Innovation is a lesson Johnston County, N.C., farmer Brandon Batten learned from his grandfather Charlie Batten, and it is a practice he, his dad Doug Batten and uncle Charlie “Steve” Batten use every day on their 800-acre tobacco, grain, soybean, hay and cattle farm near Four Oaks.
In the late 1970s, Charlie Batten was laid off from his job in quality control at an electronic engineering company which created the opportunity to start farming fulltime. Brandon Batten says his granddad never forgot the importance of quality control that he learned on the job and he put it into practice from day one on the family farm.
“With his quality control background in public works, granddad was always keen on efficiency and optimizing and doing more with less. He always embraced technology as the way to do things better,” Brandon says.
Brandon, his dad and uncle are all committed to improving the operational efficiency on the farm instilled by Charlie Batten, who passed away in 2011. Brandon says his granddad would be pleased with the progress the family has made and approve of them turning to the latest technology to succeed.
Brandon, 34, returned to the family farm in 2010 after earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering from North Carolina State University. At State, he worked with Professor Mike Boyette on methods to make tobacco curing barns more efficient. He is also the recipient of the 2017 North Carolina Innovative Farmer of the Year Award by the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
Brandon is quick to point out that he got a great education at North Carolina State, but he says the best thing he got from the time spent studying in Raleigh was his wife Jessica who also studied ag engineering with an environmental concentration. Jessica graduated in 2010, the same year Brandon completed his master’s degree. She works as a stormwater engineer in Johnston County, and Brandon points out that her knowledge of water management proves valuable to the family farm.
Brandon and Jessica have been married for nearly nine years and have a four-year-old son, Camden, and twin 15-month old daughters, Hayden and Adley. Additionally, the couple was selected as winners of the 2019 National Outstanding Young Farmer Award by the Outstanding Farmers of America.
Since Brandon returned to the farm 10 years ago, the family has expanded the operation from 250 acres to 800 acres. His education in engineering comes in handy as he helps the farm better utilize and manage all the data necessary to keep the business running. Moreover, Brandon says his engineering education makes him a more creative thinker and problem solver on the farm.
Indeed, the family uses the latest technology to remain competitive, turning to everything from cloud-based record keeping to autosteer tractors to GPS to cover crops to no-till. Still, making a profit remains the name of the game.
“I like to maximize profit, not necessarily increase yields. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand and sometimes they don’t. There are a lot of new technologies out there that are exciting and shiny and nice, but they may not make you any money,” Brandon says. “Anything we can do to do better at making a profit is a dollar well spent.”
With low commodity prices, the family is doing everything they can to remain competitive. One key step they took this year was the addition of grain storage on the farm, a first for the family. In the past, the family sold their corn to Smithfield and their soybeans to Cargill at harvest.
“Because we had to market a lot of our grain at harvest, we couldn’t take advantage of some of the seasonal swings in basis. Now that we can put our grain in storage, we can take advantage of better marketing opportunities,” Brandon says.
Cover crops and irrigation are both critical tools. “We use a wheat and rye cover crop mix because we can graze it. We’re thinking about adding some clover, radishes or other brassica-type plants to improve soil health and forage for the cattle in the winter months,” Brandon explains.
Everything on the farm is no-till. After a tobacco field is harvested, the family will plant wheat behind it and keep it out of tobacco for three to five years when they will return tobacco to the field.
The family uses a precision agriculture approach in everything from fertility to pest management. As for irrigation, Brandon says the family looks at it as another form of crop insurance. A variable rate approach to fertilizer application is essential.
“We don’t have a one size fits all fertility program. Different parts of the field will get different rates of fertilizer depending on soil type and irrigation on the field. Since we are trying to maximize profit, there is no need to fertilize for a 200-bushel corn crop if we only have a 150-bushel potential,” Brandon says.
For insects, the family uses an integrated pest management system. Scouting is critical. “We may not spray insecticides on our soybeans, depending on the pest pressure each season. For corn, we scout for stink bugs and if we are below the IPM threshold, we can get by without having to spray for stinkbugs,” Brandon says.
In addition, the family sprays for budworms in tobacco from mid- to late-season. Fortunately, worms and insects aren’t a major worry and Brandon says there are good tools available to knock them out fairly quickly and economically.
While insects aren’t a major worry, pigweed remains public enemy No. 1 for the family. They plant Xtend soybeans and use dicamba where they can, but it is a challenge because of all the tobacco, sweet potatoes and other specialty crops in the neighborhood.
“We still rely on wrap-around. That’s where you wrap your fingers around the pigweed and pull it up. We’ve pulled a lot of weeds by hand just to keep that seedbank down,” Brandon says with a smile.
Indeed, technology is critical to the family’s success on the farm. One innovation Brandon also uses is social media and the internet. “As farmers, it’s so important to tell our story. I’m on social media and have a weekly blog, Farm Facts Friday where I share something on the farm or about agriculture or what’s going on in my life and how it relates to agriculture,” Brandon says.
One post received an incredible 50,000 hits while typical posts receive an equally impressive 3,000 hits. “That’s not too bad for something coming out of rural Johnston County,” he says.
“People don’t know what we do every day and what our struggles are and what our blessings are. I farm because I love it. I don’t want to romanticize it because that doesn’t pay the bills, but I love to plant a seed and watch it grow. I want my kids to see that and know where their food comes from,” Brandon says.