RALEIGH, N.C. — “I’ve never had a paycheck off this farm,” Jay Sullivan of Sullivan Farms said thoughtfully. “I guess I was born to it.” He and his son Jarman are the third and fourth generations to farm in their family’s Sampson County, North Carolina, land.
“From a very early age, we were expected to take part. When I was young, I remember riding the combine with Daddy and going to tobacco sales,” Jay Sullivan reminisced. “He taught us a love for agricultural Extension. If you had a question on the farm, we knew where to go to get it answered.”
Jay Sullivan’s now-adult son Jarman followed right along. “Jarman was always our shadow. People don’t believe me, but I remember taking him to tobacco sales when I had to pack a diaper bag and a bottle.”
Farming was (and continues to be) immersion education on the Sullivan farm. Jarman Sullivan now takes his own young children to scout fields.
Partners In Research
Today the father-son duo tends over 800 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans with just the two of them. “We’re the whole row crop workforce,” Jay Sullivan said. “We’re it.” In addition to their row crops, they also manage a contract-swine operation for Prestage Farms.
They are able to manage at this scale because of an intense focus on farm efficiency and crop variety research.
“The Sullivans are always open to working with Extension on research projects,” said Sampson County Extension Agent Hunter Rhodes, “We’ve found that while farmers appreciate university research results, they really want to see results on their land, how it relates to their farm.”
The Sullivans are eager Extension research participants, They have hosted corn OVT plots for five years and other crop research on their land for more than 10 years. They have also partnered with Extension for research on early yield monitors and fungicide trials. This year’s Extension soybean trials on the Sullivan’s farm will top 200 varieties and up to 100 corn varieties. It’s work that benefits them as well as other growers across the state.
“Everything is an experiment,” Jarman Sullivan said. “We’re always trying new products and hybrids. We are always learning, dialing in, and looking back to the bottom line. You’ve got to know how any changes you make impact profit.”
Serving the State
The Sullivans are also active commodity board members. Jay Sullivan serves with the North Carolina Corn Growers Association, and Jarman with the NC Soybean Growers Association. “Serving on these boards benefits agriculture across the whole state, not just us,” Jay Sullivan said.
Their volunteerism conveys a ‘we’re in it together’ commitment. “Working with our commodity groups allows us to help direct grower-funded crop research. It benefits us all,” Jay Sullivan said. “NC is unique in that we have four to five different climates. Even if something doesn’t work for us, it might help someone else.”
Vigilance Tops Technology
Is technology making farming easier? The Sullivans are cautious adopters.
“I don’t know if technology ever makes things easier. We just seem to add more on,” Jarman Sullivan laughed. “Seriously, we gather as much data from variety trials as we can and keep good records. We need to evaluate trial results to see if there really is a benefit of a new variety and if so, how long the effects will last. The most important question is ‘Will it give us a return every year?”
Jay Sullivan credits Extension with keeping them abreast of research trends. And he admits to scrutinizing new retail products. “Sometimes people buy because of novelty or convenience,” he said. “But there’s an African proverb that says there’s no need to replace something unless you can replace it with something of value. That’s what we’re looking for – value.”
It’s good to work hard, but better to work smart.
Many innovations make great promises, but the Sullivans demand tangible benefits. As a two-man team on substantial acreage, it’s what keeps them efficient and effective. “My Daddy taught me that it’s good to work hard, but better to work smart,” Jay Sullivan said.
Jarman Sullivan credits his NC State agronomy degree with providing a broad perspective on agricultural practices. “Watching changes in the industry helps us test different things on the farm and determine the profitability of what we are doing. Most of the time, profit is in the details. That is what separates folks sometimes – paying attention to the details and learning how to manage them.”
Outlook on Agriculture
The Sullivans think the industry looks promising right now. “There’s no other industry in the world that has the same impact as agriculture,” Jay Sullivan said. “We all need to eat.”
But much of the public is farther removed from the farm than ever before. The Sullivans feel the challenge to educate the public and combat agricultural misperceptions.
“I heard a good quote that most people trust farmers but not ‘agriculture’,” Jarman Sullivan said. “When it’s abundant, food becomes a second thought. But there seems to be a renewed interest in farms now. We need to get the word out on why, and we do things to help people understand.”
Jay Sullivan thinks the occasionally-empty store shelves of the COVID-19 pandemic unnerved people and reminded them of the importance of a local food supply.
“Jarman likes to say that we live in the breadbasket of North Carolina because of the diversity of the crops we grow. People don’t realize how fortunate we are in this state,” Jay Sullivan said.
Farming’s Support System
“Farmers are very research-oriented,” Jay Sullivan said. “Most people don’t know that; they don’t realize it’s not just us. We have an enormous support system from the land grant universities and Extension across the country.”
As one of the Sullivans’ speed-dial-ready resources, Hunter Rhodes underscored the mutually beneficial relationship between growers and Extension. “Research data shows how one bad variety choice can affect a grower. We want to work alongside them, to help them fix issues before they take root, and save them money in the long run,” Rhodes said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The Sullivans are ready recipients of expertise that helps to hone their farming practice.
“We use the agronomic and economic Extension advisors – we’ll take all we can get. At the end of the day, applying that knowledge is what pays off for us – in more than just dollars and cents,” Jay Sullivan said. “And I think we have the best Extension support system in the nation right here in North Carolina.”
–Jennifer Howard, N.C. State University