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High Tunnels and Cover Crops: How one farming family found profit in climate resilience

Connie and Millard Locklear.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
Connie and Millard Locklear pose together on their farm in Pembroke. They've begun using climate resilient farming techniques to protect their profits in the midst of unpredictable weather.

Climate change is already affecting food security around the globe, and that’s only expected to worsen as the global average temperature increases. But there are climate-resilient practices North Carolina farmers can use to protect their crops — and lower their carbon emissions.

This year, the international panel on climate change released a landmark report and stated definitively that climate change has already begun impacting the planet. That includes the global food system- which contributes a quarter to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Vegetables are particularly at risk because they tend to be fragile plants. Out in the field, unexpected rain or drought can destroy a crop, putting populations at risk of malnutrition.

Connie Locklear owns the New Grounds farm in Pembroke with her husband, Millard. It's been in Millard's family for generations, and they've noticed more severe weather with the passage of time. That severe weather comes in a lot of forms- including deluges of rain in the summertime.

“Most of the time I was throwing away a lot of tomatoes from the field because we got too much rain," Connie explained. "They were cracking, or we had sunspots. You'd have to throw them away because they were just not sellable.”

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High tunnels, high profits

Climate resilient techniques have helped the Locklears mitigate those issues. With support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Cooperative Extension at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, they started using special structures to avoid the harm caused by severe weather.

Now, there are several "high tunnels" situated around the Locklears' farm. They're tall metal structures that form a half-cylinder of protective plastic sheeting over bare earth. "There’s almost no waste," Connie said. "So almost all your fruit is sellable fruit. It makes a big, big difference.”

The high tunnels protect finicky fruits from oversaturation in the rain, and they also extend the growing season. The tunnels have side walls made of polyvinyl that can slide up to let air pass through or come down to keep the heat in at night.

Connie said they've planted tomatoes in June and been able to harvest all the way through March of the next year. “We'll put these walls up this afternoon in trying to contain some of the heat inside. Because even in the dead of winter when it's 30 degrees outside, when these walls are closed up, and the sun is shining, I'm working in the tank top inside. It generates that much heat.”

That's nine months of production out of plants that, if they were just in the field, would only bear fruit for three or four weeks in summer.

One high tunnel alone saw a $9,000 increase in profits in one year. And the cost of replacing the plastic sheeting, should it get destroyed in a storm, is just $800.

Connie and Duncan.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
Connie Locklear poses in a high tunnel while her son, Duncan, uses a stirrup hoe to pull up weeds.

Protecting the microbiome

The Locklears are using another climate resilient strategy aimed at protecting the topsoil. They've cut down significantly on tillage, meaning they don’t mix up the dirt on a plot of land that much anymore. Milllard said no machinery enters the high tunnel where they grow turnips, other than a little stirrup ho, a handheld tool that only touches the top inch of the soil.

“It's just no environmental impact from any type of fossil fuel burning," Millard explained. "And it really reduced the amount of fertilizer we take by creating the environment for the microorganisms in the soil.”

Mark Blevins is an administrator at NC A&T, and he says leaving the soil intact- including roots from last year’s plantings, has myriad benefits.

“So the more we leave the soil alone, the more benefits that come from that," Blevins said. "The less they till the less diesel fuel, they're burning in the tractors, but also the crops are healthier. The soil’s in better shape. And it keeps those properties of the soil that really help with keeping things wet during dry seasons and draining out when there's so much water coming from storms.”

Roots from prior generations of plants keep a complex structure intact in the soil, which allows for water retention and drainage, depending on the day's weather. Tilling the soil with a tractor disrupts that natural pattern and disrupts beneficial microscopic organisms, according to A&T's research.

The microbiome also allows Millard to use less expensive fertilizer. Instead of commercial fertilizer created from chemical reactions, he can use feather meal from nearby chicken farms. The feathers from the animals are ground up into a meal, and the nitrogen-rich product is spread on the soil to let the microbes do their work.

"But it takes a step of the microorganism to break it down for the plant growth," Millard said. "So by keeping that soil non-tilled, it's going to feed organisms right there in the soil. So we just dust that little bit of feather meal in here, and there goes the crop.”

The chicken feather meal is an inexpensive, nitrogen-rich, byproduct, making it an economical choice for the Locklears.

