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Cutting-edge tech surfing

“Ray Boswell is always trying new things,” says Johnston County Extension agent Tim Britton. “He doesn’t try any and everything, but he is constantly on the lookout for the best new things to try. He keeps what works.”

“Yes, we often switch crop varieties, for example, trying different ones,” Boswell says. “We try new chemicals in our efforts to get rid of resistant weeds. I always say if you don’t change things up, if you don’t try some different things, you’re going to just get stuck in a rut. I think you always need to be looking around to learn how you can make your farming better.”

Boswell, who farms outside of Selma, N.C., raises 270 acres of tobacco, 1,100 acres of soybeans and 250 acres of corn. “We are going to grow about 60 acres of sweet potatoes this year,” he says, “just to see how they work out for us.”

Key Points

Grower Ray Boswell tries new things to find the best of what’s out there.

He will grow sweet potatoes for the first time this year, and may try sorghum.

Boswell stays on top of equipment technology, too.


He has also been considering raising some sorghum, having been interested in that crop by livestock contracting operations like Murphy-Brown LLC, which is having farmers produce sorghum to offset some of the high-priced corn feed it needs in its operations. The word is, that company and others will eventually want up to half a million acres of sorghum to be grown in North Carolina. Boswell says he decided against growing sorghum for the time being, however, since it has to be harvested green in North Carolina.

Growers in the northern Midwest, where a great deal of sorghum is grown, get along with the help of a climate that often produces a timely killing frost, naturally drying the grain. Growers in North Carolina, on the other hand, typically need to get the sorghum to a dryer in a timely way. But Boswell says available drying facilities are too far away from his farm to be convenient for him.

Neither does Boswell have the trucking equipment to get the sorghum to a dryer in a timely fashion, and he’s not interested in buying one. He’s considered purchasing a dryer himself but hasn’t decided to “bite that bullet, yet.” In the meantime, he’s set the idea of raising sorghum on a back burner, where it is still simmering. Perhaps, someone will build a drying facility closer to his farm, he says. Or perhaps he’ll break down and buy a dryer himself.

Besides, sweet potatoes seem to be on his mind at the moment. This is a big crop in North Carolina right now.

“Of course, the sweet potato market is currently flooded, but in years past they’ve run out of sweet potatoes,” Boswell says. “I think the market is there. There is a big overseas European market. The man I’m going to sell my sweet potatoes to sells primarily here in the States — up north in New York and New Jersey. He’s got a place in Canada, too.”

The sweet potato market does seem to be on the upswing. Many steakhouses are serving sweet potatoes — maybe not as often as white baking potatoes, but nearly so. Some fast-food operations are serving sweet potato fries, and there are expanding selections of snack foods, including sweet potato chips.

Still, that was not the primary reason Boswell decided to grow them.

“I was just looking for a way to diversify,” he says. “You always hope that the market will stay good, and I believe it will. Once tobacco went overseas, its market strengthened — and hopefully, sweet potatoes will do the same thing.

“It is a healthier vegetable for you,” he adds. “It is a health food. That is what a lot of foods are now, health foods. And I think that is a big promoter for the sweet potato.”

No-till skill

Boswell grows a lot of his crops with no-till practices and always has. A couple of years ago he started adding a new wrinkle: growing a cover crop on his cropland.

“We use oats mostly, and a little bit of rye, but I’m going to try to switch over to all rye,” he says. “Rye has a better root system and it seems to be a little better cover. I started using a cover primarily to smother resistant weeds out. In the past, we were having to spray twice before we even planted because of the weeds coming up. A cover crop keeps a good canopy out there and it holds the moisture better. I think it controls the weeds better all season long.”

And over a period of time it is good for the soil, too, he notes, putting nutrients back into the land. He says a cover crop gives the soil bioactivity, and there is a lot of earthworm activity. The cover takes his soil to a “mellow” state — softer, with more organic material, he explains.

“In a regular no-till situation where you just plant crops and just leave the residue out there, it might take 10 years to get it into that mellow state,” he says. “With a cover crop, you’ll get it there twice as fast.”

“I now try to put a cover crop on everything I’ve got, even my tobacco land,” Boswell adds. “I put a cover crop on it and spray a burndown. Then, I’ll turn it up and work that organic matter back into the soil.”

Going mobile

Boswell now uses Trimble GPS on his John Deere tractor, which gives him autoguidance built integrally into his steering.

“I can run my rows a little straighter and more regular,” he says. “It gets rid of a little of the fatigue of operating a tractor, and it is easier for any operator to run a tractor.”

He can use GPS when he is disking, planting, and anytime he is doing operations that require repeatedly precise rows.

“It is capable of doing yield monitoring, although I don’t have it set up for that at this point,” he says. “That is another step down the road. It is capable of doing variable rates for fertilizers and so on. It will control your planter and your sprayer, cutting different sections on and off in the field, as you come out to an end row, for example.

“We have to keep records for pesticides and so forth; I haven’t set it up yet to do this, but I have the software at home where it is capable of sending information back to my computer in my home office. I can log it into that system up there, and it will automatically send that for me to use there.”

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LOOK, NO HANDS: With GPS guidance steering his tractor, Ray Boswell can confidently take his hands off the steering wheel and know the tractor will stay true to the rows. Without having to concentrate so hard on keeping rows straight, driving the tractor is not as tiring for the operator as it used to be. The precision rows can save money on application of inputs.

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CONSERVATION-MINDED: Boswell is working with conservation techniques such as no-till to improve his soil.

This article published in the May, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.