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CB Virtual Diary, Atkinson

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Atkinson Farms, Accomack County

“If you don’t stop erosion and take care with spraying, it will affect the Bay. With new, low drift nozzles, we can be more precise with pesticide application and use fewer chemicals per acre. - John W. ("Will") Atkinson

September 1, 2011 ... Precision Agriculture for a Cleaner Bay

Like the soil he farms, Accomack County grain and vegetable producer Will Atkinson is soaking up the benefits of conservation practices as he seeks to build a more productive, Bay-friendly operation. The owner of Atkinson Farms, Inc., is the youngest person on the shore to serve as an agricultural sole proprietor and is committed to combining innovation with stewardship.

“I was 25 when my dad got sick, and we used to do everything together,” says Atkinson. “I’ve been reading and talking to people, and it’s been a learning game every day. If you go to 10 farmers, no one does it the same way. When you see the practices in place, you learn a lot more.”

Atkinson raises corn, grain, soybeans, and string beans on about 3,000 acres of owned and rented land in the Painter area. He also does some custom planting and cutting for other area producers. He works with Associated Farms and Coastal Commodities to market his grain, and most of his corn goes to local Tyson and Purdue poultry operations. The majority of the remaining crops stay in Virginia through brokerage arrangements with various grocery chains.

Atkinson first started working with NRCS when he applied for a pivot irrigation system under EQIP. Accomac District Conservationist Tina Jerome helped him develop a conservation plan to address resource concerns that included ground water, irrigation management and wildlife habitat.

“Most people on the shore have at least one pivot irrigation system,” says Atkinson. “On a dry year, it can make the difference between having a crop and not having one. We had two or three dry years where we would irrigate with a hard hose. You could water seven or eight acres during the night. With the pivot, you can cover 45 acres with better results, better yield, and more control. If you know the crops need a little more water, you can regulate it, saving lots of water and fuel.”

As Atkinson applies poultry litter to his fields to provide nitrogen for plant growth, his conservation plan also includes a nutrient management component under CBWI. A new storage shed will help him maintain the delicate balance needed for soil health by eliminating the need to store litter on the ground until he is ready to spread it.

“When you store litter in the field, it will blow away, even if you cover it,” explains Atkinson. “Rainwater will spread it no matter how careful you are, and the nitrogen is so concentrated that no crop will grow there.”

Through CSP, the young entrepreneur has also installed drift-reducing nozzles to better target pesticide and nutrient applications with larger droplets and lower pressure.

“If you don’t stop erosion and take care with spraying, it will affect the Bay,” says Atkinson. “With new, low drift nozzles, we can be more precise with pesticide application and use fewer chemicals per acre.

“Tina [Jerome] has really helped us out with program questions and researched what would work best for our land. I’ve moved into more no-till, and the practices in my conservation plan help me do more at a faster rate. I’ve ended up buying bigger equipment and working the fields myself. With an 8 to 16 row planter, I can cover 100 acres in one day.”

Atkinson participates in the Eastern Shore Soil & Water Conservation District’s “wheat for harvest” cover crop and no-till programs to help producers plant earlier and get a cover crop on the land. With no-till residue on the land, crops have better potential to survive in dry years. He has also worked with Private Lands Biologist Bob Glennon to get recommendations for wildlife habitat enhancements on his land, adding mixed shrubs, forbs and legumes to create “wildlife openings” for deer and other wildlife.

“Our quality of life has really improved because I don’t have to stay out all day and work all the time,” says Atkinson. “From March to July, Sundays are family days, and I don’t work unless I’m harvesting.”

Conservation-minded farmers like Will Atkinson must constantly weigh environmental and economic concerns in their day-to-day operations. Atkinson knows that his harvest will be graded to sort out vegetables with spots, bites and other imperfections. Yet he is also mindful of the far-reaching impacts of pesticide and nutrient runoff.

“My no-till planter helps me ensure that fertilizer stays in the row,” says Atkinson. “I can map out my fields using GPS and accurately apply nutrients with swathe control. When I apply fertilizer, I leave a buffer between the field and the ditch because runoff into ditches will go somewhere.

"'If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right.' That’s something my dad told me. You need to take time and effort to benefit wildlife and the land. If we don’t take care of the land, there won’t be anything left for our kids or the next generation.”

Check back for updates on the Atkinson's progress in transforming their land.


CBWI - Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative
CSP - Conservation Stewardship Program
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
GPS - Global Positioning System

View and download more photos of Atkinson's conservation practices.

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