Waters and associates were in the field with soil-testing probes.
“They do all the soil testing and fertilizer and lime recommendations,” Dayton says. “We sit down and discuss overall strategy.”
He says for the first time in his farming career he is able to sit down with an agronomist and develop a long-term strategy. “I don't want to know just for this year what I need to put out for the good of the crop, I want to develop a strategy for five, 10, 15 or 20 years into the future,” Dayton says. “We've been working real well on that.”
The association has changed the way he applies fertilizer. Instead of applying nutrients all at once, Dayton now makes four separate applications. He applies fertilizer at bedding with a broadcast of phosphorous and potassium, at burndown with 30 percent nitrogen mixed with Gramoxone, at planting with nitrogen with starter fertilizer and then 30 percent nitrogen at a later time, knifed in. “We're trying to stagger the nitrogen and put it out there when it's needed, so we won't have any leaching.”
He believes the key to that long-range thinking is being as efficient and effective as possible. To that end, he's been experimenting with no-till in cotton. He feels like if he can maintain the same net profit with no-till, the switch from conventional-tillage would be worth it. “The gross proceeds may be less, but when you take into account the reduced fuel and man hours, if we can wind up netting as good or better with no-till than we do with conventional-tillage, that's something I'd like to devote myself to.”
For Dayton, all cotton would be the ideal. He's been picking the brains of some of the “region's best cotton producers like Tom and Andy Pope and Milton Prince. Their philosophy is to go 100 percent cotton.
He has hit a plateau with soybean yields. While he can make good profit with wheat, he has to double-crop. “I enjoy raising cotton more than any other crop,” Dayton says. “It's a crop that you can put in extra management and be rewarded.”
In addition, cotton fits his mostly mineral organic soils, which tend to be dry in nature. “A crop like cotton can weather certain drought periods and then continue to produce flowers and fruit,” Dayton says. “If you get that drought period on corn on this ground, you'll get stung.”
Describing his philosophy of being prepared, Dayton strives to be ready to roll on the first day after April 15 with his cotton planter.
“We're paying close attention to what North Carolina State, and particularly Gaylon Ambrose's (Beaufort County Extension director) tests have indicated about getting the best yields by planting early.” This season, Dayton began planting on April 16 and finished April 23.
He averaged about 1,165 pounds of lint per acre in 2004.
Asked about the saying on his business card, Dayton says he picked it up about 15 years ago from reading a book entitled, “On the Smell of An Oily Rag.”
The author was a successful English farmer who went on to influence ag policy in Europe.
“You've got to enjoy life to its fullest and sort of live for the day, but at the same time, you have to farm like you're going to live forever,” Dayton says. “You're never farming just for today, but 10, 15, 20 years into the future.”
That is what he's intends on doing in eastern North Carolina for a long time to come.
While he misses home, he is glad to be in eastern North Carolina. “All of my neighbors have been good to me and I enjoy the area,” he says. “I do still love to go home and spend time up there.”