Hal Gurley's farm sits along a back road in Rolesville, N.C. His eight acres are devoted primarily to cabbage and collards. Recently, however, he’s turned to something new —strawberries — and in the process he received some personal, site-specific, agronomic advice.

"I started growing strawberries about two years ago," Gurley said. "I did some research, but I had never grown a crop on plastic before. One day, this fellow Charles Mitchell stops by, asks me how things are going and starts offering me advice. It turns out he works for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I thought you had to be a really big grower to get somebody like that out here to help."

Mitchell, an NCDA&CS regional agronomist, had heard one of his clients mention that Gurley was just getting started with strawberry plasticulture and might benefit from a few pointers. The next time Mitchell was in the area, he looked Gurley up, and before long, they were talking fertilizer.

Gurley had submitted soil samples and had his report in hand. The report indicated that potassium, sulfur and boron were low and that the soil pH was high. Still, Gurley didn’t know how to go about addressing these needs with prepackaged fertilizers. Mitchell suggested he consider a custom blend.

"I didn’t know you could get fertilizer blended for a small-scale operation like mine," Gurley said. "This idea alone saved me a good bit of money and helped me avoid a lot of headaches, but Mitchell’s help didn’t stop there."

One evening, Mitchell phoned Gurley to warn him that several days of unseasonably high temperatures were being forecast and the excessive heat could cause strawberry plants to drop all their blossoms. Gurley spent the next three days watering his plants early each morning through the drip irrigation system to keep them from drying out. As a result, the crop didn’t lose a single bloom. He still marvels that a state employee took the time to call him "after hours."

In addition to soil testing, Gurley uses plant tissue analysis regularly during the season to monitor the nutritional progress of his crop. Since his soils are particularly sandy, nutrients can move through the soil quickly, especially following heavy rain. He has found that tissue testing, conducted every two weeks throughout the growing season, is the best basis for optimal fertilization.

"I've probably doubled my plant growth since last year," Gurley said. "NCDA&CS staff not only provided advice on crop fertilization, but also helped me obtain certified-roadside-market status."

North Carolina growers have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. Soil testing and agronomic consulting through NCDA&CS are provided free of charge for North Carolina residents. Other agronomic tests — nematode assay and plant, waste or solution analyses — are available to residents for minimal fees and to non-residents for slightly higher fees. Information on other tests are available online at http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/sampleinfo.htm.

The NCDA&CS Field Services Section has helped North Carolina growers manage fertilization and other nutrient-related issues for nearly 30 years. The division's 13 regional agronomists make site visits; evaluate suspected nutrient and/or nematode problems; and give advice on sampling, liming and fertilization. For contact information, visit http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.