In North Carolina, when many people think agriculture, they still think tobacco. Tobacco remains a significant crop, but acreage has declined and North Carolina farmers continue to diversify their operations.

Vegetable and small fruit crops are increasingly lucrative choices, but making the transition from traditional row crops can be difficult and often involves learning entirely new methods of production.

John Blue of Highlanders Farm in Carthage has met this challenge with success. Blue, who has grown tobacco his entire life, began transitioning to other crops in 2000 by planting cantaloupes on plastic-covered rows. He expanded his operation each year, gradually adding more and more crops, including strawberries, sprite melons, Japanese eggplant and bok choy. In addition to operating a roadside market on the farm, he and four other growers are the major suppliers for the newly formed Sandhills-Farm-to-Table Co-op.

This year Blue is trying out an entirely new crop and production method: Greenhouse tomatoes. He began by consulting with David Dycus of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Division on topics such as growing plants in pinebark instead of soil, installing trellises and setting up a nutrient solution delivery system. After studying the process for a couple of years, he thought he was ready to give it a try.

“Ignorance was bliss at first,” Blue said. “I thought that in a greenhouse environment everything would be under control. I expected using a nutrient solution would be like following a recipe. It didn’t go quite that smoothly, and I’m glad I didn’t wait four or five weeks to get help when I started noticing problems.”