Nitrogen is a key element in plant growth. Nitrogen fertilizers are a major piece of the chemistry that built the green revolution in the 1960s, which helped feed the growing global population. But, creating nitrogen fertilizers releases a lot of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere — and it’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

That's in addition to the energy-intensive process of creating ammonia as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Using the feather byproducts instead is much less intensive, because the microbes break down the nitrogen, not an industrial process.

Soil comparison.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
Connie Locklear shows two handfuls of dirt for a comparison. The dirt on the left came from a high tunnel on her farm, and is much darker, indicating a nutrient rick environment for plants. The dirt on the right is untouched soil from another part of the farm, and shows the sandy soil of North Carolina's coastal plain.

Cover cropping

The last strategy is less intuitive: it involves allowing a field to lay fallow for one or more years before planting cash crops.

Blevins said planting cover crops in this way is very beneficial.

“Clover is used a whole lot to increase the nutrients in soil, because they're legumes that take nitrogen out of the air, and are able to capture that and let it be used by another plant," Blevins explained. "The rye and other grasses hold on to the soil so that there's less erosion. And the other cover crops will smother out and keep weeds from growing up.”

The Locklear farm sports several fields that burst with color, from red blooms on the clover to tall stalks of rye.

Millard took a shovel to showcase the benefits: The earth beneath the cover crops is a rich, chocolate brown, showcasing the nutrients enriching it. He laughed, realizing that single shovelful was the most tilling the field had received in a year.

Dirt in the field.jpg
A shovel-full of overturned dirt in a cover-cropped field shows the rich, dark soil beneath.

"These cover crops suppress the weeds," Millard said.

"It's fighting fire with fire," Blevin responds. "You're treating a biological problem with biology. That weed is just a plant out of place, it's doing its job to take over and cover up that soil. And so the Locklears are covering it up first with a cover crop, and then getting their kid their cash crops in there immediately afterward. So they're fighting biology with biology."

They've also left borders of cover crops around the fields to keep weeds at bay- and Millard said the foliage puts 30 to 40 units of nitrogen in the soil- just about all he needs for an entire growing season.

Although it means forgoing a growing season, Millard is saving hundreds of dollars in greenhouse-gas intensive fertilizer by cover cropping.

In one field, the Locklears ran an experiment, and planted cover crops and collard greens at the same time. It looks like an overgrown meadow now that the collard season has passed, with red, purple, and yellow flowers drawing out pollinators. Millard found that the cover crops gave space to the collard plants, and beneath the soil, the microbiome creates a shared space with drainage and retention abilities.

“They're working together," he said. "The cover crop is putting nitrogen in the soil. The produce is taking nitrogen up so, they's feeding each other.”

Collards and Cover Crops.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
A collard plant, on the left, has gone to seed in a field surrounded by cover crops. The cover crops have left bare soil around the cash crop, allowing it to grow unperturbed.

Economics and the environment

The farm is idyllic, but farmers are still business people. So, is this climate-resilient model profitable enough to be worthwhile?

Vincent Gauthier, a senior analyst with EDF, said it’s actually more profitable than the alternative. One high tunnel alone raised profits by $9,365 in a year, and using cover crops increased overall profits by $27 in a year.

As for limiting the tillage on land, it's an immediate cost saving. Running a tractor over a field costs $20 per acre per pass, including fuel. Every pass prevented is an extra $20 in Millard's pocket — and a reduction of emissions from burned fossil fuel.

The USDA has a program to support these kinds of strategies, but they’re aimed at much larger operations than the Locklear’s little specialty vegetable farm.

“80% of the farms, United States is small family operated farms, that's a couple of million farms," Millard said. "And [the USDA would] rather manage a couple thousand, instead of a couple of million.”

Millard wants to see that change, and see farms like his supported too.

Shop local, think global

By expanding their growing season, the Locklears have built a more resilient farm, and can better feed university students in Pembroke because of it.

Millard said that local food network saves even more greenhouse gas emissions than those saved on his farm.

“We grow that in the offseason. So we was able to go put tomatoes on the market that would have been trucked in," he said. "This reduced fossil fuel costs of bringing it in from Mexico or Arizona or somewhere else like that.”

The strategies the Locklears have embraced raised their profits, saved them money, and reduced their carbon footprint. And the EDF and NC A&T study found that those strategies work throughout North Carolina- and have worked across the entire U.S.

It’s all part of building a more sustainable and resilient future, even as the global temperatures continue to rise.