For Derek Potter, it all begins with choosing the right variety.
“Variety selection is the key to success,” the Grantsboro, N.C. farmer emphasizes. “Whether it is corn or soybeans, you start limiting yields when you choose the wrong variety. I like to massage all the data and find the varieties that work the best for me.”
Potter turns to numerous sources in his varietal selection research: university tests, company tests and fellow farmer tests. He likes to make sure the soil types where the tests are conducted are similar to his soils in Pamlico and Craven counties. And he makes sure the agronomic practices used in the various tests are similar to his. This is a strategy he turns to in both corn and soybeans.
It is a strategy that works. Potter’s five-year average on soybean yields tops 50 bushels per acre while his five-year average corn yield is over 160 bushels per acre, all achieved with dryland farming.
Potter does like to try new varieties on his farm every year. “We look at the new ones when they first come out on some of our acreage. If we have success with it, we will plant a little bit more the next year, and if it really performs well, we will really ramp it up,” he explains. “Varieties change so fast now that it’s often tough to get in those three years for various varieties.”
Potter plants a multitude of varieties from various companies in both corn and soybeans. Producing for top yield is always his No. 1 goal in variety selection. He turns to the top four or five varieties that work in his situation and show proven yields from the various corn and soybean tests. He is always looking for better varieties with the best yield potential.
“A salesman will come to me and say this variety is just as good as that variety. I’m not looking for ‘as good.’ I’m looking for something better,” he stresses.
For soybeans, he turns to the top four Group IV varieties that work well in his situation. This year for the first time, he will plant 100 to 200 acres to Group III varieties because they have shown promise. He’ll examine how they do and then decide if he wants to plant more Group IIIs next year.
“Group IVs offer more genetic potential, but the numbers on the IIIs have been pretty good with some good yields north and west of here. We need to hit it right. We don’t need any misses,” he stresses.
For Potter, variety selection is site specific because he farms different ground. “The racehorses need to go on the excellent ground while the defensive hybrids need to go on the dryer ground. You have to understand that and place them where you can make sure they perform.”
Most of Potter’s ground is sandy loam and he turns to varieties that are proven winners in that soil type. “You need to make sure the agronomic package fits your farm,” he says.
Potter began farming full-time on his own in 1998 and credits his family for the support to do that. Before that he farmed part time with his dad, Ben Potter, who farmed part time while working full time in the Pamlico County School System. Potter’s mother, Pat, was a great encourager for her son. She worked for more than 30 years teaching business at Pamlico Community College.
Today, Potter farms 2,800 acres of corn and soybeans, with half of the acreage devoted to each crop that he rotates every year.
“For Dad, farming was his therapy session. He would get on the tractor to relax and he really enjoyed it. He exposed me to it, and I started with 15 acres of soybeans when I was in the ninth grade. In the summer of 1985, I made a 45 bushel corn crop. It was a really dry year and an eye opener for how weather really impacts you. I received a really good education that year.”
Ben Potter still farms part time and also helps son Derek with his operation.
Potter went to North Carolina State University and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1992. “You go to school to learn what you don’t want to do,” he says. After graduating, he farmed with his dad for five years before going out on his own in 1998.
Potter’s driving philosophy for successful farming is to be efficient in everything he does, from varietal selection to fertility to weed and insect control. “Attention to detail is the key,” he emphasizes.
“My fertility is medium to high on every acre. We like to put out plenty to move our overall indexes up. If you’re going to produce an above average crop, you’re going to need more fertility. Increased fertility helps you in a stressful situation because if nutrition is readily available, the plant doesn’t have to reach too far what it needs.”
Potter applies nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and the micronutrients on both his corn and soybeans. He foliar feeds, begins with starter fertilizer and makes applications throughout the growing season. “Instead of just dumping five gallons at the beginning, we put a little at the beginning, a little more in the middle and a little more later. We make three or four applications throughout the season and give the plant what it needs when it needs it,” he notes.
Applying fungicides and insecticides is critical to his success. “I don’t want to over use them, but at the same time I want to maximize my return by using them. This means I’m probably going to spray before I get to university thresholds,” he adds.
Pigweed isn’t a big problem on most of Potter’s acreage, but he does have a few hot spots here and there. “We can clean up pigweed with corn in our rotation because corn gives you more chemical options,” he explains.
While varietal selection is the key to success, Potter emphasizes the importance of waiting for good planting conditions. “You can’t be in a hurry. You need to check the weather three days out, and if there is a bunch of rain in the forecast, you might as well park the planter. A little rain won’t hurt, but if you get more than three to four inches at one time, you’re not going to get uniform emergence,” he says.
Like other top yielding producers, Potter emphasizes the importance of uniform emergence. He likes for all of his corn and soybean plants to come out at the same time. “The less stress you put on the plant, the better off you are. You can’t expect to make top yields if you don’t get a good start and establish a good root system,” he says.
Potter has on full-time employee, Daniel Hacker, and one part-time employee, Dwight Hill, during the busy season. Potter’s wife Kim is principal at Fred Anderson Elementary School in Bayboro. Derek and Kim have two sons, Hunter, 15, and Dylan, 13.
“I have a wife who works so I can have my hobby. I send my wife to work, the kids to school and I go play all day,” Potter says with a smile.
And do Hunter and Dylan plan to farm?
“I have no clue,” Potter says. “One thing we stress is get a good education and stay out of trouble. They do love the outdoors. When they graduate from high school and go to college, they can decide what they want to do. They need to be satisfied with their own careers, whether it is farming or not.”