Apr 7, 2007Customer Care Is Tops At Rudd Strawberry Farm
When the state commissioner of agriculture chooses to purchase his strawberries from your farm, you know you’re doing something right. Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s top elected ag official, dropped by Rudd Farm in May to select freshly picked berries as a treat for his staff.
Troxler, whose Brown Summit, N.C., farm borders the Rudd property, isn’t alone in his preference for Joan and Kenneth Rudd’s Chandler fruits. The couple said word of mouth keeps their harvest sold out.
Although the Rudds employ a few marketing techniques, such as roadside signage and membership in the state ag department’s Goodness Grows in North Carolina program, they say these measures aren’t their most important sales methods.
“The best advertising is our customers, “ Joan said. “ If they get a good product, they tell everybody.”
Like many Tarheel farmers, the Rudds grew tobacco for more than 30 years, but a declining market mandated a change in crops. Joan had long wanted to try strawberries, so with the guidance of the state Strawberry Growers’ Association and fellow farmers, they put in their first plants in 1999.
“The first year we did one and one-third acres, “ Joan said. “Everybody told us we were crazy for having that many (initially).”
She added that the growers’ association recommends starting with one-third of an acre. “Our biggest problem was too many customers that year.”
They expanded the size of their crop annually and now plant five acres. The Rudds were able to use much of the same equipment that was used for tobacco to ease the transition into berries.
John Deere tractors shifted easily, but Kenneth found that some of the planting techniques transferred to the new crop as well. As the strawberry venture has grown, he has planted on a hilly field once covered in tobacco. To prevent detrimental water run-off, he planted tobacco in contoured rows and found that is equally successful with strawberries.
“The Strawberry Growers’ Association visited last year and had never seen (the technique before),” he said, adding that the group commented that it isn’t an effective method. “I didn’t know you couldn’t do it, so I did it and it worked.”
Although the Rudds have tried Camarosa berries, both they and their customers prefer the Chandler variety.
“You just can’t beat their taste, “ Kenneth said, while admitting that their short shelf life is a drawback.
But that isn’t a concern since the majority of their berries are marketed directly from the farm. They offer both pre-picked and pick-your-own and say the categories are roughly equal in popularity, although pre-picked is slowly gaining an edge. Located just outside a metropolitan area and near a major highway, the Rudds say it isn’t uncommon to be asked to teach someone how to properly pluck berries. Customers leave the farm with complimentary strawberry recipe books that are updated annually to include buyers’ favorites. Berries are placed in plastic baskets rather than the more common cardboard ones. Joan said this type is slightly more expensive, but the ease of assembly and durability offset the cost.
“They don’t get soggy and wet, “ she said, “ and they show off the berries well, (allowing customers to) inspect them.”
Migrant workers and pickers hired through the state Employment Security Commission harvest the crop from middle to late spring, depending upon weather conditions. This year’s berries ripened in early May, almost two weeks later than usual due to a cool April. The farm’s central North Carolina location can experience frost as late as April 15, making frost protection plans crucial. The Rudds use an overhead irrigation system for this purpose and say it was only in service for a few hours this spring.
“Many years have been much worse, “ Kenneth said. “Sometimes sprinklers even freeze and have to be loosened with hammers. Those are the nights when strawberries are tough.”
The overhead system also is used when setting plants and for cooling the berries should spring temperatures exceed 90 degrees.
Following harvest, the farm digs up the plants and removes the plastic before planting a summer cover crop. Strawberry tips are received from Canada in August and rooted before planting time in late September. Once established, little care is needed until spring when the plants begin a growth cycle, typically blooming in March.
“We have problems with weeds and deer, “ Kenneth said.
He waters and fertilizes beneath the plastic and maintains a fungicide spray program. Filtered water from farm ponds is used on the berries. He said advice and e-mailed alerts concerning potential disease, weather and other problems from small fruit specialists at North Carolina State University are valuable resources.
The Rudds said if they could change anything, they would have entered the strawberry business sooner. In the future, they hope to add other produce, offer farm tours to school groups and develop their own Web site.
“If you’ve got the market, (strawberries are) a real good crop,” Kenneth said.
Call Rudd Farm at (336) 621-1264, or e-mail at [email protected]