By Mike Floyd, Caswell Messenger

Any time there is historical significance connected to a pending feature story, I’m all over it. There is so much history in Caswell County to discover, all you have to do is slow down and pay attention.

For instance: A story about local agri-business seemed simple enough until I went out and interviewed the “crew” working at 11 Hodges Dairy Rd., Yanceyville, last week.

“This house was built in 1846 by the Watlington’s and they were distant relatives,” began Kin Watlington, Piedmont Community College’s Agribusiness Coordinator. He was speaking from the backyard of the Wilson-Watlington Farm located right OFF 158 W going out of town to Reidsville.

“I was an ag teacher at Bartlett Yancey High School, and I left there to the start the Agribusiness and Technology program at PCC. Everything with agriculture and being an FFA advisor was hands-on experience, so we had to have a place to work,” explained Watlington in the shade of a giant oak tree.

“We have this farm that the students can come out and work. The main focus here is small vegetables and flowers on a small scale. There’s another farm on Hatchett Rd., right across from Dillard Middle School, and that’s more on a large scale, where the students learn to grow things like sweet potatoes, where we do a service-learning project. We have corn out there and soybeans.

We plant soybeans as a ‘trap-crop’ because of the deer-pressure being so heavy (trap-crop diverts attention away from main crop).”

He continued, “The main focus is that we have a place for our students to work until CEAD (the Center for Educational and Agricultural Development) is ready at the site over in Pelham.

“Until it’s developed and functional, this farm provides the place as a ‘toe-in-the-water,’ and we can make our mistakes out here. Then, when we get ready to move to Pelham, we can say this works, and this didn’t work.

“This farm had been primarily a tobacco farm. The last person to live in the house was H.W. Wilson Watlington and he grew watermelons and cantaloupes.

“We’ve got a couple of flats of marigolds ready to plant over there and we’re also planting some late tomatoes, as a project. The greenhouses are things the students have built since coming out. There’s 14 acres here that we can work on. They’re pretty small classes, anywhere from five, six, seven students.”

Joe Jeffries has been out working on the land for two years in the PCC programs, as a student, and is paid for his chores.

“It’s so nice out here on the farm that it makes you want to work. I love it so much. Before I started out here, all I wanted to do was sit in the house and relax. But coming out here you can make money for your farming, sell your products and woooooooo, I just love the outside!”

Watlington said of Jeffries: ”He’s a graduate of Bartlett Yancey High School and he was taking welding classes, but wanted to continue on, so he started taking classes in our program. There are 13 courses in our total Associates Degree Program and one of them is work-based learning. The students have the opportunity to come out, work, and get paid for it. That’s what Joe has done out here,” explained Watlington.

You get your units, and you get paid to get them! Not too shabby, huh?

PCC instructor, Luke Bernard, teams with Watlington in the agribusiness projects: “They hired me on last summer to help out the program in instructing and maintaining everything. Horticulture is my specialty. I used to teach horticulture at Dan River Prison (which is a work farm) through PCC, then when Covid happened, they pulled us out. Kin needed some extra help on this site, so I came to work for this program.”

Bernard went on: “A lot of my thing is dealing with ‘how best to grow the plants,’ all the processes like fertilization and pest control. On this farm we don’t use any chemical or synthetic pesticides. We use biologicals or organic types of pesticides. Or flame! We burn ‘em! We basically have a flame-thrower, known as a weed torch and one benefit is the plants you burn leave trace amounts of carbon and potash behind to enrich the soil. We use environmentally friendly bacteria as a pesticide, too.

“One of the 13 courses here is soil science. One of the assignments is to come out here and take soil samples. Soil samples are free to anybody in the state of North Carolina from April all the way through November, give or take a few days. After the analysis, people can see what the state office in Raleigh recommends that their soil needs or doesn’t need for optimum growing,” added Watlington.

“If the farmer’s want to get the best out of their crops, or not waste material that they don’t really need, they should use this service. It will keep them from putting too much nitrogen down (if they don’t need it), or phosphorous or whatever it is. To get your ph right, it depends on how much lime you may need or not put down on your soil,” Bernard added.

“A lot of our clay soils here in North Carolina demand lime. In fact, we’re probably scheduled to do some liming this fall. Southern States can come out and run their truck over it or if we’re looking at amending small plots, we can buy the pelletized lime and apply it ourselves.

“Applying the lime piggy-backs onto one of our other courses which is business management and it’s basically all math.

“If you need 90 units of nitrogen, and you’re putting on 120, and if your ph is not right, then the nitrogen-phosphorous and potassium (fertilizer) will not work up until its full potential. In agriculture now, it’s tight budgets and you have to be an agribusiness person now. It’s not just being the farmer of 1846 and having only basic experience.

“We have four tunnels (plastic-covered greenhouses) here on the farm. Three standing and one on the ground. Those tunnels were bought by PCC and they’re pretty easy to move. We move them around and that helps students from the math side of it, squaring up and they’re easy to put up and down. It takes about a week to do it, but it teaches them those math skills that they will need like calculating what space yields what.

