Ferebee Farms goes back seven generations and vegetables have always been a part of the production mix, but high input costs have the current owners wondering how to stay in the vegetable business.
Sisters Martha Meiggs and Susan Jennings and Susan's husband, Jeff Jennings, are the current owners of Ferebee Farms. They took over the farming operation in 1993 from their father Ed Ferebee. Potatoes, cabbage and broccoli have provided the bulk of the income and grain crops were high risk, low profit alternative crops.
Now, the cropping system is reversed. “Susan and I grew up on the farm and as long as we can remember we grew cabbage. This year (2008) will be our last year of cabbage production,” Martha Meiggs says.
“In the 1990s we were getting six cents a pound for cabbage. In 2007, we were getting 7.5 cents a pound and in 2008 we got 8.5 cents a pound for our cabbage. The bulk boxes in which we ship our cabbage went up a dollar apiece in 2008. Add on the extra cost of fertilizer, pesticide, labor and freight costs, and it's tough to make a crop that doesn't budge much on price profitable in today's environment,” she adds.
They are not sad to see the labor intensive, low profit, or no profit aspect of cabbage production go. However, the crop is a part of their life and from a nostalgia point of view they say it will be missed.
Large acreage grain crop farmers have gotten most of the ink in terms of managing high input risks. However, the risks for produce production are much higher, according to Meiggs.
“For example in 2006, our potato crop was one of the best we have ever grown. On June 9, of that year we got a big rain, followed by more rain. We lost half our potato crop We took the crop all the way up to harvest, had all the inputs in the crop and got nothing out of half our crop,” Meiggs says.
“In 2007, we had a good potato crop, good weather, good yields, but there was no market for our crop. So, vegetable production can be a challenge from several different standpoints,” Susan Jennings adds.
Potatoes remain a big part of the production plan at Ferebee Farms. They recently invested in a new potato packing plant and hope to continue growing spuds in the future. It will likely be their only vegetable crop for some time, Jeff Jennings says.
The cost of growing potatoes in the Southeast also puts production in jeopardy. Seed potatoes are now selling as high as $19 per hundredweight, plus shipping from the upper Midwest or Canada.
“We were fortunate to buy our seed for about $15 per hundredweight, but you have to add another five dollars a hundredweight for shipping. We plant 23-25 bags per acre, so by the time you get the seed here, cut them and treat them and plant them you have over $600 per acre just in seed potatoes,” Jeff Jennings says.
“Unlike with grain crops, there are no options for strip- or no-till production. Potatoes need a good bed to grow, then late in the season you have to be sure to keep soil on the potatoes because they tend to get sun burned, causing quality problems. If you get too much dirt on the potatoes and you get a heavy rain, then you can get rotting problems. There is a lot more input cost with potatoes than with grain crops,” he explains.
Potatoes are at least as much affected as grain crops when it comes to pesticide costs. Except for weed control, most of the same regimen of insecticides and fungicides used in cotton, corn and soybean production are used in potatoes.
One big advantage is timing. At Ferebee Farms they typically dig potatoes in June and July and their grain crops are up and growing. By the time they get finished digging potatoes, corn is typically near harvest time. This year they added some wheat to the mix, which still worked well getting double-crop soybeans in behind wheat and potatoes.
Double-crop soybeans with potatoes works well in most years, says Jeff Jennings. Input costs are low, because you are using fertilizer left over from the potato crop. We make one trip over the potato fields with a disk and then drill beans into the old potato beds, which works well, he says.
“We have a lot of investment in potatoes — the crop requires some specialized equipment for planting and digging, so it's not nearly as easy to get out of potato production as it is with cabbage and other vegetable crops. Potatoes fit in much better with our rotation than other vegetables,” Jeff Jennings points out.
Meiggs says they have not had much luck planting potatoes behind soybeans. “The potatoes don't look good and they don't yield as well. We plant our potatoes behind corn and soybeans behind potatoes, which works well,” she adds.
At Ferebee Farms they pack most of their potatoes in small bags and ship all over the country. Approximately half their potato production is in red varieties. They also grow white and yellow potatoes.
They cut back to 400 acres in 2007 and plan to stay at that level at least as long as grain prices continue strong. “For a fresh pack operation — ours is one of the few in the state,” Meiggs points out.
Perhaps a bigger risk to potato production than high input cost at Ferebee Farms is the looming specter of the U.S. Navy condemning and taking over up to 50,000 acres of prime eastern North Carolina farmland. Ferebee Farms is right in the middle of one of five remaining sites for a landing site for U.S. Navy planes.
The heart of Ferebee Farm's potato production is too near the proposed runway to make potato farming possible. Loss of that potato acreage would put the family farm in jeopardy of making a go of it and negate a large investment in their potato packing facility.
Keeping a seven generation family vegetable tradition going will be a challenge. It's a lifetime investment and a tradition worth the effort, the Ferebee sisters and Jeff Jennings agree.