A Commitment to Learning

“My brother, cousin and I are all close in age. When we all wanted to return to the farm around the same time to work full-time, there wasn’t enough for all of us to do and remain profitable, so we had to diversify our offerings about ten years ago,” McDaniel says. “We now all have our own areas and roles that we focus on and that bring different revenue streams to the business.”

The diversification process started with organic tobacco, which enabled Billy to come back to the farm. What started as a need for diversification has led to a thriving operation.

“We first worked to transition the farm into organic production for several crops, including tobacco and then sweet potatoes, soybeans and cucumbers, because it paid higher premiums than the traditionally grown crops,” he says. “Right now, the tobacco industry is in a downslope, so as the industry has shifted, we have to pay attention to that and so we more recently started diversifying with growing produce as well. Major commodities are struggling right now with international trade issues, so it has been nice to keep our business a little more local with produce, on top of the global commodities that were growing before. Here in North Carolina, you can grow anything. The butternut squash I grow isn’t going overseas, it’s staying in the state, which has been beneficial for our business.”

Pivoting and trying new things every few years can lead to a steep learning curve. “Learning is expensive in farming,” says McDaniel, who has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from North Carolina State University with a concentration in crop production. “Farming has changed a lot in the last 50 years and even in the last 15 years. It’s constantly getting better with the chemistries and tools we use, and we’re trying to get it right.”
As he seeks to enhance the sustainability of his operation, McDaniel leans on resources like university extension services as well as his local Valent U.S.A. rep to talk about the latest crop protection technology and how to enhance his crop management program.  Recently, McDaniel has been involved in professional programs that have helped him develop business management skills as well. McDaniel is a member of the Nash County Young Farmers and Ranchers, has participated in an Executive Farm Management program from North Carolina State, and completed a two-year leadership program through the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund. “It’s one thing that has made a huge difference,” he says of the leadership program. “My brother did it also and I saw how it changed the decisions he was making on the operation.”

Sustainability and Profitability Balance

Using those skills and knowledge, McDaniel and his family have made a commitment to sustainability on their farm for both the long-term viability of the farmland for his family and also for the soil and yield benefits he has already seen. He says practices like no-till and strip-till, GPS, soil sampling and using variable rate technology have all become second nature to the operation because of their ease of implementation and efficacy.

McDaniel says it’s a continual process to strike a balance between innovation and profitability. “When I think about sustainability I think about profitability. It’s gotten to where the things we do have to be profitable,” he says.

One new effort has been put a cover crop on every acre of the farm over the past two years. “It cost us up front, but we have seen it made up on the back end,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest things we do for sustainability and it helps with everything.”

McDaniel says that choosing the right cover crops can help two-fold, with overall sustainability for long-term plant and soil health and with individual needs he identifies on his fields. For example, they plant black oats, which are beneficial for nematode suppression and radishes which break up the hard pan and get air down in the soil. He says when they plant into cover crops and things get hot and dry around July, they can tell a major difference in plant health year after year.

“We are always looking for new things to try on our farm be it new crops, new technology or ways of doing things. If you aren’t looking to the future and thinking outside of the box, I don’t think you are going to make it in agriculture. Don’t they say that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting new results is the definition of insanity?”

When it comes to taking the next step, McDaniel and his family have the right outlook. Innovation is necessary to make the sixth-generation farm successful, but along with that comes a realistic approach, continuous education and teamwork to keep the operation thriving for generations to come.

Farming has changed a lot in the last 50 years and even in the last 15 years. It’s constantly getting better with the chemistries and tools we use, and we’re trying to get it right.
Billy McDaniel North Carolina farmer