“Soil sampling is always part of my routine now,” Lineberry said. “I need it if I want to make money.”

The first season Lineberry tried her hand at growing strawberries, she collected leaf and petiole samples at 10- to 14-day intervals from March through May. At various times over this period, test results indicated the crop was in need of sulfur, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus or nitrogen. With this information to guide her, Lineberry was able to adjust the nutrient solution mixture so the crop was properly fed. She didn’t waste money by guessing.

“Robin showed me how to take my first tissue sample,” Lineberry said. “He explained how to fertilize and water crops. If I didn’t understand something, he would pull out his calculator and show me the numbers.”

Watson likes to focus on the connection between fertilization and crop quality. In strawberries and melons in particular, nutrition can affect fruit firmness, flavor and disease resistance. In advising Lineberry, he wanted to make sure that she understood the specific roles played by nitrogen, potassium and sulfur. 

“I try to emphasize that excess nitrogen can make fruit too soft,” Watson said. “But growers also need to consider the relative balance of nutrients, as shown on their plant analysis reports.”

A crop with a nitrogen-potassium ratio of 1:2 usually produces sweeter, firmer berries, Watson said, while one with a nitrogen-sulfur ratio of 18:1 or greater may need more sulfur to make use of the available nitrogen. “Applying the right amount of potassium and sulfur is the secret to flavor for melons and strawberries,” he said.

Another challenge Lineberry faced was learning how to manage water inputs. The farm had three different irrigation sources — pond, well and municipal water. Unsure how her father had handled this aspect of production, she chose city water because it seemed easiest. The prohibitive expense of this choice was soon apparent.

Watson recalled that D.L. had watered his larger fields with pond water, passing it first through a sand filtration system to remove sediment and some pathogens. He had used well water on the smaller fields. Watson explained how the filtration system worked and showed Lineberry how to set it up and use it. Then he discussed how to calibrate and time the applications to make sure each crop received the right amount of water.

“Robin is definitely our ‘go-to’ man,” Lineberry said. “If I have a question, I call him. He can always tell me what to do.”

Today, Tuttle Farm is successfully producing all the crops that D.L. used to grow and has added greenhouse tomatoes and deer corn as well. Customers still line up at the roadside market to buy blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, melons and pumpkins in season. The farm has also become a popular fall destination for school kids, featuring a corn maze, petting zoo, giant hay tractor, hayrides and other attractions.

Watson is one of 13 regional agronomists available to assist North Carolina growers in the diagnosis and resolution of plant nutrient and suspected plant-parasitic-nematode problems. A list of regional agronomists and their contact information is available on the NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division’s website, www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/.