Just a few years ago, Charles Tart’s farm near Dunn, N.C., revolved around tobacco, with cotton and strawberries coming in two and three. But as tobacco’s well-publicized problems began to worsen, Tart reassessed that strategy.
“I enjoyed growing tobacco, but the money just kept getting less and less for what I put into it,” said Tart. “It got to where it just wasn’t profitable enough for me.”
The last straw came when the crop was deregulated in 2004. “I grew tobacco one more year after the buyout, and then I gave it up,” he said. “Contracting tobacco just wasn’t for me.”
He still grows cotton, but fruits, vegetables and flowers are now the heart of his operation. Strawberries and sweet corn are the anchor commodities, but he grows a wide variety of crops. That includes two relatively recent additions, pumpkins and mums, which make his roadside stands an explosion of color in the fall.
Like most farmers who concentrate on produce, he quickly learned that marketing is the No. 1 priority for success in that business.
“The potential is there to profit with produce, and you have to have top yields and quality to do it,” he said. “But you need to know where you are going to sell it. Most people can grow it, but having somewhere to sell it is another thing. You must have good locations. You have to have some knowledge of where to go.”
Right now, Tart’s marketing plan includes four retail locations:
• The North Carolina Farmers Market in nearby Raleigh.
• His own stand in Dunn.
• Two stands in nearby Wake Forest that he operates in partnership with another grower.
“We also wholesale some produce at the state farmers market in Raleigh,” he said. “And in the summer months, we make runs to the Greensboro farmers market with strawberries and some sweet corn at the peak time.”
He has one more market: He sells a small portion of his produce as processed products such as jams and jellies.
Some growers have had success letting customers pick their own fruit, but Tart prefers to sell all of his pre-picked.
This past season, Tart grew 13 acres of strawberries, all on black plastic; 120 acres of sweet corn, and 120 acres of what he calls his “soup bowl”: tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra, bell peppers, eggplant, butternut squash, acorn squash and pumpkins, plus some peas and butterbeans.
The particular lineup of fruits and vegetables will change from year to year depending on what Tart thinks the market will absorb. This year he added collards to the mix.
He has two other enterprises: A nursery business in which he produces hanging baskets, bedding plants and spring flowers.
“Also, in the fall I produce 20,000 mums,” he said. “That gives me something to sell along with my pumpkins.”
And there is one enterprise left over from his tobacco-growing days: He operates four greenhouses. In three, he produces tobacco for sale. In the fourth, he grows strawberry plants, for his own use and for sale.
Strawberries and sweet corn make a good base for a produce operation in North Carolina, said Don Nicholson, regional agronomist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“Everyone loves strawberries, so that is always a good choice when you are going to sell direct to consumers,” said Nicholson. “And sweet corn is another food that southerners like to eat in the summer time or put up for the winter. So with these two crops, a farmer can really take advantage of the identity many people feel with the healthy North Carolina ‘traditional’ menu.”
Tart warns all potential growers of the demanding nature of the produce business.
“If you like to go on vacations in the growing season, if you like a good night’s sleep every night, if you don’t want to work on Sunday or if you want to pick the days you’re going to harvest, then you don’t want to be in the produce business,” he says.
It is not like cotton or tobacco, he said. “You can’t go out and say, ‘It needs barning today, but I believe I will go to the beach instead.’ A red strawberry or an ear of sweet corn won’t wait a day for you to pick it. A squash won’t wait even three hours. If you leave it a day, you are going to lose it.”
You have to sell produce at the peak of ripeness and freshness, he said. “That means you have to be on time and you have to be ready to pick it, rain or whatever,” Tart said.
Of the traditional row crops, the main one he still grows is cotton. “It has an advantage because it is not as labor intensive. With Roundup Ready varieties, a couple of people can handle it. We have been growing it quite a while here, and it does pretty well for us.”