Like many Virginians, the Sawyer family of Virginia Beach has a long commute to and from work every day. But unlike those who make their way to offices in Washington, D.C., or Richmond, the Sawyers make the hour drive both ways to manage their highly productive farm 50 miles south of Virginia Beach near Elizabeth City, N.C.
The time spent commuting has certainly paid off. The Sawyers are top producers of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and continue to stay on top of innovation to succeed. They say their farm near Elizabeth City with its good soil and productive land makes the commute worthwhile.
“All of our wives work in Virginia Beach where we originally farmed, so we drive back and forth every day,” says Steve Sawyer, who farms in partnership with his dad Bill and his brothers Mike and John.
“Our grandfather sold our home farm in the 1984/85 season where the Virginia Beach National Golf Club is. We then bought land down here. We’ve been farming here since 1985,” Steve says.
For a while, after selling the home farm, the family operated both in North Carolina and on rented ground near Virginia Beach. But in Virginia, the farms were spread out, which made hauling equipment back and forth a challenge. In North Carolina it was easier, because all 1,500 acres of the family’s farm is contiguous.
“Sure, we lose two hours driving back and forth every day, but we can get more done because once we are here, we are here. We don’t have to transport equipment and move from farm to farm, “Steve explains.
The family is blessed to farm excellent land in northeastern North Carolina in an area that was once part of the Great Dismal Swamp, a large swamp between Norfolk, Va. and Elizabeth City. The soils on the Sawyer farm are all silty loam with high organic matter. Steve says it makes for good cotton ground.
“When we came down here to farm, we had to learn how to do it all over again, because the soils are so different than the mineral soils we farmed back home. The chemicals we used in Virginia wouldn’t work here because of the high organic matter. And with the land being so different, it takes different equipment to work it,” he adds.
On their farm, the Sawyers try to use strip-till and minimum-till, but they will work the ground if needed. Last year, because of all the rain, they did till a small portion of their 1,500 acres. Good soil combined with good management returned dividends in the yield department.
The Sawyers use a team approach in their operation. Father Bill, at age 80, is still actively involved. He is the combine operator at harvest. Mike runs the cotton picker while Steve handles planting and manages the Climate FieldView digital ag platform they now use on their farm. John runs the sprayer and Mike keeps the books and manages variety selection and input selection. Mike is also in charge of the cotton crop.
“We divide things up on what our strengths are. My background is in ag mechanics and John and I do a lot of the mechanical work. For everything else we put our heads together,” Steve says.
Their system works. They set a yield goal which they were able to meet last year of averaging 200-bushel corn, three-bale cotton, 60-bushel soybeans and 80-bushel wheat. “We think these goals are reasonable,” Steve says.
For cotton, the family likes to stay at 500 acres. “Over our 20-year average, nothing has done better for us than cotton,” Steve adds.
They like 250 acres of corn, about 500 acres of soybeans and 300 acres in wheat. Steve says the main purpose of wheat is to give the farm cash flow at the beginning of summer. “We used to think 60-bushel wheat was really good. Now, we are shooting for 80 bushels,” Steve says.
For the second year now of on-farm research, the Sawyers are using FieldView to improve their efficiency and accurately monitor all of their planting and harvest data for their DEKALB corn, Asgrow soybeans and Deltapine cotton. Steve says FieldView is vital for determining seeding rates to help maximize profitability. It’s also a helpful tool in variety selection because it accurately monitors how each variety performs on every acre.
The FieldView Drive, a Bluetooth device that seamlessly streams data from the cab to the cloud, is attached to their planter and combine so the family can track seeding rate and monitor other data at planting and harvest on an iPad in the cab. The data can also load to their phones and laptop computers.
Austin Winslow, an agronomic research manager with Bayer, works with the Sawyer family on varietal test plots on their farm. He worked with them to implement FieldView on their farm, so they could better monitor seeding rates and yields. FieldView allows them to evaluate and monitor every portion of each field.
“The main thing it does is it takes away the guesswork. At the end of the year when you are running your combine with the yield monitor, you can track how each variety performs. There isn’t an opportunity to mis-remember or forget. Once it’s captured, it’s there. That will lead to sound decision-making in the off-season,” Winslow explains.
The Sawyers’ DEKALB, Asgrow and Deltapine district sales manager, Glenn Rountree, has also been closely involved with Winslow in the on-farm research program.
This year, the Sawyers are using FieldView to upload planting prescriptions for cotton, corn and soybeans across the farm. The prescriptions are generated from the FieldView website and all of the data can be saved on the web or on the cloud.
“We now know our true yield potential. We can see the yield potential of good spots and accurately plant the right population of seed. There are four zones of different populations going down the field. When the zone changes, FieldView automatically changes our seeding rate,” Steve says.
Last year, the family adjusted seeding rates, which lowered their costs.
In soybeans, they lowered their planting population to 85,000 plants per acre. “Before, we tried to seed 95,000 plants per acre and we were getting too much rank growth. With beans, you have to make sure light gets into the canopy or you won’t make the yield,” Steve says.
“We were able to achieve good yields and were able to lower our seed costs by $10,000 in soybeans. My goal is to raise our average per acre yield and reduce our input costs,” he adds.
The family lowered their plant populations on cotton but actually raised the population on corn. The family used to plant 50,000 seeds per acre for cotton, but through FieldView, they reduced that to 42,000 seeds per acre. For corn, they raised the seeding rate to 30,000 seeds per acre from 29,000. Steve notes that yields were even higher at seeding rates above 30,000, but the advantage wasn’t high enough to pay for the additional seed.
For cotton, the family plants on 36-inch rows. For soybeans and corn, they use 18-inch rows.
“We now know the ideal plant populations for all of our crops on all of our farm. We can’t get any better research data than from our own farm,” Steve says.
Like all farmers across the Southeast, weeds and insects are an ongoing challenge for the Sawyer family. Fortunately, Palmer amaranth isn’t a big problem because they are able to control it with rotations, strip-tillage and the use of Cotoran on cotton and atrazine on corn. In their area, though, Roundup-resistant ragweed is a menace, but they are able to keep it under control with timely sprays.
Plant bugs, on the other hand, are a real headache. “Last year, we sprayed six times for plant bugs in cotton. Pretty much the whole month of July, we had to spray,” Steve says.
Thrips are an ongoing challenge for cotton in northeastern North Carolina and the Sawyers rely on an in-furrow liquid system for control.
For corn, stink bugs are a pest. The family sprays once or twice a season for stink bugs and sometimes more when the pressure is high. “Where the stink bugs hit the corn and we didn’t spray, our yields were 135 bushels per acre. Where we sprayed, our yields were 200 bushels per acre,” Steve says.
Bill bugs are also a problem in corn, but Steve says seed treatments offer good control.
One thing is certain: The Sawyer brothers are big believers in hiring professional scouts, especially for cotton. This year, they are also hiring scouts to check for pests in their soybeans.
Tidewater Agronomics, which is run by Stanley Winslow, Austin’s father, does all of the scouting for the Sawyer family. Steve says the Tidewater scouts are an integral part of the team.
“It takes quite a few people to properly scout a cotton field. If we didn’t use scouts, we wouldn’t be getting any of our other work done because we would have to scout so it actually makes us money,” Steve says.
Through it all, the family is committed to keep farming in North Carolina. This system has worked for them and they plan to continue to turn to innovation to succeed. Additionally, Steve says sharing what they have learned with other farmers while also learning from their neighbors is also important.
“We really need to help each other out to do well in this business,” he says.