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• Jeff Darnell, who grows commercial strawberries and a number of other fresh market crops in addition to strawberry plants, provided about 14 million plants to Florida last year.
• Darnell and his son grow strawberries along the banks of the Tuckasegee River in and around Bryson City, N.C.
HEADQUARTERS FOR Darnell Farms is a tranquil site alongside the Tuskasegee River near Bryson City, N.C.
“Just look around you, he says, pointing to the scenic river and the mountains that mark the entrance to Nantahala Gorge and National Park. We have the perfect setting to raise crops and raise our family, we have nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking environmental chances in our farming operation, and we just don’t do it,” the North Carolina grower says.
Darnell says Western North Carolina strawberry growers are beginning to see some opportunities for expanding commercial strawberry production.
“The whole buy local, buy fresh movement seems to be catching up with strawberries, and we have seen some interest from Colorful Harvest, Harris Teeter and other large operations that could buy a lot of fresh North Carolina strawberries,” he says.
For growers thinking about putting in a few acres of strawberries, Darnell urges them to find a market. Having a market to sell your crop is critical, but don’t let a few closed doors ruin your dreams, he cautions.
“There is absolutely no good economic reason for me to have started a farming operation here, but I did, and it now provides a living for me and my son and other members of my family and friends,” he says.
Two factors, land and labor, Darnell contends will be the limiting factors in the growth of the strawberry industry in North Carolina. “For someone getting into the strawberry business, I think picking land wisely is a critical factor. There is land available in these mountain valleys, but it’s hard to come by and some of it just isn’t suitable to growing crops,” he adds.
“Labor is a big issue in our farming operation, and I suspect, for anyone in a highly intensive production system in the U.S. Labor is a big contradiction in our country. People want fresh, safe, high quality food, but they don’t foreigners in the country — we just can’t have it both ways,” Darnell says.
Not one to shy away from the labor issue, Darnell was recently featured on a segment of 60 Minutes, the highly rated CBS news show.
“They were looking at farm labor, and particularly at young farm labor. I always had a job for my kids and their friends. If they needed some extra money, I’d give them a job,” Darnell says.
David Stern, a producer for 60 Minutes and film crew spent a week on Darnell’s farm. He saw a bunch of kids — American and Mexican, who were glad to have somewhere to go and something to do in the summer, and they were glad to have some extra money to buy things.
“Like I told David Stern, the people who pick our food don’t come from the Hamptons.
“Not just for strawberries, but for most food crops, we badly need a workable farm labor program that will give small and large operations an equal shot at finding and keeping reliable farm workers,” the North Carolina grower says.
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