High-yield investment

How the biggest farm east of the Mississippi uses cutting-edge technology to glean a profit from this.
By Edward Martin


Green into gray, earth into a hazy sky, one melts into the other. Motionless in the sultry morning, corn seems to stretch to infinity. Nothing stirs. “I loved Argentina,” Antonio Cinti Luciani says, gesturing out the open window of his pickup as he looks over the fields. “If there’s a place on this planet where you can practice agriculture to the edge, it’s South America. There’re places there you can go beyond the frontiers.” This swath of coastal Carolina, hypnotic in its sheer expanse and flatness, reminds him of that.

Luciani, 43, came to this place eight years ago. An animated Italian with agricultural degrees from universities in his homeland and Mexico, he had been happy in Argentina, but on a visit home he met Mario Visentini, who with his brother owns this corner of Carteret County. It was once so remote, local lore has it, a puckish land surveyor put up a sign: “Nowhere, N.C.” Visentini offered Luciani a job as production manager of their farm.

“There.” He points to a long, low building plopped in a field. “That’s our fertilizer and chemical plant.” In a typical year, his fertilizer bill is $2.5 million. Nearby rears a cluster of battleship-gray grain bins, linked by spidery chutes and conveyors. “That one can store 1 million bushels, and that one, 1 million. That one, we can dry 6,000 bushels an hour. That one, 2,000 bushels.” Weather and commodities markets willing, more than $25 million of corn and soybeans flow through the bins in a year. A fleet that includes seven Caterpillar tracked tractors rests in the equipment lot, and inside a giant hangar, four $450,000 grain combines, among other things, await harvest season.

The pavement ends past the grain bins. But straight as a bullet flies, the dusty road continues until vanishing on the horizon. Others, perpendicular, do the same. “Every block is about a square mile, and we have 70 blocks, so if you went by that, it would be 280 miles, but a few blocks are not quite a mile so … “ Luciani stops to calculate. “I’d say we have about 250 miles of our own roads and about the same amount of canals.”

This is the largest farm in the Eastern United States. Wrested from nature over the last century, its 57,000 acres cover nearly a fifth of Carteret County, sprawling over 63% of the farmland. Its site, most of the peninsula between the Neuse River and Core Sound north of Beaufort, is known to few in North Carolina. Open Grounds Farm Inc., as if hiding in plain sight, is known by even fewer, except in the realm of agriculture, where its unlikely history, advanced technology, productivity and model for the agriculture of the future are regarded with awe.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” says Steve Troxler, who as N.C. commissioner of agri-culture presides over a state where farms average about 160 acres. Here, the romanticized notion of the small farmer confronts the reality of an urbanizing state of more than 9 million people and a planet whose population is approaching 7 billion. “We operate in a world market. We export over $3 billion of North Carolina agricultural products every year. We have everything from the largest farm this side of the Mississippi — Open Grounds — to small farms that only sell their products locally. That kind of diversity is what we have to have to feed North Carolina and the nation.”

Open Grounds is a place of paradoxes, where measurements are made not just in miles and acres but also inches and ounces. Like this. Jonathan Peppers, in charge of fertilization and pesticides, hoists himself twice his height into the cab of a $120,000 sprayer and turns the ignition key. It quivers as the diesel engine fires. He codes a Falcon II agricultural computer program, then inserts a disk he’s programmed. The global-positioning antenna on the roof picks up signals from a satellite 12,000 miles above, and the machine’s computer system takes over. Now he or one of the other employees can distribute chemicals over as much as 1,500 acres a day, touching the steering wheel only to turn the nearly robotic machine at the edge of a field.

And like this. Giant-scale farming in 2011 uses auto-steer technology so precise that equipment veers barely more than the length of a dollar bill along a mile-long row as it plants seed, spreads fertilizer and pesticides and harvests grain without overlapping or missing spots. With fertilizer, the computer applies metered nutrients pinpointed to soil needs, which can vary substantially within the square-mile blocks. Too much wastes money or flushes into nearby estuaries. Too little diminishes yields. The ultimate paradox, though, isn’t in the technology.

In one way, this high-tech farm is closer than most to those where a man once sweated behind a mule from daylight to dusk to till an acre or two, praying that his year’s work wouldn’t be destroyed by a 5-minute hailstorm. Because it’s foreign-owned, Open Grounds gets no government subsidies, no bailouts and no supplemental payments when prices plunge, markets gyrate or weather fails. This is free-market farming. As Greg Rowland, the farm’s business manager, points out: “We have to practice self-reliance and sustainable agriculture. We have no choice.”

