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A time to do things right: Virginia-Carolina winner stickler for detail

There's a time for everything on Jamie Lee's farm: A time for weed control, a time to irrigate, a time to dig and a time to rest. Doing things at the right time pays off, says the 32-year-old peanut farmer from Courtland, Va. Most important of all, there's time to do things right.

Lee is the 2002 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Winner from the Virginia-Carolina area. He averaged 4,925 pounds per acre on 268 acres last season.

On his Flaggy Run Farms he pays attention to the needs of his crop and the needs of his family.

“We don't farm by the calendar,” Lee says. “We farm in a timely manner and try to pay attention to details.”

At the end of a long week, he finds time to put away the implements on Sunday.

“It may sound silly, but I think the key to our success is we don't work on Sundays,” Lee says. “I think the Lord blesses that. It's very important to give him all the credit for the crops.”

He and his wife, Sherry, have 3-year-old twins, Miranda and James V, and are expecting a third child, coincidentally at about the same time of the Southern Peanut Growers Federation meeting in Panama City, Fla.

Out in the field, Lee does his part to set the stage for the success.

For example, he puts a lot of stock in timing of herbicide applications. He'll wait until the weather forecast calls for rain before applying the herbicide. Or he'll activate the herbicide with the irrigation that covers half of his 260 acres of peanuts.

“We try to keep our crops clean.”

Because he produces a seed crop, Lee makes certain that the necessary nutrients are available. Instead of broadcasting landplaster, he applies it in an 18-inch band over the row. “It's time-consuming,” he says, “but banding puts it where it's needed. I'll admit that it would be faster to broadcast the landplaster, but banding has worked for us.”

He splits his crop between NC-V 11 and Va. 98-R. Last year, he also grew 10 acres of Perry, the new Virginia-type variety release from North Carolina State University.

On irrigated land, peanuts follow two years of corn. On non-irrigated land, peanuts are on a three-year rotation with corn, wheat and soybeans. He uses a cover crop of wheat, which he turns in the spring. Following corn with peanuts adds organic matter to the soil.

Timing of irrigation has led to better use of water and increased yields. Three years ago, he called Jim Davidson of the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., and began using Ex-Nut. The computer program helps farmers determine when their crop needs irrigation. The program is now known as Irrigator Pro and is licensed through the Peanut Foundation.

Irrigation scheduling has been a learning experience for Lee. He's found “you can put water out at the wrong time and stir up Sclerotinia blight. If you put on the water too early, it can lead to excessive vine growth.”

With Irrigator Pro, he plugs the temperature, soil temperature, moisture, the last rain date, as well as other parameters, into the computer model. The model then recommends when the peanut crop needs irrigating. The farmer is required to gather the data for the irrigation program.

“I've learned a lot by looking at what Ex-Nut is trying to tell me about soil temperatures,” Lee says. “I try to stick to its recommendations.”

He also installed drainage ditches on his 1,000-acre farm to recapture water in an irrigation pond. He and his father, a highway and earth-moving contractor, built the ditches to capture rainwater and runoff and use it later for irrigation.

At harvest, Lee takes a hands-on approach as well. “You can hurt yourself by digging too early, just like you can cut yields by waiting too late,” he says.

Again, he goes back to placing “a lot of emphasis on doing things in the right time,” he says. “You need to look at each field on a specific basis and be very accurate about when you put a digger through the field.”

Prior to harvest, Lee pulls up plants from various points in a field, checking for mature hulls. He even goes a step farther, digging a few rows — and checking for maturity — before finally turning his Amadas combine loose in the field.

The attention to detail doesn't stop when the peanuts are in the wagon, however. In the past years, with a contract for seed production, he's learned to cure peanuts slowly. “The shellers are paying for quality in seed, so I use less heat and more air,” Lee says. He dries the peanuts at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Asked about cutting costs, Lee is quick to point out that there's a fine line between cutting legitimate costs and cutting flesh. He's trimmed the items from his inputs that were costing him money.

He says he can't afford to cut out insecticides, fungicides or herbicides. For example, cutting out Temik for two or three years “came back to bite me in 2000.”

“Between the tomato spotted wilt virus and the web blotch, my yields were down to 3,600 pounds,” Lee says.

On the disease front, he follows the leafspot advisory and the corn rootworm index. He saves trips over the field by including boron with the fungicide application.

Based on soil tests, the peanut crop doesn't need fertilizer, Lee says. “We may add a little for insurance if we feel like there may be a problem.”

Lee believes what he does in the field influences the crop he'll make at harvest. What happened this planting season, however, revolved around influences in the political field and the new farm bill.

At a time when he would be fumigating peanut land, Lee was at a loss over what to do. “We tried to wait until the last minute to do any fumigating this season,” he says, thinking the program would remain the same through 2002. He kept in touch with his congressman's ag aide and Dell Cotton, manager of the Peanut Growers Cooperative Marketing Association, “people in the know.”

He started fumigating and bedding April 20, only to disk up some acres, eventually planting some in soybeans. All totaled, he cut back peanut production by 30 percent for this year.

“With this new program, I was scared not to plant anything because if this program is a big flop, like we think it's going to be, and I didn't plant any peanuts, then I might have a zero base if we changed to a new program a couple of years down the road,” Lee says.

He's taking a wait-and-see approach to the first year under a new program. He has yet to receive a contract, but will continue to produce a quality crop.

“I try to see it from the side of the farmer, as well as the sheller,” Lee says. “I don't see any reason to sign a contract if one came out right now. If they were going to do something for us, then they should have done it while we were trying to make our decisions.”

He's looking at the situation of growing fewer acres and getting a good price based on quality.

In these changing times in the peanut industry, Lee sees his future in doing things at the right time: The right timing for crop protection, the right timing for irrigation, the right timing for harvest — and above all else, taking the time to rest on Sunday and spend time with his family.

“My granddaddy taught me a saying: ‘If a task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. Be a laborer great or small, do it well or not at all.’”

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