Knowing what consumers want and knowing how to produce a crop that looks, stores, and ships well is critical for North Carolina vegetable grower Curtis Smith.

Smith, who operates Smith Farms in Seven Springs, N.C., is recognized by fellow growers — even those with much larger acreage — as the best strawberry packer in North Carolina. The same care in production, harvesting and packing sweet potatoes, watermelons, cabbage and recently sprite melons has kept Smith Farms among the top vegetable producers in the state, throughout Curtis Smith’s 20-year history in the business.

Just getting into the vegetable business was an interesting journey for the North Carolina growers. “I grew up in the cattle business, then we went to hogs and raised both for a while,” he explains. His father has maintained a life long interest in cattle, but is a chemist by training and worked for many years with the USDA, leaving many of the farming responsibilities to Curtis.

After college, Smith worked for a while with the John Deere dealership in nearby Kinston, N.C. By that time his father, who traveled extensively in the Southeast, saw the first white, then black plastic being used in the vegetable industry. He saw an opportunity and in 1985, Smith Farms began with an acre of cantaloupes on plastic.

From that humble beginning, the farming operation grew slowly — a pay as you go type growth. Now, they still have a small cow/calf operation, but the primary emphasis is on vegetables.

Now, they grow 12 acres of strawberries, 40 acres of cantaloupes, 15 acres of seeded and seedless watermelons, 12 acres of sweet potatoes, and a few acres of specialty crops, including cabbage and grape tomatoes.

Grape tomatoes have replaced cherry tomatoes in the specialty markets. “We used to grow a lot of cherry tomatoes, now the grape-shaped tomatoes have about replaced the old varieties,” Smith says. “It is a good example of knowing how and when to stay ahead of the trend, he contends. Knowing what consumers want and what is trendy is critical in the specialty vegetable market, Smith points out.

In 2005, Smith grew sprite melons, a softball-shaped melon that is a blend of a watermelon and a honeydew, with grain of a pear. “Sprite melons are a unique fruit, it is very sweet, and it keeps a good 10 days to two weeks shelf life, if handled correctly. Fruit is about a pound and a half, so it can be eaten at one time,” he explains.

“We started growing seedless watermelons in the late 1990s, primarily because our customers wanted them,” Smith recalls. “We continued to grow the seeded varieties because some customers wanted those types — we want our customers to buy everything from us, so we grow both types,” the North Carolina grower explains.

Seedless varieties have become the staple watermelon variety in more recent years, Smith says. Though growing the two varieties is much the same, packing and handling the smaller seedless varieties is much easier. Anything that reduces shipping costs is critical in today’s market, he stresses.

“We are a member of the Southeastern Growers Association, which is a group of farmers who have banded together to sell watermelons, cantaloupes and specialty melons. The group of 12-15 area farmers meet regularly to study marketing trends and to determine how many acres they will need to fill contracts for the upcoming crop season.

Smith also ships products in a 100 mile radius of his farm, using his own trucks for distribution. His products have developed a reputation for quality and reliability, which are critical to growers, Smith contends. “If you can’t consistently provide a high quality product in this market, then someone else will do it — it’s a very competitive business,” the North Carolina grower explains.

“As a one-man operation, like I am, keeping ahead of marketing trends is the hardest part of my business,” Smith contends. “I don’t under-emphasize the importance of knowing how to grow the crop and to attending to the details of growing quality crops — without the crop, you have nothing,” he explains. “Still, it is absolutely critical to know what buyers and ultimately consumers want, because these trends change every year,” he stresses.

“We are in the service business and what we are supplying is quality produce. When we started out in strawberries, we packed everything in quart cups, now we pack in several sizes, because that’s what the customer wants,” Smith explains. Growing the crop hasn’t really changed so much in the past 15-20 years, but how you package products changes every year, he adds.

An ongoing production problem for North Carolina vegetable growers is yellow and purple nutsedge. Controlling this pest is about to change for the worse for Carolina farmers, Smith fears.

Methyl bromide, which is used as a soil fumigant to control nematodes, with a side benefit of eradicating nutsedge, is being phased out. When that happens, Carolina growers will be faced with the management challenge of how to control nematodes and nutsedge.

“It will be a double cost for us in terms of chemicals and in terms of application,” Smith explains. Methyl bromide already costs over $500 per acre and additional cost will be tough, the North Carolina grower points out.

Huge increases in fuel costs and for all petrochemical products is a major concern for vegetable growers. “Except for sweet potatoes and a few acres of cabbage, all our crops are grown on plastic, and we are expecting a big jump in the cost of plastic,” Smith says.

To reduce plastic costs, he is now double and triple-cropping on plastic. This year, he will leave plastic over a year and use some in-line fumigation through the drip tape. Typically one crop is stripped and the next crop is planted right behind the first one.

To get more efficient in rotation, Smith is taking land out of cattle production and putting it into vegetable production. This is a slow and costly process — $1,200-$1,500 per acre — but one Smith believes will pay off in lower production costs in the long run.

The cost of fuel and labor are major concerns for the future, the North Carolina grower says.

Already, he has seen a loss of migratory workers, who can make much higher wages working in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. And, additional regulations that generate increases in paperwork to hire migratory workers is constant battle, he says.

The North Carolina grower is absorbing huge increases in fuel cost in delivering his products, both on his own delivery routes and the trucking lines that carry his large contract melons.

Fuel increases alone, cost him $260 more per pallet to ship his melons. Add to fuel surcharges that he has to pay for shipping his contract crops and added cost of fuel to deliver his crops locally, which he can’t pass along to his customers, and the numbers can quickly go from black to red.

On the positive side, increased fuel costs may open other eastern markets for Carolina growers, because the high cost of shipping produce from California and from port cities to the east coast will give the local growers a huge advantage.

Despite all the challenges, Curtis Smith is in vegetable production for the long run and optimistic about the growth of his industry.

e-mail: rroberson@primediabusiness.com