NCDA&CS regional agronomists provide Eastern NC crop update

by | Feb 17, 2021

NCDA&CS agronomist Don Nicholson checks out a tray of tobacco seedlings ready for planting in this older photo.

Eastern North Carolina is home to many large farm operations and is critically important to our ag industry. If you look at our top 10 agricultural counties in farm cash receipts: Duplin, Sampson, Union, Wayne, Bladen, Robeson, Wilkes, Anson, Bertie and Pitt – all but three are in Eastern NC.

It goes without saying that field conditions are extremely wet right now, with more rain projected to be on the way.

Most of our agricultural research stations record and report weather data to the National Weather Service daily. The Tobacco Research Station in Oxford, which is north of Raleigh, reported 2020 as its wettest year ever recorded in the 100 years it’s been recording weather data.

So far, 2021 is shaping up to be a wet year, too. Last February a portion of Eastern NC was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. This year that is just not the case.

The NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division regional agronomists provide on-site consulting services to help growers. Region 7 agronomist Don Nicholson and Region 9 agronomist Brad Thompson provide an update on agriculture in Eastern North Carolina below.

Field crop report from Don Nicholson:


The conditions are such that there has been no tillage work done in preparation for tobacco land fumigation, although we are still a few weeks away from that time to become critical for keeping transplanting on time. Most growers along and east of U.S. 1 generally try to begin fumigation and bedding around the first to the middle of March to observe the waiting period for the fumigants. Most growers think that if the rain ceased right now that it will be at least two weeks before most fields could be tilled.

Tobacco greenhouses either have been sown or will be sown in the next week or so. It would be advantageous to have some sunny, “bluebird” days after seeding to foster adequate, even germination.

Wheat and Small Grains:

The timing for wheat and other small grains could not be much worse than right now with all the rain. Field conditions have been so saturated that almost zero nitrogen has been applied to the crop. The wheat that looks decent right now either had animal waste (chicken or turkey litter) or had 25-30 lbs. of nitrogen applied earlier, before the wet weather set in. Wheat that has had no additional nitrogen applied is looking pretty poor, with very few tillers at this stage of development.

Without enough tillers, I’m afraid that most late-planted wheat, and unfertilized wheat planted on time, has become cover crop that will not be worth the cost of fertilizing at this point. Some growers will opt to try with the idea that even if the crop does not respond favorably to the addition of nitrogen, then they will treat it as cover, terminate it and plant corn so that the nitrogen is not wasted. Conditions will have to improve greatly for any of our small grains to be successful.

Frost protecting strawberry plants

Horticultural Crop report from Brad Thompson:

The winter of 2020-21 has been favorable for many horticulture crops. The only factor that has had a negative impact is the rain. Rainfall has been above average which has depleted any nutritional resources left in the soil from the 2020 growing season.

Growers will be starting from zero regarding plant fertility once the 2021 growing season gets started and this has some growers on edge as they are already seeing nitrogen fertilizer and fuel prices increase. However, in terms of normal in a non-normal world, this winter has been more normal than the previous three in terms of temperature, which is very beneficial to the plant physiology of many horticulture crops.

Summary for each horticultural crop:

Strawberry – The strawberry crop was planted timely in the Fall of 2020, and most growers saw plenty of warmth to get the plants established and put on good growth before the plants shut down for the winter. As of right now, many growers have row covers pulled to protect the crop and add some insulation for heat. However, those who have plants under row covers will be pulling the row covers off during the next two to three weeks for plant clean up prior to the plant beginning to push out new vegetative growth and flower production. The area of concern for most growers this year, and honestly most years, will be disease pressure, especially if the weather continues to be wet and dreary. It is too early to tell how the crop will be overall, but overall plant growth looks good, and most growers are pleased with how their strawberry plants are looking right now.

Peach – The peach industry is looking for a rebound from 2020. Last year there were many growers that had an average crop, some others that had a below average crop, and then some with barely a crop at all. However, for 2021, the winter has been extremely favorable for the peach growers. January and February have so far been more normal in terms of temperatures which is beneficial for peaches. Peach trees are still dormant, and the growers are pleased with not having to start worrying so early about freeze events that will impact this year’s flower buds.

Blueberry – The blueberry crop is optimistically shaping up to be good for 2021. The abundance of rain did reduce berry quality in 2020 and some growers are a little concerned right now about their plants dealing with the amount of rain they have received, which has resulted in water standing in some fields. However, most growers have pruned their blueberry plants and the plants look good overall. It is too early to tell how the crop will fair, but as of right now, the growers are pleased with what they are seeing in the field. Blackberry and raspberry crops for 2021 are also looking to be good for now, too. The biggest concern for growers right now is if the weather does not change much going into the growing season.

Muscadine grapes– There is not much to report regarding muscadine production as of now. Most muscadine growers have finished or will be finishing up pruning within the next two weeks. The vine growth was good in 2020 and the plants seem to be healthy in dormancy. Many muscadine growers are hoping for another good year like 2020 in 2021. Production and sales increased in 2020, and more consumers are looking to purchase more muscadine grapes than they have in the past several years.

Greenhouse vegetables – Greenhouse tomato and pepper production in Region 9 has been slowed lately by the weather conditions we are experiencing; mainly lack of sunlight. Plants prior to this current weather trend were producing well and quality was very good. The growers are experiencing increased costs in fuel and electricity due to the cold weather and having to run heaters and fans more often. Disease pressure has been minimal and the only insects that have posed problems are spider mites. Otherwise, the crops are doing well for mid-February. According to the growers, marketability has not been a problem and consumer buying has stayed consistent. Overall, the crop at this point is in good shape and growers are beginning to shift their focus on growing transplants for spring planting.