North Carolinian Mike Howard and his son grow strawberries and an assortment of vegetables for local retail sale. Over the years, they’ve built up a loyal clientele.

About half of their customers go out in the field and pick their own produce; the others place an order and come get it when it’s ready. They count on the Howards for quality, and the Howards count on regional agronomists to help them provide it.

“My family has been farming since 1938,” Howard said. “For decades, tobacco was our family’s mainstay. Today there is a big demand for local produce. Customers want products they can trust, so now that’s our niche. Children, especially, like to go out in the field and pick.”

Howard’s farming has shifted focus over the years. In the 1970s, Howard put up chicken houses. In the 1980s, he began growing strawberries on matted rows. In 1985, as the North Carolina Department of Agriculture expanded its field services program statewide, Howard began turning to his regional agronomist, J. Ben Knox, for crop nutrient management advice. That change was followed closely in the early 1990s by yet another — the innovation of growing crops on plastic.

“Plasticulture was being promoted at the time as a way to produce a cleaner crop with higher yields,” Howard said. “Of course, it also had more annual costs, required more inputs and made it necessary to have buyers lined up ahead of time. I started out with half an acre of plastic and, at first, thought it was easy.”

When Howard expanded his acreage the next year, it was a different story. He found that with chickens, tobacco and both matted-row and plasticulture strawberries, there were too many tasks to do in the spring. So in 1995, Howard decided to limit his operation to chickens and plasticulture crops. The two enterprises have proved to be compatible.

Today the Howards grow many crops, including strawberries, pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, beans and squash. Plasticulture keeps down the weeds, helps conserve soil moisture and makes harvest cleaner. Because each crop has different nutrient needs, the Howards depend on NCDA&CS consulting and agronomic testing services to help them get the fertilization right.

“If we started a crop and didn’t have access to the Agronomic Division, we’d be in trouble,” Howard said. “We use all of the agronomic testing services — soil testing, tissue analysis, nematode assay, waste analysis and solution analysis — and we’ve worked with several regional agronomists. Each one has an area of specialty, but they network and share information so everyone benefits. They help keep us on track.”

When Howard decided to stop growing tobacco and shift completely to plasticulture, several people told him he probably would not need to apply any phosphorus fertilizer. Conventional wisdom said that after decades of fertilizing tobacco, the soil would already be sufficiently rich in this nutrient.