 

Spring rains were stingy, leaving whirlwinds to whip up dust along dry drainage canals. But water shaped this land. Ten thousand years ago, the last Ice Age lowered the Atlantic, now less than 15 miles from the farm’s eastern edge, leaving bogs that Indians called pocosin — Algonquian for “swamp on a hill.” Thickets of briars, gallberry, palmetto and shrub oak flourished, died and decayed for millennia, layering down black, organic peat-like soil. Settlers called this open grounds because of its scrub vegetation.

In the early 1900s, the rich soil attracted land barons and speculators financed by stock-market gains, encouraged by Congress’ friendly farm-finance laws and lured by nearly free land, some of it costing less than a dime an acre. Nearly free proved expensive. The most famous attempt to farm waterlogged coastal North Carolina occurred about 90 miles northeast of Open Grounds. Colonial farmers had dreamed of emptying shallow Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County to tap land that reputedly was the world’s most fertile, and finally, a succession of three private companies set about draining and pumping it dry. Reversals and bankruptcies ensued. By the 1930s, after they had spent two decades and more than $4 million — $45 million in 2011 dollars — nature reclaimed 50,000-acre Mattamuskeet, the state’s largest natural lake and now a federal wildlife refuge.

At the same time, speculators were setting their sights on Carteret County. In 1916, they bought 30,000 acres of open grounds near the Neuse River hamlet of Merrimon. In 1921, they hired a Chicago engineering firm to drain the tract but abandoned the project as hopeless three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later. One investor committed suicide in despair. Another bequeathed his share to his alma mater, the University of Chicago. Then came Georgina Yeatman.

Daughter of a Philadelphia mining engineer, she held degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1936, she paid the university $21,000 for its 25,000 acres, then endeavored more than 40 years to turn Open Grounds into a viable farm, including dairy cows and pampas-style ranges of beef cattle tended by cowboys on horseback. Where others failed, she and partner Mildred Mulford endured. Near the home they raised on a watery point, Yeatman built a landing strip for the airplane she piloted. By the ’50s, she had boosted her holdings to more than 43,000 acres.

In the early ’70s, facing the encroaching silence of deafness, she began looking for a buyer. These were tumultuous times. The Arab oil embargo inflamed passions, and when Middle Easterners began shopping for Tar Heel farmland, paranoia grew. Would oil-rich sheiks control the state’s breadbasket? Worried legislators tried to block foreign ownership but failed. In 1974, Gruppo Ferruzzi SpA, an Italian farming conglomerate, offered $3.7 million for Open Grounds. Thirty-seven years later, foreigners own only about 1% of the state’s farmland, almost unchanged since then. “Ownership of that land by a foreign company or individual is in no way detrimental to agriculture in North Carolina,” Troxler says. “Things have changed so much over the years. A lot of the grain they produce at Open Grounds is used by our poultry, pork and other producers right here in the state.”

Wayne Long watched the land where he grew up pass to its new owners. Open Ground’s forestry manager walks warily into a parcel of the 10,000 acres of pine timber he oversees. “You want to see me get snake bit, don’t you?” he jokes, eyeing the undergrowth. His family moved here when he was 7 after Georgina Yeatman offered his father, a farmer whose own crops had failed, a job. Now in his 60s, Long saw the world with the Coast Guard, then came back. By the time the Italians bought out Yeatman, who died in 1982, Open Grounds had tried raising sheep, goats and other live- stock and was concentrating on beef cattle. He remembers general manager Livio Ferruzzi, who had a Ph.D. in agriculture, asking if enough land might be drained to convert to grain crops. “I told Dr. Ferruzzi, ‘I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to do that.’” The Italians were not deterred.

 

On a wall hangs a large picture of the farm taken by astronauts from space, its grids like patches on a quilt. Rainfall is already about 10 inches down, half of what’s normal for this point in early summer. Greg Rowland turns to his computer and checks email. “A customer up in Clinton says they had a sparse rain last night and wanted to know what we had.” Rowland’s answer: “None.” Concern in the Sampson County town is well-placed. It’s in the heart of North Carolina’s pork belt and home of Prestage Farms Inc., one of the nation’s largest producers. Open Grounds is one of its large feed suppliers. Other customers include titans of Tar Heel agriculture, including Goldsboro Milling Co., which produces livestock feed and raises hogs and turkeys, and family-owned J.C. Howard Farms Inc. in Deep Run, near Kinston, as well as international giant Cargill Inc., based in Minneapolis.

