What is in this article?:
• James E. Cooley has been selected as South Carolina state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.
“We market directly to customers through two retail stands,” says Cooley. The primary market is in northern Spartanburg County. The other is off an I-85 exit near Gaffney, S.C. “We sell to wholesale customers, and use refrigerated trucks to deliver this fruit,” he adds.
He advertises online and on billboards, television and radio. “Our farm hosts tours from schools, churches and nursing homes,” he says. “Tours help, but our most effective marketing tool is growing quality fruit that tastes good. In 2011, we took a major step to increase farm visitors by planting a 10-acre corn maze and a 20-acre pumpkin patch. We’ve been planting the maze and pumpkins ever since.”
His family owns a restaurant, the Strawberry Hill U.S.A. Café, at his primary market. “It has been a wonderful addition,” he adds. “Our customers enjoy our farm tours and then lunch and homemade ice cream.”
Cooley employs up to 200 laborers at peak times. Most are guest workers from Mexico. They enter the U.S. through the H-2A temporary farm labor program. He owns many houses where the workers stay. He also refurbished an old school he attended as a child to serve as housing for a hundred guest workers. H-2A regulations are strict and one of Cooley’s employees makes sure the housing complies with federal regulations. “Most of our H-2A workers return year after year,” he says.
In 2002, Cooley experienced a setback from an accident. At that time, his family, friends, workers and the community gave their time, their hearts, their prayers, and, literally, their blood to keep Cooley and his farm going. For this, he will always be grateful. He says, “I thank God for my family and friends.”
Protecting the environment is important. He uses erosion control blankets in his strawberries. He follows USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service designs for planting blackberries and peaches. He depends on beehives to aid plant pollination. He conserves water with drip irrigation on his strawberries. His farm also meets food safety certification standards.
Nearly 100 years ago, his grandfather started the farm to grow cotton. Cooley’s father returned from World War II to raise peaches. Cooley now flies 400 American flags on the property to honor his father’s military service.
“I loved farming as a toddler,” recalls Cooley. One of his earliest jobs was driving tractors along with moving peaches to trucks. “I had to pay a nickel from my earnings for every peach I dropped,” he recalls.