A large strip-till rig tractor rumbled over a 50-acre field in Isle of Wight County Wednesday afternoon.
Farmer Rex Alphin watched as it combed over rows of soil, tilling, fertilizing and finally planting seeds 2 inches under the surface. Most farmers in the county will begin planting their corn next week, when weather forecasts predict temperatures in the high 60s. Alphin needs to plant about 1,100 acres of corn this season, and time is of the essence.
"We might be the first ones in Isle of Wight County planting corn," Alphin said as his 6-year-old grandson, Milo Lewis, investigated the freshly planted seeds behind him. "We've just got so far to go, and when the weather gets right, we got to roll."
For Alphin, who is also chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, once the first planting begins, there is no stopping. He will likely plant his corn, peanuts and cotton all by May 15.
"Once you put your first seed in the ground, everything changes," Alphin said. "The pressure is on."
Isle of Wight County farmers planted 12,000 acres of corn last year, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. The past couple of years in the county were good for corn, according to Marc Hathaway, grain merchandiser for Scoular in Windsor, which manages supply chain risk for customers in food, feed and renewable fuel markets. The county exceeded average yields in corn the past two years, he said.
The main challenge this year for Isle of Wight corn farmers is a dropping price in grain, he said.
"The biggest issue (Isle of Wight farmers) are going to face in the coming year is depressed grain prices, with global stocks putting pressure on the Chicago Board of Trade," Hathaway said.
Still, farmers in the area seem to be staying the course with their corn acreage, not deviating much higher or lower than last year, he said. Janet Spencer, an agricultural extension agent for the county, said farmers in the county aren't facing any dire weather conditions, although the soil is a bit dry for the time of year.
Hathaway and Spencer said if the warm weather forecasts hold, farmers will likely be planting corn next week.
Pete Edwards, who lives off Central Hill Road, said he will be one of these farmers — "most likely. If the warmer weather holds. And the long-range forecasts looks pretty good."
Edwards isn't particularly excited about this year's corn season because of the low prices, he said. But planting will begin nonetheless. He will take special care during July, when the vegetable is at its most vulnerable, and any type of weather disruption can permanently damage the crop, he said.
To Alphin, who's been farming for four decades, each year is a clean slate. Besides, he said, the uncertainty of farming is part of its charm.
"There's something about a vocation where most of it is not in the hands of men," Alphin said. "You seem connected to a power outside yourself."
Smith can be reached by phone at 757-510-1663.