Quarry solves farmer’s ‘corn-undrum’

By Ryan Cornell

MOUNT JACKSON — When it came to growing his first rows of corn, Brett Wightman, 28, wasn’t exactly blessed with beginner’s luck.

It was 2011 and the Edinburg native had graduated from Virginia Tech three years earlier with a degree in agriculture economics and a minor in crop and soil science. He decided to try his hand at planting corn on the family’s 68-acre property in Mount Jackson, but the weather had other plans.

A severe drought that summer parched his crops.

“It wasn’t a widespread drought that crippled the Virginia ag economy or anything, but for myself it was pretty demoralizing from the get-go,” Wightman said.

The answer to his problems wasn’t far away. When Interstate 81 was constructed, a rock quarry was dug out of the Wightmans’ land.

The rocky situation had him searching for alternatives to water his corn, and after “connecting the dots,” he decided to use the water from the abandoned quarry to feed the thirsty corn over the next year. He took “the big hole in the ground full of water,” which had been viewed as a liability by the family, and capitalized on it.

“It didn’t rain from the Fourth of July till harvest,” Wightman said. “So you know it was kind of an ugly situation, but that really encouraged me to look at this irrigation plan. Because I was sitting here watching the weather forecast everyday hoping for rain when I’ve got ample water 150 yards away from my cornfield that needs water.”

He said corn growing during the grain-fill period uses up to a quarter-inch of water per day, which translates to more than 30,000 gallons of water on an acre in a week.

The soil’s low water-holding capacity, among other reasons, led him to embrace no-till farming. He said many farmers in the area choose the practice because heavy rainfall can wash away the limited topsoil and nutrients.

“If the water just runs off, it won’t be available for the corn crop next week,” he said. “So to keep this stuff growing good, I basically have to spoon-feed it water throughout the growing season.”

Wightman serves as the president of the Virginia Crop Production Association and sits on the board of the Shenandoah County Farm Bureau. He works full-time as a sales representative with Syngenta, a crop protection and seed manufacturer.

This summer, the continuous rainfall and cooler temperatures have posed an increased chance of diseased corn crops. Wightman was involved in an aerial crop protection operation with Syngenta, covering about 4,500 acres throughout the Shenandoah Valley with a fungicide.

Wightman is younger than the age of most farmers, which he said is above 50 years old, and his job lets him meet many of them, who teach him about agronomics, how to manage risk and market crops.

“I’ve been able to interact with some of the best farmers in the region,” he said. “I’ve been able to just learn a lot from them.”

Virginia isn’t recognized for its overall yields as much as Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska or other states in the Midwestern corn belt, but Wightman said the corn farmers here do an excellent job.

The National Corn Growers Association holds a contest every year in which farmers across the country compete to grow the most corn per acre. For the past three years, a farmer from Charles City has won the no-till/strip-till irrigated category.

All of the corn Wightman grows is for livestock feed. He said there’s a 95 percent chance his corn is going to be fed to a chicken or turkey in the Shenandoah Valley.

“So you’re eating the chicken that this is fed to,” he said, holding up an ear. “The local markets here, like George’s Poultry or the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative, they’ll buy this, grind it up into feed and haul it out to these poultry houses locally.”

Wightman cleared up some misconceptions people might have about farms.

One theory that’s gained traction recently is a perceived trend in small family farms vanishing and being replaced with few large farms operated by corporations. Wightman said this isn’t the case, especially not in the valley.

“While farms are consolidating and getting bigger, the only corporate farms around here are guys who have incorporated themselves for liability purposes,” he said.

“It’s a huge misconception,” he said. “People feel like there’s some big corporate entity that grows a cow in the dark.”

The demand for grass-fed beef still seems to be growing, mostly because of its believed health benefits, but he said using grass feed for cattle is less efficient per acre than corn when it comes to fattening them for slaughter.

“To meet the demand of beef in this country, there is no possible way you could do it by feeding them all grass,” he said.

Wightman, who also grows soybeans and raises cattle, leases land in Bowman’s Crossing and lives on his family farm in Edinburg. He said he wants to expand and is always looking for more land to farm.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com