Grain crops, flowers make for unique combination

Bruce Niederhauser is president of the North Carolina Crop Consultants Association and has been plying his trade in the farm-rich eastern part of the state for 16 years, but when one of his clients asked him to help with nearly 300 acres of cut flowers and bulbs, he stepped into a new arena of crop production.

Terra Ceia Farms in Pantego, N.C., is on the one hand a diversified grain farm, producing in most years 1,000-1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. On the other hand, the farm produces 200-300 acres of daffodils, day lilies, iris, peonies, amaryllis, elephant ears, sunflower, canna and other plants and bulbs.

Terra Ceia Farms is owned and operated by brothers Casey, Carl and Mark Van Staalduinen, whose father Cornelis, immigrated from Holland to start the farm. Carl does the marketing, Casey works primarily with flower production and Mark primarily with grain production.

“Our dad started the farm in the bulb business. He would buy land with existing bulb stock all up and down the East Coast, move or harvest the bulbs and sell the land. Over the years he kept more land than he sold, and we now have 1,200 acres of land,” Mark Van Staalduinen explains.

Now, they own enough land for flowers to be rotated with grain crops, but there are a couple of problems. First, some of the flower crops, such as peonies are perennials and stay on the same ground for up to 15 years. Second, which grain crops are best to rotate with which flower crops?

A couple of years ago a hurricane came through and dumped several inches of rain onto a large field of daffodil bulbs. Subsequent 90 degree heat literally boiled the tender bulbs, creating a problem that still has Niederhauser and Mark Van Staalduinen scratching their respective heads.

“On that field the previous year, we harvested 800,000 stems of daffodils. The year after the hurricane, we harvested 80,000 stems,” Mark Van Staalduinen notes. Hurricane damage, he says, opened the bulbs up to diseases and it just knocked production for a loop.

“We are looking at several rotations to try and get the field back into production,” Niederhauser says. Soybeans look like the best option, but there is a risk of building up cyst nematodes, he says. The North Carolina crop consultant also points out that they have to be particularly careful with what chemicals were used previously in fields selected for flower production, often limited to pesticides with a short residual life.

“I had worked for several years with Mark, helping him with corn, soybean and wheat production,” Niederhauser says. When he and Casey asked me to help them with the flowers, I agreed to do it only if they understood that we would have to learn together how to manage flower crops.

“It made sense to us, Mark explains. Bruce sees thousands of acres of different crops and different problems, so it seemed likely he could adapt some of the practices he recommends to other farmers to our operation,” he concludes.

One of those practices is zone sampling. “Our land here in eastern North Carolina gets plenty of rain, but is so flat it does not drain well. As a result there are many man made drainage ditches that cross all the farm land to remove excessive rainfall. These ditches and other landmarks make it easy to know where you are in a particular field, he explains.

“We use soil type, changes in topography and crop grown as the primary basis for establishing 5-7 acre zones. Zone sampling is more practical and less computer-driven than grid sampling and adds more of the human element. On our topography, zone sampling is made much easier by the multiple reference points we have in relatively small fields,” Niederhauser explains.

In addition to being president of the 25-member North Carolina Crop Consultants Association, Niederhauser is President of Total Agronomic Systems — his business is to help farmers make informed management decisions. He bristles at being called a “scout”. “Scouting fields is one of the services we offer, but it is usually done by someone trained by our company,” he says. Niederhauser, who has four full-time employees, sometimes has four or five part-time scouts during peak crop production season.

“To be successful in helping farmers, a crop consultant has to be impartial as to what products or what practices to use. For example, one of my farmers had a copper deficiency in a 200 acre field. His fertilizer dealer told him he needed to apply a 10-10-10 formulation that is impregnated with copper and zinc over the 200 acres. I advised him to use his zone maps, apply that formulation to the 20 acres that needed it and make different choices for the rest of the field,” Niederhauser explains. In this case, the farmer would have wasted money putting extra copper and zinc where it wasn't needed, he adds.

A meticulous record-keeper, Niederhauser says one of his biggest challenges is to help farmers deal with escalating fuel and fertilizer costs. “Over a period of years working with a farmer, we can help determine which crops will grow best in which fields and have a good idea what the fuel and fertilizer costs of producing the crop will be. By keeping good records, we will have some basis to project weed and disease pressure and insect problems — all information that will help farmers make better management decisions, the North Carolina crop consultant concludes.

“The biggest problem we face, Mark Van Staalduinen says, is that we are alone as flower growers, with only one other grower in the area. So, we have to reinvent the wheel every time we change a production practice,” he says. Most of our flower crops are multi-year crops, so if you make a change, it better be the right one,” the North Carolina grower adds.

One of those reoccurring new wheels that keep both farmer and crop consultant on their toes has been converting from 44-inch tobacco rows to 30-inch grain rows on their flower crops. “We wanted to increase production and decrease equipment costs and going to the narrower rows will allow us to do both,” Mark Van Staalduinen says.

“We used to work two 44-inch rows, now we can adapt some of our equipment to three 30-inch rows, which helps with labor and fuel,” he says. For some long-term crops, like peonies, they will have to keep some of the wider row equipment, but they are gradually turning to more uniform, narrower row production.

“Our biggest production challenges are weeds and crop rotation, according to the North Carolina grower. Atrazine, for example, does a good job of taking out weeds in corn, but we can't use it on land that we may re-plant to flowers. Still, grain crops have to support themselves, so making production decisions has to be a balance of grain crops and flower crops, Van Staalduinen explains.

“We are at a crossroads in our farming operation, he adds. It's no secret flower crops are more valuable per acre than grain crops, so the question is whether to increase flower production and lease out grain crop land, or sell it. Or, get bigger in grain crop production and flower production,' he concludes.

Helping farmers make these kinds of decisions is a critical role of a modern-day crop consultant, Niederhauser contends. In North Carolina, crop consultants directly impact over 500,000 acres of agricultural production. Though not many consultants, more likely none, work with flower crops, all help farmers make critical management decisions.

Growing up in Mexico City, Mexico, the son of the Rockefeller Foundation potato breeder, John Niederhauser, naturally, the North Carolina crop consultant began his career in the potato business as a buyer for Frito Lay. In that position, he traveled up and down the east coast buying potatoes and getting to know plenty of farmers in the process.

Though North Carolina produces more than 15,000 acres of potatoes, the bulk of Niederhauser's work is with corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. His company, Total Agronomic Services is headquartered in Washington, N.C.

Though a second generation Dutch bulb farmer and the Spanish-speaking son of a famous scientist might seem to make an odd couple, Mark Van Staalduinen and Bruce Niederhauser have teamed up to develop some ‘new wheels’ for combining grain and flower production in eastern North Carolina.

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