Young North Carolina growers from old school

Brothers Bryan and Wesley Foster represent the next generation of farmers — technologically inclined and marketing savvy — but they definitely come from the old school.

The Foster brothers grew up on a family farm in Mocksville, N.C., in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Today, they farm on the eastern tip of North Carolina, less than 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

They grow 1,500 acres of corn and another 1,500 acres of double-crop wheat and soybeans near Columbia, N.C.

As if farming isn't risky enough, they recently purchased two grain buying stations in eastern North Carolina and one near their home farm in Mocksville.

Neither growing grain, nor buying and selling it are anything new to the Foster brothers. They grew up on a diversified family farm that featured grain crops. Today, their father, Spurgeon Foster, still grows about 2,700 acres of grain crops on the family farm.

The Fosters grow the same crops in eastern North Carolina as they did growing up, but farming, they say, is as different as night and day in the two places. “For one thing, they fight dry weather most every year and we fight wet growing conditions most years,” says Bryan Foster.

How they got from one side of the state to another is story in serendipity, timing and forward thinking. Spurgeon Foster served on the National Corn Board in the mid 1970s. He became acquainted with farmers in eastern Carolina and was fascinated by how farmers were clearing swamp land, building levees and pumping water off the land to make room for crops.

At that time grain prices were good, farming was highly lucrative and land prices were too steep for Spurgeon Foster to invest in land.

Over time those conditions changed and when the time was right Spurgeon bought a farm near Columbia, N.C. The timing of that purchase coincided nicely with first Bryan, then Wesley finishing North Carolina State University's Ag Institute Program.

Though they had farmed some of the land prior to purchasing it, the final decision to buy the land came in 1994. Since that time, first Bryan, then Wesley moved from west to east to manage the Columbia Farm.

When they were first approached a few years back about buying a grain storage and buying facility in Swan Quarters, N.C., they put their experience and marketing savvy to the test and determined it would not be productive to have one buying point.

They made an offer on the Swan Quarters facility and for a similar facility near the town of Creswell, N.C.

By buying the two east Carolina facilities they put their farm almost directly in the middle of the two locations. Subsequently, they bought a third facility near their family's farm in Mocksville.

“We buy our own crops, but it's two distinctly separate companies. We don't treat our crops any differently than those we buy from other farmers,” Wesley Foster says. The grain company is operated as Lake Phelps Grain Company.

The Foster brothers run their grain business with the same old school philosophy they learned growing up on the farm in western North Carolina. Doing things right includes plenty of time planning and getting the most from the resources they have on hand.

“In the grain business doing things right includes treating people fairly. We want to pay farmers a fair price for their grain and we want to get them their money as fast as we can. We are in the farming business, we know how important it is to get paid in a timely manner,” Wesley Foster says.

The key to running both a large farming operation and large grain buying business is to have good employees, says Wesley Foster. “When we find good employees, we treat them well, and so far we've been fortunate,” he adds.

Bryan, who focuses more on the farming operation, says growing grain crops in eastern North Carolina is dramatically different that he faced growing up. However, the same principles of knowing your soil and knowing how a crop will perform on that soil apply. And, not cutting corners works in both places.

Growing wheat and double-crop beans is significantly different in the two locations, notes Bryan Foster. In most parts of the state, double-crop bean yields are consistently lower than full season beans. Here, there doesn't seem to be much difference in yields. One year full season is better and the next year double-crop beans are better, he says.

On the Mocksville farm they do no tillage, not even strip-tillage. No-till has not worked well for the Foster brothers on the eastern tip of North Carolina. No-till helps hold moisture in the soil, but in our case we want it to run through the soil, Bryan explains.

He researched different tillage options, trying to find the best system for their land in eastern North Carolina. In 2008, they adapted a strip-tillage system which allow them to avoid the deep tillage they use on some of their land, but avoid moisture problems associated with no-till systems in their part of eastern North Carolina.

“We just completed planting some corn using the strip-tillage system and it looks like the most uniform crop we've had. Of course, using an auto-steer system, with accuracy of less than an inch helps, he laughs. The long rows are a picture of perfection.

With such a well-established rotation, Bryan says a key is to manage one crop for the other. For example, for good weed control in wheat they add an extra application of glyphosate to clean up corn in the summer prior to planting wheat in the rotation the following fall.

“We try to keep our corn weed free all year to avoid weed and grass problems with wheat in the fall. We spray a full application of glyphosate prior to planting corn, once over-the-top and we come back with a drop nozzle and clean it up before we chop the corn,” they explain.

In addition to glyphosate, they use one application of atrazine or similar herbicide in their corn to break up the cycle of glyphosate. So far, they have had no problems with glyphosate resistance.

Keeping one crop clean for another is different than changing practices just to make a high yield, Wesley Foster says. “It's been our experience that trying to produce high yields is sure to drive your costs up, but doesn't always result in higher yields or higher profits,” the North Carolina grower adds.

In these unprecedented times when grain prices are high across the board, the Foster brothers contend taking care of business the normal way is better than trying to force a crop into high yields. Over the past 10 years, they note, their average yields for corn, soybeans and wheat closely parallel the national average for these crops.

“Regardless of whether the price is high or low, as long as we can produce yields comparable to other parts of the country, we feel like we will be okay,” Wesley says.

Being farmers and buyers, the North Carolina growers agree the best plan in the long run is to grow what is best for the land. Breaking up a successful rotation to chase high prices is a good way to get in trouble, they agree.

A good case in point, says Wesley Foster, is a lesson learned by their father this year. He planted oats for the first time in many years. A disease or soil-related problems took a big toll on his oat crop. Had he grown oats for a number of years, he would probably have known what caused the problem and fixed it before it caused economically-damaging losses, Foster adds.

In the case with his father, oats were planted on a small acreage as more of a test to determine their feasibility in the overall farm rotation. However, for many growers in the Southeast, planting large acreages of wheat, corn and soybeans on land not well suited to these crops, and by growers not familiar with the many obstacles that can hurt grain crop production.

“In today's market a farmer has the ability to make a lot of money, but he also has the ability to lose a lot of money. The inputs are so high and the crop so valuable, the risks to farming grain crops is higher than it's ever been,” Wesley Foster concludes.

Growing crops the right way and treating people the right way is the best formula for success, regardless of the price of grain or the cost of growing it, they agree.

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