The first full day of autumn brought rainy weather to P&S Farms in Rowland, N.C., but that didn’t slow down activity. Bo Stone and his father Tommy Stone had wrapped up corn harvest the day before and the grain was in the bin being dried.
“We had hoped to have wrapped up corn harvest by Labor Day, but the weather held us up,” Bo Stone said. “It’s good to have the corn in the bin.”
Stone said corn yields this year were better than anticipated. He was pleased with the yields on his irrigated acreage, but a hot dry streak right at pollination did put some stress on his dry land corn. Still, Stone was mostly pleased with this year’s yield performance.
“This year as much as any showed the improvements we have had in corn hybrids. It could have been a pure disaster 15 years ago before we had drought and stress tolerant varieties,” Stone said. “These stress and drought tolerant varieties really saved us on our dry land corn acreage.”
Targeting the right hybrid for the right soil type is a critical part of Stone’s management plan on the farm. On his1,150 corn acres this year, Stone used 12 different hybrids. “Under irrigation, we try to pick the racehorses, those hybrids with the top yields,” he said. “In our dry land acres, it all depends on the soil type. Most often we look for stress tolerant traits.”
Hybrid selection is just one of Stone’s risk management tools. Risk management combined with diversity is the keys to success of farming in Robeson County with its large variation of soil types. It is a strategy Stone has used every year since he returned to the farm in 1996.
“Risk management is important in everything we do,” Stone said. “Hedging out crops is our most important risk management tool, but irrigation is a form of risk management because it takes drought out of the equation.”
Stone stresses the importance of diversity in staying in business both in the good times of high commodity prices and today’s tough times where commodity prices are falling.
In addition to corn, the Stones also produce wheat and soybeans on their 2,300 acres. Just about all the soybeans are double cropped behind wheat. In addition, P&S Farms grows 2.5 acres of strawberries and four acres of sweet corn to sell at their own roadside market. In addition, they raise 10,000 hogs under contract with Murphy Brown and they have a small beef cattle herd with 70 mama cows.
“We’re not diversified because we want to be, we’re diversified because we have to be. This diversity helps us spread our risk,” Stone said.
Soybeans are an important part of the operation. And now that corn harvest is wrapped up, Stone is gearing up for soybean harvest. “Our soybeans are really looking good this year. The late season rains really helped, and we planted a new Group VII Pioneer variety that looks pretty impressive at this point. I’m anxious to see what it looks like when the leaves fall and we run the combine,” Stone said.
All of the beans on P&S Farms are seed beans, produced for Pioneer. Producing seed beans is yet another part of the family’s diversity mix on the farm.
P&S Farms (the “P” stands for Proctor, and the “S” stands for Stone) is family owned and operated. Stone and his wife Missy work with his dad Tommy and mother Bonnie. Tommy Stone joined his father-in-law Henry Proctor in 1976 when the two formed P&S Farms. Stone is hopeful the next generation will be able to take over when the time comes. Bo and Missy have three children, Sarah Grace, 13; Olivia, 11; and Thompson, 7.
Stone represents the sixth generation to farm some of the same land in southeastern North Carolina and Bo said farming in his family goes back further than that. He is hopeful his children will become the seventh generation to farm, and he says he is doing all he can to build a legacy that will allow them to do that.
“All three have an interest in certain areas and aspects of the farm and help us with the strawberries and sweet corn,” Stone said.
RTK, no-till, cover crops maintain soil health
In addition to risk management and diversity, Stone said conservation practices are critical to the operation. “We have been 100 percent no till for some time and we use variable rate technologies to maximize our yields by giving the crop only what it needs,” he explained.
The use of Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation and precision ag software is a critical management tool, Stone said. “This allows us to write up our fertilizer prescriptions and our planting prescriptions by soil type,” he said. “It allows us to hold our input costs down but still maximize what our land is capable of doing. This is important not only for applying our fertilizers and pesticides, but also in planting on top of our sub-surface drip irrigation. You know exactly where you are.”
In addition to RTK and no-till, cover crops are critical for maintaining soil health. “We’re using a mixture of rye grass, tillage radish and crimson clover for biodiversity on about one-third of our acres this year. Just about all of our irrigated ground will have a cover crop,” Stone said.
Crop rotation is also a critical management tool. Stone said he tries to maintain as much as a 50-50 rotation as he can. “With our irrigated ground, we are going two years of corn and then a year of wheat and beans because the payback has been better on corn with the commodity prices of late,” he said.
Like all farmers, Stone is looking for ways to make it through this current environment of low commodity prices. “For the next year, prices don’t look that good so it’s going to be a challenge,” Stone said.
Still, Stone is optimistic that his approach of diversity and risk management will allow him to weather low prices. This approach is needed all the more in hard times.
“You need to know what your input costs are. You need to have your crop budgets done and understand where you are and then take advantage of any spikes in the market where you can price a percentage of your crops where you can hopefully lock in a break-even price in a situation like this,” Stone said.
“You need to keep a sharp eye on your inputs, but you don’t want to short your crop,” he said. “Don’t skimp on your inputs. You have to keep your fertility up to grow a crop. Do what you need to do to grow a good crop. We’re not going to try to shortchange the crop, but we do keep an eye on our inputs and make sure where we need to be within our budget.”
This approach has always worked for P&S Farms. For example, this year Southern corn rust was a problem for many North Carolina farmers while pigweed or Palmer amaranth is always a hassle in the state. But with a well-timed fungicide and herbicide program, both pests weren’t a problem for the Stone farm.
“Pigweed is something we have to really manage,” Stone said. “No till and ground cover from the previous crop helps. We also take a very aggressive approach with pre-emergence herbicide. We are able to control pigweed, but it is very expensive.”
Through it all, Stone has maintained a very active role in the community. He serves on the board of Dillon Christian School where his children attend and he is a deacon at First Baptist Church in Rowland. He is a director with Cape Fear Farm Credit and serves as chairman of the board for Southeastern Health. He is also active with North Carolina Farm Bureau.
In addition, he is an active alumnus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he earned both an undergraduate degree in ag business and a master’s degree with a concentration on ag economics.
This on top of his role the past two years as a Face of Farming and Ranching with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, where his involvement will be ending this year.
When he began farming in 1996 Stone developed a mission statement that remains today: “To produce high quality food and farm products in a profitable and environmentally responsible manner.”
“Faith, family and farm are what is important to me,” Stone said.