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It's all about family for young North Carolina farmer

An emergency call in the Enon community in Yadkin County, N.C., will likely bring 32-year-old Kevin Matthews to your door. When policy issues call, he’s just as likely to show up in Washington, D.C, as Raleigh, N.C.

During the day, he’ll talk his grain dealer two to three times, checking on corn, soybean and wheat prices.

Every day, he keeps his mind on the importance of God and family.

Noted for award-winning yields and trying new ideas, Matthews farms 1,100 acres with his wife, Cindy and manages an additional 300 acres for his uncle. They are raising corn, soybeans, wheat, strawberries and two kids in the northern Piedmont of North Carolina in Yadkin and Forsyth counties.

Growing up raising crops like tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat and potatoes with his father and uncle, Matthews knew he’d likely return to the farm, because he had been tending a crop since age 15.

After graduating high school in 1991, Matthews earned a two-year degree in electronics engineering from the local trade school. During those two years, he went to school in the daytime and returned to the farm in the afternoon, tending about 700 acres for his father, uncle, and himself.

Following the degree, he got a job with Electronic Equipment Servicing working at the American Tobacco Company.

The same year it came down to taking time off in order to get the soybean crop harvested. “I sold beans for $7.20 a bushel and decided not to go back,” Matthews laughs.

“I jumped in on the high.” A couple of years later, a drought hit.

Matthews remembers a 1998 presentation at the Annual Joint Conference in Raleigh when an Iowa farmer said “you are foolish to farm without crop insurance.” Matthews took that advice to heart and took quick action. This also was when he received his father’s part of the operations.

“You hope you don’t need crop insurance, but you fear the year that you don’t have it,” Matthews says. “There’s no profit in crop insurance, but it minimizes the fall.

“I can buy the best seed, use the best practices and still not make a good crop because of the weather situation,” Matthews says. “With crop insurance, I can spend less than $10 an acre and guarantee 90 percent of my cost back. The premium is worth it. Bankers like it. It gives them a guarantee.”

To guarantee a shot at top yields, Matthews uses a variety of practices.

On bottomland near to the Yadkin River, he runs a DMI no-till ripper to keep from drowning the crop out. “Before, we had to work all the land.”

He’s planting corn on 20-inch rows. “The DMI ripper on the bottomland and the 20-inch rows have been the biggest profit-making decisions I’ve made,” Matthews says. He cites one field where he had an increase of more than 50 bushels per acre by going to the 20-inch rows in cooperation with no-till.

Matthews has all of his fields mapped with GPS. In a year where fuel prices are exorbitant, he’s already begun taking advantage of precision agriculture. He and three other farmers bought a variable-rate applicator over the winter and top-dressed the wheat crop using the technology late this winter. “We did point sampling and we’re spreading our fertilizer according to those maps.

“With the high price of fertilizer, we don’t have a choice,” Matthews says.

The experience has been eye-opening for the young farmer. “I didn’t realize how inaccurate I was — overlapping 3 or 4 feet or missing 18 inches.”

The Zynx system, outfitted with GPS, leaves a white spot on the monitor should the farmer miss a spot. “I think the GPS is a real positive thing. At one time, I didn’t think auto-steer was for this part of the country, but now I would be afraid not to use it.

“Even with an electronic engineering degree, it’s still hard to realize how good the technology is working,” Matthews says. “I enjoy the technology and am always open for change.”

Matthews calibrates all of his planters. “I have my meters tested and calibrate them every year. There’s no reason for a seed meter not to plant a picket-fence stand. Technology has boosted yields.”

Before harvest, Matthews takes yield counts “to see how many bushels I can expect to harvest. That gives me an extra two months to market by starting early.” He’s often at the top of the heap come time for yield awards at the national and state level.

To make sure he’s rewarded for those top yields, Matthews sells as much as 40 percent of his crop based on cost of production levels. He hedges some of his crop. “The worst case: I don’t have a crop, but I can always buy out the contract and not buy the bushels. It increases the net profit.”

The preparation in the field gives you an idea of how Matthews works outside the field. He’s currently vice president of the North Carolina Small Grains Association. Next year, he may be the group’s president. He’s also on the county Farm Bureau board.

“I’ve never considered myself a political man, but I’ve come to realize that they’re going to write these bills…so you better let them know what you want and need,” he says.

During the last farm bill negotiations, that fact came home to him and other North Carolina growers. “We were in Washington, D.C., and discovered that Midwest farmers only wanted one crop eligible for counter-cyclical payments. We spoke up, but if we hadn’t traveled to Washington, D.C., that could have been the case.”

In a meeting with David Rouzer, of U.S. Sen. Jessie Helms office, the group expressed the need for growers to be able to update basis. “We got what we asked for. You have to be involved in these associations.”

Involvement will continue to be critical in the lead-up to the new farm bill. “The farm bill is not a profit situation. That money is to help you get to the break-even point. The current farm bill was written for seven years. To change it now, would put a lot of pressure on the business of the farm.”

Matthews’ goal is to pay cash for the crop when he puts it in. “But as long as you’re borrowing, you need the help the farm bill gives.”

In the last several years, he’s also been involved in planning the Joint Conference the group holds in conjunction with the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association and the North Carolina Corn Growers Association.

All this activity keeps him hopping, something he often thinks about. “I’ve been thinking about cutting back on the number of things I do, then I’ll get a thank-you letter from someone that lets me know I’m doing something worthwhile,” Matthews says, noting he and his wife have a 7-year-old daughter named Danielle and a 5-year-old son named Timothy, in his trademark cowboy boots.

Matthews had misgivings about the training he received to become and maintain first-responder status with the local fire department. “I wondered why I went through the effort to become a first responder and then, when my son was born with asthma, I knew why. I was able to treat him when he had an episode until the ambulance could arrive. I’m thankful for the training.”

Three years ago, he and his wife began raising strawberries with their young ones in mind. His wife, Cindy, manages the strawberry operation, in addition to doing the bookwork and computer work for the farm. Five migrants, as well as local hands, help out with the strawberries.

“We grew up working in the field, I think the strawberries will teach the children how to make a living,” Matthews says. “I want them to know how to make their own money.”

Matthews Farms is a family farm in every sense of the word. At dinnertime during harvest, Cindy brings a three or four course meal to the field. “It helps keep up morale,” her husband says. Cindy is on the North Carolina Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.

“It takes a good wife,” Matthews says.

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