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In the Blacklands, the soil is good. The problem is too much water.

John Hart, Associate Editor

March 26, 2021

8 Min Read
John_Hart_Farm_Press_Jeff_Landon_Donald_Sparks .jpg
Three generations of the Sparks family, from left, Jeff Sparks, his son Landen Sparks, and Jeff’s dad, Donald Sparks.John Hart

Brothers Jim and Donald Sparks started farming the fertile soil in the Blacklands near the coast in eastern North Carolina in 1993, relocating from their farm in the western part of the state that had been in the family for three generations.

The North Carolina Blacklands and western North Carolina are different. The Blacklands are known for both the rich and fertile soil and for the weather challenges to successfully grow crops. Western North Carolina, farther from the coast, is known for its rolling hills and drier weather patterns.

The brothers moved their families permanently to Tyrell County, where they established Green Valley Farms not far from Columbia. From 1987 to 1993 the brothers did custom harvest work in the Blacklands in addition to managing their 2,000-acre row crop farm in Wilkes, Yadkin and Davie counties and their farrow-to-finish hog operation near Wilkesboro.

Both the hog business and commodities market were tough in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dry weather made growing crops a challenge in that part of the state. The brothers sold the hog barns. Today, the family produces 6,000 acres and are firmly established.

Jim Sparks retired from the operation four years ago and Donald’s son Jeff Sparks now runs the operation with his father. Jeff  is president of the Blackland Farm Managers Association and is recognized and respected leader in the region.

If the weather cooperates and a growing season is free of storms and hurricanes, the Blacklands has the potential to produce 300-bushel corn, 100-bushel soybeans and 140-bushel wheat. But that is a big IF. In the Blacklands, the problem has always been too much water.

Especially wet

Weather  patterns have been particularly wet for the past few years, especially in 2020.

“We’ve just been inundated with storms here. We’ve had 15 tropical systems in the last six years, that’s more than two per year. It’s taken a lot of cash out of operations in this area. It’s been a challenge,” Sparks says.

The Sparks have a yield history of 180 bushels to 190 bushels per acre in corn. “Last year, we averaged 125 bushels per acre. If we can get back to 180 bushels per acre, that’s going to trump any farm program income,” Sparks says.

Spring storms in 2020 is what really did in the corn crop for the year. “Just this past year, from May 17 to June 15, we had 27 inches of rain in 30 days, right when the corn was trying to figure out its yield potential for the year,” Sparks says.

”We salvaged. We got out and put some extra fertilizer out; we nursed it back to health. It looked pretty good during the growing season, but when you got it into the fall the yields weren’t there. The test weights were good, but we had low kernel weight,” he says.

Historically, the Blacklands receives 40 to 45 inches of rain and if scattered throughout the growing season this is ideal for high yielding corn and soybeans. The Sparks have seen a lot of 250--to-270-bushel corn yields in the good weather years.

“The yields are there. The potential with the new genetics is for us to average 250 to 260 bushels per acre if we get the right weather. A yield check of 289 bushels per acre is the highest I found on this farm. There is some 300-bushel corn in the surrounding counties,” he says.

Indeed, Sparks and other farmers in the Blacklands are hoping for a drier year in 2021 so they can make the yields and take full advantage of higher commodity prices. They are certainly due a good year in 2021.

Soil suited for corn

The high organic matter soil of the Blacklands is suited for corn. “If you clean up a new farm in some areas of the country, the first one or two years that you farm it is probably the best it’s going to do. Here, it seems the longer you work the land, the better it gets. Yield increases in corn have jumped up 50 to 60 bushels over the last 20 years,” he says.

Over the years, the Sparks have tried to raise the pH of their soils. “A lot of this land, when it was cleaned up in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, pH was in the threes and low fours, so it took a ton of lime to get our pH from the mid-5s to mid-6s. We try to apply a half ton of lime every other year to maintain our pH levels from the mid fives to mid sixes,” Sparks explains.

Sparks says farmers in the Blacklands are innovative. They have the know-how and ability to produce top yields, they just need the weather to cooperate. He points to the Blackland Farm Managers Association, which was formed in 1970, as key to making farmers in that part of the country better, because it brings together farmers, researchers, and Extension to tackle challenges in a unified way.

“We have people come here from other universities and say we don’t have anything like this in Illinois or Kentucky or Indiana, so we are very proud of that,” Sparks says.

For Sparks, variety selection is key for managing risk. He looks for varieties that can handle the heavy soil of the Blacklands. He likes to plant 105-day to 118-day corn varieties and plants soybeans from the mid- to late-Group IIIs all the way up to late-Group Vs and early-group VIs. “We are trying to spread the risk and spread our harvest out,” he explains.

OVT trials key

He points to Extension OVT (Official Variety Trials) as key to finding corn hybrids and soybean varieties well suited for the unique growing environment of the Blacklands. He spreads the risk by planting eight to 10 soybean varieties and 12 to 15 corn hybrids.

“We do a lot of on-farm trials to see what works and doesn’t work. We need three years of data to really know. Seed companies aren’t keeping genetics that long. They really rely on what they think is best rather than what they know is best,” Sparks says.

Sparks grows seed soybeans for Cherry Seed Farms in Columbia and Montague Farms in Windsor, Va., so attention to detail and managing for quality is vital.

To manage the dark soil in Tyrell County, Sparks does vertical-tillage of one to two inches which allows him to incorporate residue into the high organic ground. He likes to do 20 percent to 30 percent no-till every year on the land that can handle it

“Nothing much decays around here. In the springtime, we’re trying to warm and dry the soils. Usually, it’s really wet going into planting. What we are trying to do is get the soil dried out so we can plant. The biggest reason for tillage is to try to air the ground out and mix the residue,’ he explains.

As for fertility, splitting applications has really paid off for the family. For corn, they will make up to three applications per year. For soybeans, they come back twice in the season with an over-the-top application. This is vital for all the wet weather the Blacklands get each year.

Risk management

“Part of risk management is not losing everything you put out up front. If you put all your nitrogen out prior to planting, that money is spent and gone. If you have average rainfall events, its fine. It’s a great approach. But if you have 20 to 30-inch rainfall events in 30 days in case you can lose 50 to 60 percent of what you put out,” Sparks says.

The family has used poultry litter as part of their fertility program for the past four years because Rose Acres Egg Farm is just 50 miles away and the transportation costs are low enough to make it work.

Micronutrients are important as well and the family applies a package that includes boron, zinc and manganese. They will make the first application in-furrow and then come back and treat over-the-top when they are treating for stink bugs in corn and worms in soybeans.

Cover crops are another important management tool. They have planted rye, wheat and radishes and have seen benefits. Sparks believes cover crops will continue to play an important role in holding the soil together, particularly as the area gets more and more rainfall every year.

“Success with cover crops all depends on the year you get. The key around here is to try to get the cover crops in early.

“We were hoping to see great benefits out of the tillage radishes in some of our mineral organic soils, but the problem was the years we’ve done it, it was so wet the tillage radish actually grew more on top of the ground than in the ground. It didn’t quite do what we were hoping for it to do,” he says.

Jeff Sparks and his wife Erica have two sons, Landen, 12, and Dustin, 10. James Cutrell has worked for the family for more than 20 years and the Sparkses hire part-time workers at planting and harvest.

“Landon and Dustin are at the age now where they can help us get things done. Hopefully, the opportunity to farm will be there if that’s what they want to do, but I’m not going to push them one way or the other,” Sparks says.

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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