When D.L. Tuttle died in 2002, the future of his farm hung in the balance.

Daughter Caroline Lineberry had business skills and her father’s meticulous records, but she needed more than that to manage the farm successfully.

Her first step was to do something she had often seen her father do — call Robin Watson, regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Caroline is great with marketing,” said Watson, “but after her father died, she was seeking guidance on the field production side of things. I had advised D.L. for about 15 years, especially in the area of plasticulture. I showed him how to grow crops on plastic, how to handle watering and fertilization, and how to use agronomic sampling to optimize yield. Caroline wanted the advantage of that same training.”

To keep the farm going, Lineberry needed to master the production of strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, pumpkins, cantaloupes and watermelons. Some of these crops require intensive care and critically timed inputs. Watson’s specialty is teaching growers like Lineberry how to optimize crop production through the use of soil testing, plant tissue analysis, nematode assay and other agronomic tests.

Berries and melons may fetch high prices, but their profitability depends on trimming input costs down to the essentials. A pre-season soil test and periodic plant-tissue tests throughout the season give growers precise information about crop nutrient needs so they can apply fertilizer in the most cost-effective manner.

Other agronomic tests can alert growers to the presence of hazardous plant-parasitic nematode populations or indicate potential problems with water sources used for irrigation or for mixing nutrient solutions. The objective of all this testing is to identify and resolve critical issues in a timely way so yields can be maximized and profitable.

Watson walked Lineberry through the process of collecting, documenting and submitting soil samples. He stressed the importance of applying lime and fertilizer based on soil test results. This precaution is especially crucial when growing produce on plastic-covered rows because soil pH cannot be corrected after plastic has been laid, and fertilizers applied through drip tape can be more expensive.

Lineberry followed this advice, but discovered its true value the year she forgot to sample before planting a crop of trellis tomatoes. The field had a pH of about 4.6, which is far from ideal for this crop. Once the oversight was realized, it was too late to put out lime. Crop yield that year barely offset the investment costs.