Cal Lewis, a third generation fruit and  vegetable grower from Rocky Point, N.C., is the latest inductee into the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Hall of Fame.

He was named to the elite group during the recent Carolina Vegetable and Fruit Expo in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

His grandfather actually started the farm, growing a number of fruit and vegetable crops which Lewis says used to be  referred to as  ‘truck crops’.

Early on he got a good education as to what it takes to grow a crop and more importantly what it takes to market a crop.

“Marketing and production have to go hand-in-hand these days. It’s hard to say which is more important, because you simply can’t stay in business unless you have a pretty good handle on both,” he says.

As vegetable and fruit farms have shrunk in number and grown in size, specialization has been common among small family farms that once grew truck crops and usually had a few head of cattle. Lewis now grows strawberries, has a strawberry plant nursery, is a large blueberry producer, grows blackberries and bell peppers.

Back in the late 1970s, when the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association was just getting started, so was Cal Lewis. “I’ve been a member of the organization since it started, or about when it started, he says. Over the years the production information and the friendships I’ve made through our growers association is so valuable,” he says.

The North Carolina Vegetable Growers' Association (NCVGA) was started in 1977 as a multi- commodity trade organization. The size and scope of the organization has changed over the years, primarily to include fruit growers, but its purpose — the improvement and promotion of the North Carolina vegetable and fruit industry — hasn’t changed.

The NCVGA represents more than 2,000 commercial vegetable growers in the state. Its members grow more than 20 different crops on more than a quarter million acres of land in North Carolina.

Lewis says the acreage planted by NCVGA members doesn’t accurately tell the story of how important the fruit and vegetable industry is to North Carolina.

“It’s difficult to compare our industry to cotton, or peanuts or corn, because there are so many different crops we grow and each has its own value, which also varies greatly from grower to grower,” Lewis says.

Over the years, the NCVGA has had a common voice that has represented the state’s vegetable industry well. For example, Support from NCVGA helped to influence H-2A labor programs, and got clearance of several new pesticides.

Foundation built on strawberries

Though Lewis Farms has become one of the larger blueberry producers in the Southeast, the foundation for the farm enterprise was built on strawberries.

They still grow pick your own and commercial strawberries, both standard spring strawberries and “winter” berries produced in “solar high tunnels”.

The real fascination with strawberries began with Cal’s father Everette Lewis. The senior Lewis, who died in 2010, was a pioneer in many agricultural related endeavors. He started the first successful strawberry nursery in North Carolina He was the first to produce strawberries on plastic in the state, and was one of the first to successfully use Methyl Bromide to allow growers to repetitiously farm the same soil every year.

Lewis Farms is located in Rocky Point, near Wilmington, N.C., and they have a retail location on a path annually chosen by thousands of tourists heading to North Carolina beaches.

Lewis Farms strawberries have long been a tradition for generations of beach goers, and in recent years blueberries and now blackberries have been part of the tradition.

Lewis’ wife Jackie runs the family-owned retail operation, which features farm fresh, certified Got To Be NC Grown strawberries, blueberries and blackberries.

A pick your own operation and the retail outlet are among a number of creative marketing approaches Lewis takes to market his crops.

He markets some of his blueberries and blackberries with Driscolls, the largest and highest quality berry marketer in the world.

He also owns his own marketing company, American Blueberries, which markets about 30 percent of the total North Carolina production, which is produced by 15 different southeastern North Carolina growers.

Lewis Farms has been instrumental in the growth of the blueberry industry in the state. Now the fourth largest blueberry producing state, production in North Carolina is centered in a seven county area in the southeast portion of the state.

The state’s blueberry industry is highlighted annually with an open house, which is sponsored by the North Carolina Blueberry Council, which is now in its 46th year of operation. This year’s open house will be held in Clinton, North Carolina on Jan. 15-16.

Cal grew up on a farm originally operated by his grandfather. When Cal finished his degree in horticulture from North Carolina State University, he looked at other farm-related options, and worked in the soil fumigation business in Florida for 4 years.

He then returned to the family farm to help his father establish modern-day Lewis Farms and helped him build it into one of the state’s most innovative fruit and vegetable production and marketing organizations.

At the same time, he has continued his involvement in the soil fumigation business and is presently vice-president of sales for TriEst Ag Group.

Being inducted into the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Hall of Fame, he says, is humbling indeed. “To be recognized alongside so many leaders of this industry, many of them people I’ve learned from and worked with for so many years, is truly an honor,” he adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com