“We actually get a pretty good mix of students in our classes, not just children of farmers. We had an older student from Person County, a female, and we’ve got newly-graduated students and everything in-between: some have a farming background, some have no experience what-so-ever.

“I think what folks really need to know,” offered Watlington, “is we’ve got a lot of things to teach. We don’t know it all, but we’ve got two greenhouses at the high school (BY), and we’ve got six out here. We’ve got 70 acres on Hatchett Rd., and we’ve got 14 out here. For ag mechanics, we’ve got six varieties of tractors, we’ve got working drip irrigation that is pumped out of a pond and under the road over here. That goes back to Sustainable Ag, which is another course that we teach about conservation of water and our natural resources.

“What we would like to communicate is that we have a lot of things that we can teach to the student who wants to learn about agriculture. And we bring in our extension, we bring in our marketing-standpoint (most effective means), we bring in different folks that are experts like the health department. We try to bring in a lot of knowledge from the outside. I don’t think our story is being told enough out there of what we have to offer these students. “We’ve got production and plant science, sustainable ag and farm-business management (“all our fall courses”) in place. The things we will use to teach is the harvesting of the sweet potatoes, starting our fall crops and several programs Mr. Bernard has brought with him: the inoculation and production of Shitake mushrooms and his grafting with apple trees.

“In alternative-ag classes, we kind of show them oddities, things that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of like mushroom cultivation. We’ll cut either oak or sweet gum logs, inoculate them with Shitake mushroom mycelium (spawn) and show them how to grow mushrooms if they want to do that as a side business or as a whole business.

“We also show the students how to graft an apple tree with a pear tree. We’ll buy pear and apple root stock and then take cuttings off local apple trees. There’s a small orchard up the road here that we can get scion cuttings and we graft them on to start new trees.” Bernard added.

“All apple trees are grafted onto new root stock because they’ve been bred for hundreds of years, and the old roots are weak and disease prone. But you graft them to a disease-resistant root stock, and they’ll all come in. You can’t expect to plant apple seed and get the same type of tree. There’s too many different gene variations in that seed with too many mutations possible.

“There’s lots of apples that grow around here, but one that is resistant to cedar-apple rust is best and an apple like a Honey-Crisp does well.

“It all depends in what you’re trying to do: are you trying to dry them or make apple butter or are you trying to fry them? Its purpose is one of the things you have to consider. We found an apple tree in a local orchard, and I know we grafted some of it, but the tree broke in half.

“So, this fall, we’re going to do probably ten of those grafts before that tree dies. If you graft the scion right, and wrap it, it will heal together, and you’ve got a whole new tree that you’ve cloned.”

Watlington handed me a small pot with a scion successfully grafted onto obviously healthy root stock.

Apple genetics are very cool, and I never knew the organic honey crisps I buy at Food Lion all started out like this!

“You just make the cuts and line up the correct cambium tissues, secure and wrap them and it will heal together.

“That’s one thing I had thought on any course I taught: if you know where it came from, you know what’s been put on it, you know the effort it took to grow it, you’ll appreciate it more. It gives you an understanding,

“This fall will be our fourth fall. I’ll tell you what we did last Tuesday to promote the farm: we had an advisory committee get together, but it was more of a cookout. It was a time that fit our schedule and we did barbecue, green beans, corn and sweet potatoes, everything out of our fields.

“It was an opportunity for a lot of us, and not just the advisory committee, to re-connect. We had the Shumaker girls who do the flowers on County Home Rd. and we had Dr. Antoine Alston from A&T here.

“Speaking of Dr. Alston, we have an articulation agreement where the students finish their two-year PCC program, and those class credits will transfer to North Carolina A&T. Then, they have to go just two more years there and they’ll have a B.S. degree!

“Emmanuel “Manny” Martin is our first such student and he’s going to finish up in December, as he’s through with all my ag classes. He’s probably going to be the first student to take advantage of the A&T program. I can see him working with the state: state inspections, soil scientist, there are always Ag Extension agents needed across the state.

“There are federal jobs, working with the United States Department of Agriculture or NCDA, working out of State Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler’s office, there’s just so many openings we don’t have enough people to fill them. The state is pulling in new employees from all over the country, some from alternative careers like biology.

“It’s a fantastic time for graduating high school students, who want to come to our program at PCC; they get free tuition for two years if they attend as a graduating high school student.

“We’re right in the middle of registration, right now, so students can contact the campus. It’s not too late to sign up for our fall classes!” quoted Watlington.

After spending an enthusiastic hour with Kin, Joe and Luke, there is no doubt agribusiness can be a wonderful career for any high school student to consider and pursue.

For more information:  www.piedmontcc.edu  or call (336) 694-4013.

Photo by Mike Floyd: (L-R) Kin Watlington, Joe Jeffries and Luke Bernard taking a break from chores at the historic Wilson-Watlington House, where PCC agribusiness classes are taught.

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