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Spirit of Rowan: Row crop farming remains a vital industry for Rowan County

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

As Phillip Sloop moved through soybean fields in his combine, a wealth of information lay at his fingertips. He could tell the moisture level of the soybeans, the current and average yield of the field he was harvesting,

It’s not your grandpa’s combine.

But, as farmers have done for generations in Rowan County, Sloop was harvesting soybeans in western Rowan County. After finishing with one field, the combine lumbered across U.S. 70 — near the Iredell County line — to another field. With its 30-foot-wide cutter, the combine sliced soybean plants in a methodical pattern. Sloop monitored computer screens inside the combine as a hopper at the rear of the machine slowly filled with freshly harvested soybeans.

When it reached capacity, a green tube extended from the combine and poured a flood of soybeans into a nearby grain cart.

The 2016 soybean season for Corriher, Sloop and farmer Tom Hall, who are partners in company called C & H Grain LLC, wasn’t the best it’s been. It also wasn’t the worst. Just one year earlier, drought drastically reduced yields for a number of crops.

“It’s a little bit like playing the lottery,” Corriher joked as he stood in a freshly cut field of soybeans.

That lottery is a sizable one in Rowan County.

In Rowan County, soybeans are one part of a row crop trio that dominates local agriculture. Others include corn and wheat. N.C. Department of Agriculture statistics show soybeans comprised 18,800 acres of farmland in 2015. Corn sits at 7,600 acres. Wheat comprised 7,300 acres in 2015. Altogether, there are 121,145 acres of  farmland in the county. That’s more than a third of the total acreage of all land in the county.

“There are really a lot more agricultural acres than you might ever think about,” said Ben Knox, a local farmer who sits on the state’s soil and water commission.

Local farming operations generate millions of dollars annually in revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. One row crops get combined with other agriculture businesses, the result is a sizable industry.

“It makes up a substantial part of our economy in this area,” said Rowan County Extension Director Amy-Lynn Albertson about local agriculture. “I’ve seen estimates as high as 19 percent, and that’s pretty all encompassing, including feed stores and things that you might not immediately think of with agriculture.”

The 2012 census of agriculture found that local farming operations employed 1,076 workers. When compared to the list of employers that elected officials traditionally tout, agriculture would be the fifth-largest employer in the county, according to the latest statistics from Rowan Works Economic Development.

Compared to other businesses, farming offers a notable benefit, Knox said.

“You don’t have to run water and sewer lines and provide other services,” he said. “All you need is a certain amount of open space.”

Once that open space serves it purpose and crops are harvested, the products of local agriculture don’t often make their way overseas. Corriher says C&H Grain LLC sells corn to mostly local mills. There’s a crush mill in Kershaw, S.C. that the company sells soybeans. Still, products of local agriculture mostly stay in the country.

The rapid pace of technological change is one major change that’s occurred in local agriculture in recent years. Extension agents in Rowan County, for example, recently applied for a grant to obtain drones. Other changes have led to large increases in crop yields. In the 1920s, for example, local farmers expressed excitement when the first combine could produce 35 bushels per acre of wheat, Albertson said. Corriher says the local, modern average for wheat is about 60 bushels per acre.

No-till technology is another important advancement for agriculture, Corriher said. The practice involves growing crops without tilling the soil. Simply put, no-till farming makes better use of rain and slows the degradation of equipment, he said.

“No-till has really saved Piedmont agriculture in terms of making us more efficient and giving us the opportunity to compete in the world market,” Corriher said.

Knox noted other benefits to no-till farming — it results in less erosion. Because erosion is reduced, streams stay cleaner, to0, Knox said.

Even as a rural county that’s inching toward becoming more metropolitan, Rowan County still ranks near the top of the state for row crop production. The 2012 census of agriculture placed the county in among the top 30 for soybean, corn and wheat production. In other categories, Rowan ranks even higher. It’s in the top ten for fruits, tree nuts and berries and milk from cows.

The state of agriculture in Rowan County ranks highly in another area, too. It contains one of the the state’s 18 agricultural research stations. The Rowan County location is known as The Piedmont Research Station. Established originally as the Piedmont Test Farm, the local station conducts crop and livestock research. It also reports weather data to the State Climatology Office.

“It’s a great opportunity for us as extension agents to do research, applied research, because that’s what we’re about , taking stuff straight to a grower to use,” Albertson said. “What happens at our research station is even better because we can say ‘this is Rowan County and this is the Piedmont and we know the result of this research will work here.'”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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