Lee County Farmers Learn New Tricks Through Diversification
Farmer Tina Gross predicts the forefathers of their fifth-generation family farm would be flabbergasted: Acres of strawberries, pumpkins and asparagus, plus a corn maze and other on-farm entertainment attract more than 10,000 visitors to their farm annually.
All the while, the farm remains entrenched in its multi-generational history of growing tobacco.
“Our family chose to diversify because years ago, the government allotted how much tobacco you could grow,” says Tina, who owns and operates Gross Farms with husband John and their four children in Lee County. “We got married, and our family was growing. We needed to generate more income and diversification was key. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.”
Some farms opt to fill many baskets across North Carolina, where diversification reduces financial risk and provides opportunities on the farm. Multiple sources of revenue help farms remain financially viable during weather and market swings that may impact the profitability of a particular farm product. Additional farm ventures can support additional households entering the business. And, diversification allows family members to tap their interests, skill sets and the farm’s resources to find their fit in farming.
Fruits of Their Labor
Just northwest of Sanford, the Logan family operates one of the most diversified farms in the Lee County area.
There, Bill and Gail Logan grow strawberries, vegetables, potted plants and tomatoes both in the fields and a greenhouse. Meanwhile, Bill’s brother and sister-in-law grow sweet potatoes and sweet corn to sell off the 100-acre family farm. Their son, Daniel, owns two chicken houses and raises broilers (chickens raised for meat) for Perdue.
The farm has changed significantly since its start during Bill’s childhood, when the operation primarily grew tobacco and some corn and soybeans on a combination of owned and rented land.
“We wanted to diversify mostly because years ago, we used to rent land to grow tobacco, corn and soybeans, and the market wasn’t there,” Gail says. “So we had to do something else.”
The family harvested its last tobacco crop in the late 1990s and diversified out of financial necessity to support the livelihood of three households.
“It was in everybody’s interest to diversify into tomatoes and strawberries,” Gail remembers. “At the time, there weren’t many people growing strawberries. Now there are several people in it.”
The Agritourism Angle
Fifth-generation farmer John Gross started farming with his dad out of high school in 1983 with just 3 acres of tobacco. He always enjoyed and preferred time on the tractor.
Wife, Tina, who for more than 17 years worked with the public in an off-farm job, held interests in marketing and direct sales. She led the farm to an agritourism path of U-pick strawberries, U-pick pumpkins and a corn maze.
“Our roles complement each other to make a whole,” says Tina, who started working at the farm full time with John in 2011. “I do all the bookkeeping, marketing, administrative work and the behind-the-scenes things. John and our sons plan, plant and tend to the crops. It’s a team effort.”
Today, Gross Farms grows more than 1,700 acres of crops, including conventional and organic tobacco, soybeans, small grains, rye, strawberries, asparagus, sweet corn, other produce and pumpkins. The family also manages 150 acres of forestry near Sanford. In 2002, the family partnered with John’s siblings and their families to form Gross Farms Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch. Thousands flock to the farm’s innovative agritourism attraction each year for wholesome farm fun and entertainment for the entire family.
The Gross family couldn’t pull off this successful farm venture without its 60 seasonal employees, including high school students and migrant workers through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Some local at-home moms also help during the week with school tours.
“It takes all of us working together to make it work out,” Tina says.
Cultivating a New Generation
Gail Logan says her grandson loves the farm as much as the berries.
“He says he’s going to be a farmer,” Gail says. “He loves to be in the shop with his Uncle Daniel.”
Likewise, the Gross family children have expressed interest in joining the farm business. John and Tina’s kids range in age from teens to mid-20s. The next generation realizes that they need to contribute to the farm in their own way to develop a career as satisfying as it is financially supportive.
“They’ll have to figure out what their passion is and mold the farm to how they see it,” Tina says. “We’ve got them started, and it’s up to them to take the farm a little further into diversification and make it their own.”
If You Go...
The produce barn is open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday from late April to late July.
The roadside market is open 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday from April to December.
– Joanie Stiers