John Gross checks out the tobacco

John Gross checks out the tobacco at his farm. Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto/Farm Flavor Media

Farmer John Gross remembers some poor conservation practices 30 years ago that left gullies in neighboring farmers’ fields, sometimes deep enough to meet his eyeballs.

John saw then the consequences that continue to motivate his conservation practices now. More than ever before, the Gross family taps opportunities to conserve soil, water and nutrient resources on their farm, from time-tested grass waterways to precision placement of fertilizers using global- positioning satellites.

“We’ve always had the mentality that if we don’t look after the land, it’s not going to look after us,” says John, who owns and operates Gross Farms with his wife Tina and their family. “We’ve been putting in terraces, waterways and diversions, and all types of conservation practices since I started farming with my dad back in the mid-1980s.”

In recognition of the family’s efforts, Gross Farms won the distinction of North Carolina Outstanding Conservation Farm Family of the Year in 2016 for their extensive and lengthy history of conservation practices. The family grows 1,700 acres of conventional and organic tobacco, soybeans and small grains in central North Carolina. They also manage 150 acres of forestry and grow 25 acres of produce, including pumpkins and strawberries. Their produce and annual corn maze draw hundreds for memorable on-farm experiences that provide opportunities to learn about modern agriculture, including their farm’s conservation approach.

“We’re big on agriculture education here,” Tina says. “You have opportunities to educate and that’s when you realize that the general public really does not understand how agriculture impacts their life every day.”

Gross Family

John and Tina Gross and their children Cody, Colton, Kassidy and Makayla run Gross Family Farms in Sanford, N.C. Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto/Farm Flavor Media

Leaders in Land Stewardship

In recent years, Gross Farms has installed various conservation land structures, including more than 6 acres of grassed waterways, 11,200 feet of terraces and 1,800 feet of diversions in Lee and Harnett counties. The family uses an alphabet soup of government cost- share or technical assistance programs, such as the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Programs, to help put these practices in place to protect soil and water resources while improving productivity of their farm.

In addition, the family practices conservation tillage, including high-tech strip-till. This method leaves most of the previous crop residue undisturbed to protect the soil and uses satellite technology to till, fertilize, and plant into the same strip of soil.

“We try to make the public aware of what’s going on with conservation practices and strip tillage and things like that,” John says. “When you tell them about it, they’re really surprised there is that much involved or that much goes into it.”

Farm visitors can see the grassy waterways and terraces that protect soil, the cover crops that hold soil nutrients, and even the food plots that benefit wildlife. But what they don’t see is the grid-soil sampling, or the soil tests taken with GPS across a field. With that information, John makes site- specific nutrient decisions to apply fertilizers at the right rate in the right place. The public also doesn’t see the automatic shut-offs on the sprayer, which use satellite guidance to turn off sections of the sprayer to prevent overlap and reduce pesticide use.

More research and improved technologies will continue to present his farm with conservation options. All the while, John and Tina instill in their kids the same desire to protect the land and the drive to do it.

“My sons didn’t see the erosion that I saw, but they understand how it works,” John says. “We just strive to leave the land in better shape than we found it.”

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