Atkins, a first-generation farmer, thriving with Sussex County operation
LAUREL, Del. — At 10 years old, Cory Atkins commandeered his father’s rotatiller to get an early start on his garden. Soon Cory took over the garden altogether and started Cory’s Produce, reaching 7 acres of retail vegetables and a roadside stand.
“I just enjoy growing stuff and playing in the dirt,” he said.
Not coming out of a farming family, Atkins’ career path in agriculture has taken many turns, but he was always focused on running his own farm.
After high school, Atkins completed an associate’s degree in production agriculture at Delaware Technical and Community College while growing produce and working at a local Southern States store.
In 2008, working on a wheat harvesting crew traveling from Texas to North Dakota, Atkins said he learned a lot about combine maintenance and farming in other parts of the country. Returning home from the wheat harvest adventure, he worked for Pictsweet as a field representative for six years while keeping the produce business going.
He took a “big jump” in 2013 purchasing a 52-acre farm through the Delaware Young Farmers Loan Program that connects beginning farmers with preserved farmland and shifted away from retail produce to more row crops and added a Channel Seed dealership to his operation in 2014.
Atkins, 32, now serves as chairman of the Delaware Soybean Board and with help from his father, homebuilder Rudy Atkins, and a few part-time employees, farms about 800 acres growing commodity crops and processing vegetables and does custom fieldwork and grain hauling for other farmers.
“I think he probably never sleeps,” said former longtime Executive Director of the soybean board, Susanne Zilberfarb with a laugh. Zilberfarb, who is now Executive Director of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, said Atkins’ farming story is indicative of his passion and determination to farm.
“There’s a lot of barriers to starting a farm for a young person,” Zilberfarb said. “I can’t think of many farmers that have done what he has done on the scale he has done it. It’s not an easy thing.”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Atkins said. “There’s enough work out there, you’ve got to go find it.”
In his will to find a way, Atkins has taken chances on unconventional ideas, most notably, growing processing lima beans in a no-till system.
Growing the crop on dryland acres, Atkins said saving water and fuel by not tilling before planting was the main goal and in 2014, he tried it out on 30 acres.
“Maybe it was beginner’s luck but it was the best lima bean crop I’ve ever had,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I got started. I was just doing it to save time and money.”
He said he’s continued the practice and a few other growers also have experimented with the system on lima beans.
“To me there’s no other way to plant them,” he said.
Saving time and input costs as much as natural resources drive Akins’ use of several other conservation practices.
He uses grid sampling and variable rate nutrient application to those ends and plants cover crops on all his acres, experimenting with multi-species mixes, looking at how the different species impact the yield of the following cash crop. Like lima beans, no-till is at the core of his grain production to build soil structure and organic matter on the sandy land he farms. Planting that cash crop into a living cover crop is another practice he’s adopted on all his acres.
“It’ll plant easier green than it will dead,” he said. “It’s like putting a hot knife in butter.”
His conservation efforts were recognized in 2016 as the northeast region winner of the American Soybean Association’s Conservation Legacy Award.
“I’ve never been scared of getting into anything,” he said. “For me, I feel like there’s always a better way.”
Atkins curiosity and search for ways to improve his operation led him to the soybean board he now leads.
In 2012, Atkins said he was on the website he uses for checking grain futures and saw an advertisement for the soybean checkoff’s See For Yourself program, which provides trips to farmers to show how checkoff funds are used in promotion and research. On a whim, he applied and was accepted, traveling to St. Louis and Mexico. The trip showed him aspects of the soybean industry beyond the field and elevator and also led to his involvement with the Delaware Soybean Board. In 2015 he joined the board as a director and a three years later, started his first term as chairman.
Zilberfarb said Atkins continues the line of “standout farmers” who have led and served on the board.
“He looks at issues critically and is not afraid to speak up,” Zilberfarb said. “Cory always brings a lot of energy to a meeting. He’ll be one that breaks the silence first and gets people talking.”
He’s also served on the National Biodiesel Board and is one of the directors on the United Soybean Board.
Serving on the boards has meant a lot of traveling — 18 trips to St. Louis alone — nationally and internationally. Along with learning more about the industry, as a USB director, Atkins advocates the sustainability and quality of U.S. soybeans to foreign buyers.
“He’s always authentic Cory. He’s always at 100 percent. I think buyers appreciate the authenticity of meeting a farmer who’s got the dirt under his fingernails.”
Adkins said the travel and time away from the farm has its challenges but his family and friends are extremely helpful when he is gone and the connections he’s made with other farmers and what he’s learned about the industry and growing crops better has had immense benefit to him.
“You just go for it,” he said. “If you don’t try you don’t know.”
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