Open Grounds is remote but not out of touch. It operates from this red brick building, with a gate and guardhouse on private Nelson Bay Road, the farm’s main entrance. “I sometimes wish we hadn’t given it a name,” Rowland says. “In this day of GPS navigation systems, people think it’s a public road and try to drive through.” It ends 12 miles away, at the waters of Core Sound. Here, more than 20 miles from Beaufort, the nearest town, staff link to customers, commodities markets and, 4,500 miles away in the province of Rovigo, the Visentinis, whose fortune was built on diversified agricultural holdings and shipbuilding in Italy. They or their emissaries arrive three or four times a year for what Rowland describes as “intense” business visits, settling into a palatial, green-shuttered, two-story brick house behind iron gates and shrubs next to the office. Its backyard is a sea of corn.

“This was developed by the Ferruzzis and then bought by the Visentinis in 1995,” Rowland says. “As you can imagine, not everybody was in a position to develop and farm large tracts of land like this. It had to be someone with capital and the vision to do it.” The result is a business that employs 22 full time, plus part-timers and seasonal workers who bring the total to roughly 28. At this scale, precision is at a premium, and nothing that can be controlled, plotted or calculated is left to chance. In his office, Luciani trains remote video cameras on distant fields and buildings. Behind the wheel of his pickup, he points to unusually thick corn stalks. “We plant on a 20-inch row spacing for both corn and soybeans. We get 33,000 plants per acre if we plant early. If we plant later, we get 30,000 plants per acre.”

Bioengineered seeds use less fertilizer, pesticides and water, and the tight rows, nearly half the width as can be planted and harvested by human-steered equipment, boost production. In the ’80s, farmers considered 90 bushels of corn per acre a good crop. The national average now is about 150. At Open Grounds, they shoot for 175. Dianne Farrer, the state Agriculture Department’s Kinston-based regional agronomist, works closely with the farm, particularly analyzing soil. “Organic matter is so high, it could nearly burn,” she says. In fact, peat wildfires plague northeastern North Carolina. “In moist, organic soils where the moisture is good, they’ve been able to get almost double the yields they would on mineral soils. Of course, your averages can always be pulled down by a stinker of a field, no matter what you do.” Or by lack of moisture.

Open Grounds annually rotates soybeans and corn, which have different nutritional needs. This year, it has about 15,000 acres of corn and 18,000 of soybeans. It doesn’t plow fields, which breaks the earth’s crust and was blamed for America’s Dust Bowl in the ’30s. No-till farming, in which planting machines drop seeds into holes punched in sod, retains moisture, which is vital without irrigation. “When organic soil dries out, it’s almost like powder, it’s so light,” Farrer says. “But when you have a wet, rainy season, it absorbs so much moisture it becomes a huge sponge. You have to find a happy medium.” And a viable financial strategy.

The farm has contracts to supply some producers, but it also sells its grain on the open market. Able to store more than 2 million bushels — corn recently was selling for more than $6 a bushel, soybeans for more than $13 — timing domestic and global market fluctuations can mean gambling hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight. “Even though the owner is thousands of miles away, we’re in constant communication,” Rowland says. “He’s looking at markets there; we’re looking at markets here. We talk to experts and other farmers and try to spread the risk. We won’t always sell at the high but not at the low either.” That’s similar, in stock-trading terms, to cost averaging.

Spreading risk is important. This year, about 5,000 acres are rented to other farmers, buffering the business with income not subject to market swings or the weather. And the farm, which quit raising cattle in 1997, experiments with various crops such as canola — the coastal climate proved too warm — in case the price of mainstay grains falls. The absence of government subsidies and support programs, with their long-term commitments, leaves Open Grounds vulnerable, but it also permits it to be nimble. “One advantage we have is that, as one large, contiguous piece of land, it’s a little easier to try certain things,” Rowland says. “Land’s available, so we don’t have to go out and rent it in small bits and pieces. That allows Antonio to do a lot of experimental things, even with the commodities we grow. Say for corn, he plants lots of hybrids to see how they react and perform.”

