Storm Makeover

Not even Hurricane Florence can stop this fifth-generation farm family from its conservation mission.

Gross Family (Progressive Farmer image by Boyd Kidwell)

This was to be a story told of the work of Gross Farms, of Sanford, North Carolina, the family of the same name recognized in 2016 as the North Carolina Outstanding Conservation Farm Family.


However, Hurricane Florence intervened in the story line. On Sept. 14, 2018, Florence dumped 16 inches of rain across the Sandhills area of the state. Gross Farms suffered serious damage.


"Our conservation practices weren't designed to handle 16 inches of rain in a 24- to 48-hour period," John Gross says. "We had a lot of erosion damage to our terraces and waterways. We're trying to find topsoil and haul it back across our fields." For 30 years, Gross and his wife, Tina, put to work soil- and water-conservation practices protecting the land of their fifth-generation farm.


Veteran NRCS soil conservationist Darryl Harrington says the hurricane damage across his seven-county Sandhill area, including Gross Farms, was severe. Runoff from the heavy rains overwhelmed the terraces and washed the crop residue off no-till and strip-till fields into streams and woods. The grass waterways held up well in most places, but the heavy volume of water along with the saturated soil caused blowouts at the outlet ends.

RECOVERY FROM THE STORM


As the 2019 crop year approached, farmers across the Sandhills were scraping up topsoil, loading it on dump trucks and spreading the soil back across fields. Their efforts were hampered by an unusually wet fall and winter that contributed to a record 92 inches of rainfall for the year, approximately twice the normal average.

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"We had a lot of gully and rill erosion in our fields. The conservation structures weren't designed to handle a rain event like we had with Hurricane Florence," Harrington says. "It would cost the farmers and landowners too much money to install structures that could control rain events like this hurricane."


But, following Florence and its flood, the Gross family is deep into repair work on their conservation practices.


John and Tina have long planned to have their land in good shape for the sixth generation of the family now joining the operation. The work became a bit more intense, but the plan never changed.


Their oldest son, Cody, already works full-time in the operation, and their oldest daughter, MaKayla, executes the farm's certification processes while completing a master's degree in crop science at North Carolina State University. Their younger son, Colton, works part-time on the farm while studying diesel mechanics at Wake Tech Community College. Their youngest daughter, Kassidy, works part-time on the farm while attending school.

FEATURED PRACTICES


Gross Farms features several conservation land structures, including more than 6 acres of grassed waterways, 11,200 feet of terraces and 1,800 feet of diversions. The family uses an alphabet soup of government cost-share or technical-assistance programs, such as the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program, USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Programs, to help put these practices in place.


Here's what the farm has achieved -- and the very same practices the family is working to repair.


> Field Terraces. These structures reduce the energy of runoff. The farm has 11,200 feet of terraces that directs water off the field. In some areas, Gross uses water- and sediment-control basins to reduce gully erosion and manage downstream runoff. On some terraces, Gross installed Hickenbottom risers to drain standing water through underground lines.


> Grassed Waterways. The broad, shallow channels are designed to move surface water across farmland without causing erosion. The vegetative cover in the waterways slows the water flow and protects the channel from gully erosion.


> Cover Crops and Strip-Till. Gross uses a combination of cover crops and long-term strip-till to maintain ground cover. He primarily uses rye as a winter cover crop. Gross kills the cover crop with glyphosate and runs a KMC Cover Crop Roller on the front of his strip-till planter to flatten the tall cover crop for tangle-free strip-till planting. The rye mat helps with weed control, preserves moisture during the growing season and protects the soil from erosion. Gross plants sun hemp, sudangrass, sorghum and pearl millet as summer cover crops. These crops put organic residue into the sandy soils to improve the productivity of the tobacco crop that follows.


> Precision Farming. John's newest conservation investment is in precision spraying. He uses a John Deere 4730 sprayer with guidance and automatic cutoffs. The sprayer makes low-pressure applications to prevent drift.


Gross Farms is known for its work. "My sons didn't see the erosion that I saw, but they understand what it does," Gross says. "We just strive to leave the land in better shape than we found it."

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