Spring Into N.C. Strawberry Season
The growing trend of pick-your-own strawberry patches in North Carolina can be summed up in two words: strawberry plasticulture.
That statement comes from Barclay Poling, the interim executive director for the N.C. Strawberry Association. A few decades ago, the state’s strawberry industry depended on matted row production, which involves putting plants in bare ground, which then bloom year after year.
However, Poling explains, “Berries grown in the matted row are smaller and take quite a lot longer to pick than in the strawberry plasticulture system.” The use of raised, plastic mulch-covered beds in plasticulture makes the fruit easier to pick and doubles the yield.
“The plasticulture beds also allow us to take advantage of drip irrigation for more efficient water usage,” Poling says. Grey mold from excessive rainwater is prevented, too. “Arguably, North Carolina is the U.S. capital of strawberry direct marketing,” Poling says. From 1990 to today, the use of strawberry plasticulture has grown from 200 to 2,000 acres in the state. Although California and Florida are the leading production states, “I am not aware of any other state that produces as many strawberries for local consumption as we do,” he says.
Recent figures from North Carolina State University indicate strawberries contribute $30 million to an annual $154 million farm gate value of the state’s fruit crops.
“When we first introduced [strawberry plasticulture] to farmers in the Coastal Plain, Piedmont and Mountains of North Carolina, it caught me completely by surprise how much more strongly the public seemed to enjoy the convenience of picking large berries on raised, plastic mulch covered beds,” Poling says. “We now have strawberry plasticulture production in all 100 North Carolina counties.”
Getting Into Berries
Shawn and Tracey Harding of Southside Farms in Chocowinity began growing fruits and vegetables 17 years ago, starting with a half-acre of strawberries.
“I remember going to pick strawberries when I was a little girl,” Tracey recalls. The mother of three wanted “something I could do on the side because I wanted to stay home with the kids. It kind of grew out of that.”
Shawn, who serves on North Carolina Farm Bureau’s Board of Directors, grew up on a tobacco farm and still grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 600 acres of leased land. But fruits and vegetables raised on their 80-acre family homestead has become a crucial part of their farm.
Strawberries are the farm’s biggest draw.
“Generally about 50 percent of our sales are people picking their own and 50 percent are ones that we call ‘We pick,’” Shawn says.
The Hardings have always used plasticulture. “We’ve got a lot more control over water and fertilizer [compared to matted row],” Shawn says, “and it’s also a lot more environmentally friendly.”
Even 17 years into growing the red berry, the Hardings still keep strawberry acreage down to 3 – which is plenty.
“Strawberries are an intense crop,” Shawn says. “Three acres doesn’t sound like a lot. But it is a lot of strawberries. There are 14,000 strawberry plants per acre.” “Three acres is about all we need for the clientele we have coming to the farm,” Tracey adds. “We actually got into strawberries at a very good time.”
She also cites being on the cusp of the local food movement. “People want to get their food closer to home where they know where it was grown,” she says. “There’s a trust factor that comes in,” Shawn says. “As in, ‘I actually know the person who grew this, and I know where it came from.’ That’s especially true if you pick your own. You can’t get any closer than that.”
About seven years ago, Southside Farms began hosting farm tours in spring and fall. “We want the farm to be a place where people will come and spend time,” Tracey says. Two years ago, they added ice cream, made by Shawn’s mother, Betty Weeks. Strawberry is the most popular flavor, of course.
“On a good Saturday, we may have 1,000 vehicles come through this farm,” Shawn says. “It pretty much puts all the other farming at a standstill. That’s quite a bit different from most farming.”
But for the Hardings, dealing with the public at their pick-your-own and we-pick farm fits their personalities and goals.
“It’s just something we enjoy doing,” Tracey says. “We’re fortunate we’ve been able to make a living out of it.”
Ready to Pick Your Own?
Find a listing of N.C. strawberry patches below:
320 Harding Ln.
5384 S. NC Highway 58
Obermiller’s Strawberry Farm
621 Allstar Ln.
The Farmers’ Daughter
2122 Friendship Church Rd.
Smith’s Nursery & Strawberry Farm
443 Sanders Rd.
Strawberries on 903
4064 NC 903 S.
Winterville, NC 28590
For more, visit the North Carolina Strawberry Association’s website ncstrawberry.com.
– Nancy Dorman-Hickson