In the ’90s, under Ferruzzi Group ownership, when it jumped to $1 a pound, Open Grounds got into cotton, producing two 500-pound bales per acre when many Tar Heel growers were stuck at a bale an acre. When prices declined in 2001, it dropped cotton and increased corn and soybean production. There is an endless battle of price versus production cost. Nationwide, corn doubled to about $6.80 a bushel in July from a year earlier, propelled by ethanol demand and overseas purchases, one reason net farm income is expected to rise 20% this year. Hampered by near-record dry weather, Open Grounds expects its corn yields to drop to less than 150 bushels an acre, about a $15 million crop at July prices, and soybeans to fall to about 40 bushels an acre, at about $13.30 a bushel, a crop worth $10 million or so. That would give the farm close to $25 million in income, not counting rental payments, timber sales and other sources.

“You have to look at return on investment,” Luciani says. “Part of the spike in corn prices is linked to increased cost of production.” That includes higher prices for fuel, which has nearly doubled in two years, and of fertilizer, which requires large amounts of energy to produce. “Seven years ago, fertilizer might have been $150 a ton. Now it’s six or seven times that.”

 

Small houses and doublewides scattered along narrow Merrimon Road, the way to Open Grounds, sit on foundations that are head-high. Without rain, only dregs of water puddle deep in roadside ditches, but mosquitoes hover and redwing blackbirds chirp in rushes. It’s calm now, but this is hurricane country. Bays bearing names such as Nelson, Turnagain and Horton and the North and South rivers jut into Open Grounds or, from the air, appear to point their waters like jagged daggers at the farm, much of which rises only 3 feet above sea level.

It is not, however, the prospect of a rising Atlantic that keeps Luciani, Long or Rowland awake. While that might make dewatering the land more difficult, other threats are more pressing. Already, traffic is increasing along Merrimon Road as vacation houses and retirement homes are built along the bays and rivers. “As the urban environment encroaches on the rural environment, more rural land is being converted,” Rowland says. The Visentinis are committed to agriculture, but there comes a price at which a farmer, Italian or otherwise, can’t say no. The concern is shared in Raleigh. “The truth of the matter is, we lost a half-million acres of productive farmland between 2002 and 2007,” Troxler says. “If we don’t hold on to the natural resources, we’re not going to be able to maintain the $70 billion-a-year agribusiness industry we have in this state. The second-largest industry is the military, and it’s about $20 billion. That’s how important it is.”

Instead of invincible, the size and remoteness of Open Grounds makes it an inviting target. In 2000, a private consortium of aerospace companies, led by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., proposed a spaceport here to launch the VentureStar orbiting craft. A principal requirement: a 6-mile-diameter tract with no people. The plan collapsed, but not before county commissioners voted unanimously to support it. The Marines proposed an airfield here, on the basis that training missions could be flown without leaving air space above the farm. Numerous sources have called for a Navy landing-practice airfield, shunned by other coastal communities, at Open Grounds. Upstream towns have talked about running their sewage here.

The farm has faced repeated attacks by environmental groups, who accuse it of polluting the Neuse and other bodies of water with fertilizer, insecticide and runoff. But it’s generally been cleared by state environmental regulators. It routinely cooperates with Duke and N.C. State universities in pollution and agricultural research. “We’ve got a unique situation here,” Rowland says. “The first thing you notice from satellite photos is how we’re surrounded by rivers, estuaries, the sound. Through the years, we’ve cooperated with marine labs and N.C. State for research into how developed land can interact with the environment. They come and do their research, but at the same time we’ve been able to take their research and advance things we’re doing here.”

Open Grounds poses other challenges. Luciani, who came here in 2003 from Argentina, where he ran a 50,000-head livestock ranch, feels freedom in its vastness. Others see monotony, isolation and loneliness. Those like Wayne Long, experienced in the ways of farming the black land, are increasingly rare, and younger workers are hard to hire. It’s a problem, and on a farm of 57,000 acres, there are no small problems.

The diffused sun shines through a colorless haze. Only stunted plants break through dry soil. Beyond the fields of green corn, more than 4,000 acres of soybeans, which in a good year might have grossed more than $2 million, have failed to germinate and will have to be replanted. That will cost thousands of dollars and drive home an inescapable truth. “In the end, in spite of the technology,” Rowland says, “we’re still at the mercy of the weather.” As much as the farmer with the mule.