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Farming Doesn’t Stop for Holidays

Memorial Day was this week. Many people in North Carolina traveled to the beach or the mountains for a long weekend.

We headed to the field.

One thing I have learned since marrying a farmer is that farming doesn’t always stop for the holidays.

I have to say, having not grown up on a farm, I didn’t realize crop farmers often worked on holidays.  I thought they planted the crop, then came back several months later and harvested it.  

I didn’t realize how much work went into raising a crop.

I didn’t realize how important timing is to growing a crop.

It seems obvious to me that if we had livestock, we wouldn’t take the holidays off. Someone would need to check on the animals 365 days per year.  

Now I know crop farmers don’t always take holidays off either.  

It’s been a cold, wet winter and spring here in North Carolina. March temperatures were colder than in February. It rained every week and we even had a dusting of snow at the farm, which is not usual weather for the eastern part of our state.  

What did this cooler, wet weather mean for farmers? It meant the to-do list grew and the window to finish it shrunk.

We needed to start bedding land, building it up into rows that would eventually grow tobacco and sweet potatoes. When we bed land, we fumigate for nematodes at the same time. Fumigation is one part of our pest-control program. Other aspects of our program include crop rotation, planting resistant varieties, and sampling to monitor nematode population levels.

Nematodes are microscopic insects that attack the roots of many plants, including tobacco and sweet potatoes. Damage to sweet potatoes, which are the edible roots of the plant, isn’t seen until harvest.  

Depending on which nematicide, a pesticide that targets nematodes, we use, the soil temperature (as opposed to air temperature) has to be a minimum temperature, otherwise the fumigant won’t be effective. After fumigation, we are required to wait at least 10 days before transplanting. Different nematicides will have different requirements.

The rain kept us from bedding land when we normally would. Tobacco and sweet potato plants growing in the greenhouse had to be mowed almost daily or they would grow to large to transplant. 

In a typical year, we will start transplanting tobacco in mid-April and sweet potatoes in early May.  Crops need a certain amount of time, 90 to 120 days in the case of sweet potatoes, to grow before harvest. We want to start digging in late August and need to be finished before the first frost, which is usually in early November, because frost will damage sweet potatoes.

Our seed potatoes in the field are about three weeks behind because it was so cold when they were rolled out. These sweet potatoes will produce the sprouts we will transplant and eventually harvest this year’s crop from. As a result we will be later transplanting most of our sweet potatoes. 

Corn germinated late this year, because the soil temperature was so cold. Some corn didn’t germinate at all because the seed rotted in the ground after so much rain. This meant we had to go back into some fields and replant corn a second time. 

We stopped planting soybeans in order to focus on tobacco and now that all our tobacco is set, we can’t get in the field to plant beans. 

Normally by this time of year, all our tobacco has been plowed at least twice, and some three times.  Plowing the rows not only helps control weeds, but also works the fertilizer we’ve put out into the soil and gets air to the plant’s roots. We only have a short window to plow it before the plants get too big and would be damaged by plowing. 

When Mother Nature keeps us out of the field, farmers have no choice but to work when weather permits.  

I took the photo above of my husband working on Easter Sunday. We aren’t alone. Tractors across the county ran as many of our neighbors also missed Easter lunch to get fields ready for planting. On Mother’s Day, my farmer managed to get away long enough for a quick dinner out.

Memorial Day weekend – the traditional kickoff for summer – was spent in the field. The forecast was calling for three straight days of rain starting on Memorial Day, so farms worked overtime to get fieldwork done while they could.

Many of our Memorial Days have been spent in the combine picking wheat. This year, we haven’t picked the first grain head.  The wheat hasn’t matured yet because of the cold, wet weather.  

Farming isn’t easy, and I’ve learned we are often at the mercy of Mother Nature. Timing is critical so when tractors can get in the field during the season, it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, or what holiday or celebration is going on. 

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