Tennessee (Macon and Clay Counties) and Kentucky (Monroe, Barren, and Metcalf Counties)
Tobacco is not normally thought of as a crop that improves soil health. Even our first president, George Washington, knew growing tobacco was draining his soils at Mount Vernon, and replaced it with wheat and a crop rotation to bring his soils back to life.
Traditionally, tobacco is plowed and followed by at least two other secondary tillage methods to smooth the field prior to transplanting. Even though tobacco is normally rotated, a typical tobacco field can suffer from soil erosion while planted in tobacco. Corby Brown’s tobacco operation is unique – he doesn’t till at all.
Corby personally farms about 150 acres of Burly tobacco in Macon and Clay Counties in Tennessee, as well in Monroe, Barren, and Metcalf Counties in Kentucky. Combined with his son Christopher’s and nephew Elliot’s operations, he helps farm about 1,000 acres of Burly tobacco. Each of the three men have specialities and share their expertise with each other. Corby is the specialist for setting tobacco, where as Christopher focuses on fertility and Elliot on weed management.
Corby also grows corn, soybeans, and some cereal rye and sweet potatoes in the following rotation: three years tobacco, one year corn, and one year soybeans. He conducts annual soil tests and maintains a soil pH of approximately 6.2 or greater. In the last three years, Corby’s yields per acre have averaged around 70 bushels for soybeans, 210 bushels for corn, and 1,600 – 2,100 pounds of tobacco.
Corby started strip tilling tobacco over 10 years ago, and has always practiced strip till or no-till with his grain crops. But with strip tilling, he saw no improvement in erosion rates or soil health so he decided to transition to no-till. “It was the right thing to do and it made business and environmental sense,” he said.
Corby also utilizes cover crops, planting about two bushels of wheat or cereal rye per acre. Up until 2015, he was broadcasting his cover using a light disking (down to 2″). In 2016, he drilled 100% of his no-till acres and planted row crops about 14 days after terminating his cover in April. Corby and his family are considering using more diverse cover crop species.
Corby says no-tilling and using cover crops has eliminated erosion, improved yields, infused more moisture in the soil, and guarded against “drowning” during intense rainfall events in his tobacco fields.