A whole host of substitute enterprises have been proposed for former tobacco growers since leaf began to lose its luster at the end of the 1990s.
Bill Davidson of Rogersville, Tenn., who grew the burley type for most of his adult life, decided as the 21st Century began that he would transition from tobacco into fresh vegetables and fruits. There have been a few setbacks, but he and wife Debbie have established themselves as reliable suppliers of these products.
Now, though, he advises caution to anyone who is thinking about getting into this type of farming.
“We think we are on the right track now, but fruits and vegetables are not a gold mine,” says Davidson. “If a farmer wants to get into this, he can't expect to hit home runs from the start. Making this profitable is a slow process.”
One big reason is the high capital cost of getting into truck crops.
“I expect it would cost $12,000 an acre (initially) to grow an acre of berries, because of all the new equipment you are going to need,” says Davidson. “Then the money comes in slowly so it is hard paying for it. But you have to have it: There is no use growing a fruit or vegetable crop if you can't spray a fungicide when you need it, or an insecticide.”
And another big hurdle is marketing.
“Tobacco marketing was easy compared to this,” says Davidson. “You have to look at a lot of different things.”
He was able to develop a wholesale relationship with the Food City grocery chain, and it is the market for most of his produce.
But in the begining, the Davidsons started out selling by the roadside. In 1998, Debbie and one of the children set up a stand in their front yard, which is on a well-traveled country road. They sold watermelon and cantaloupes, and the results were good enough that the Davidsons decided to plant strawberries the next year. They set up a big tent in the front yard to sell from.
But one of the Davidsons' best marketing vehicles turned out to be standing just across the road from where they live. It is a building that Bill's great grandfather had operated as a country store from 1902 through the Depression. The building was still structurally sound, so with some cost-sharing help from a state program that encourages retail marketing on the farm, the Davidsons renovated it and renamed it “The Davidson's Country Store.” It has proved an effective way of bringing their produce and related products to market.
“We have quadrupled our sales (on the farm) since we opened the store,” Davidson says.
During the peak season, the Davidsons send three or four vans each day that set up as mobile roadside stands to sell their products.
The Davidsons have developed several seasonal uses for their facilities, including a wooden event building they built where the tent had been. In the month of October, they bring in school groups for a fee, 80 to 100 children at a time, and take them on a hay ride to a field where each gets a full-sized pumpkin. Back at the event building, the kids get a small pumpkin to paint, and they visit a petting zoo and a four-acre corn maze.
They also host corporate events that allow town people “to enjoy the farm experience,” he adds.
Not all of the Davidson farm sales are fresh product: They also do some processing on a small scale, thanks to a facility in nearby Hancock County where farmers can process their own farm-fresh products to supply the growing marketplace for specialty and organic foods.
Now, thanks to the Community Kitchen, he is producing a number of canned products at the store and over the Web site (www.thedavidsonfarm.com). They include relishes, salsas, soup mixes, jellies and jams. “Four-Fruit Jam,” a blend of grape, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry flavors based on a recipe that the ladies in the Davidson family had devised, has become the signature product for the farm.
The importance of marketing can hardly be underestimated for a farmer getting into fruits and vegetables, says Carl Cantaluppi, North Carolina Extension area horticulture agent. When a new enterprise doesn't work out, it is often because the farmer finds it difficult to master the art of marketing.
“I have dealt with tobacco growers who have chosen not to grow fruits and vegetables because they would have to be their own marketers,” he says. “And maybe that is the right choice for them. But if a farmer is willing to seek out his own market, the sky is the limit since there will always be consumer demand for fresh produce. You can't set out to grow what you like to grow though. You have to grow what some one is going to pay for.”
A 120-cow brood herd rounds out Davidson's operation. He also buys mismanaged steers and bull calves and backgrounds them for sale as feeder calves.
By the way, tobacco hasn't disappeared from Davidson's farm, but he doesn't grow it himself. Instead, he rents his tobacco land, along with his curing barns and tobacco equipment, to another farmer.