Jul 3, 2014
Strawberries set tone for Carolina grower

Strawberries start the season at Porter Farms & Nursery, and often predict how the rest of the year will go.

“If I don’t have a good strawberry year, it’s a bad year,” said Ashley Porter, who runs the Willow Springs, North Carolina, farm with his wife, Crissy Porter.

It was the middle of April, and though his berry crop was looking good, it was running about two weeks late after a brutally cold winter. Since North Carolina’s picking season lasts only a few weeks (until the June heat more or less shuts down the plants), a late start can make for a tight squeeze. Porter’s picking season has started as early as April 1 and as late as April 23. In mid-April, customers were buying a handful of early season, pre-picked Sweet Charlies, but he was expecting the full u-pick season to start during the last week of the month.

Picking season was still going strong by June 10, and Crissy was expecting it to last another week or more. Customers picked the berries with enthusiasm, she said.

“The berries were gorgeous and delicious,” she said. “They were huge mid-season, but after the rain and a few hot days size decreased – but the sweetness increased proportionately.”

Porter Farms has two farm stands, one in Willow Springs and another one closer to Raleigh, the state capital. Ashley, 39, focuses on production, Crissy on marketing, bookkeeping, payroll, scheduling and other duties. They have three young children, two girls and a boy.

“Ashley and I make a great team,” Crissy said. “I’m a good salesperson, and he’s a great producer.”

Ashley’s penchant for growing crops started in high school, with an acre of pumpkins. He graduated from North Carolina State University in 1997 and started farming on his own the next year. He bought the Willow Springs farm in 2007, and moved the farm stand to the other side of the road three years later.

Ashley didn’t grow up on a farm, but he always liked farming.

“I just like playing in the soil,” he said. “I like to work hard. I like to see things grow.”

Though he never grew up eating strawberries, they’ve become his main crop. He’s been growing them since 2001. Chandler, a soft berry with a short shelf life, is the farm’s chief u-pick variety. Camarosa is the chief pre-pick variety. Those two and Sweet Charlie are the most popular varieties in the region. Sweet Charlie, an early berry, is not a high-yielding plant but is a good variety to open the season with, he said.

Ashley gets his strawberry tips from Canada and roots them in the fall. They baby the plants all winter and hope for an early spring. For cold protection, they use row covers and sprinklers.

Ashley and Crissy concentrate on selling the freshest berries they can, right when they’re picked. After strawberries they harvest summer produce including onions, cabbage, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, cantaloupes and watermelon. They grow about 10 acres of strawberries total, and about 100 acres of produce (20 acres under plastic).

Most of the farm’s produce is sold through the two farm markets (less than 10 percent is sold wholesale). At the Willow Springs location, most of the customers live within a 10-mile radius. The stand is on Highway 42, a busy state road. The other stand, about 10 minutes north, attracts people from Raleigh, Cary and Holly Springs, Ashley said.

The stands typically open April 1 and close on Halloween. They start by selling ice cream and end with pumpkins and mums. The ice cream, made on-site, is a popular item. They sell more than a dozen flavors – and use their own strawberries as an ingredient.

They market themselves via social media, but have also used websites, billboards, newspaper ads, radio ads, email marketing and direct mail to get the word out. They’re involved with the North Carolina Strawberry Association and use some of its materials (brochures, coloring books, stickers) to promote strawberry season, Crissy said.

“We marketed pretty aggressively when we first started out in order to get our name out there, but as time has gone on we’ve been able to scale marketing expenditures back because, frankly, the social media is inexpensive and targets an engaged and committed customer base, and at times we have a hard time meeting demand so we don’t want to oversell,” Crissy said.

Most people visit during weekends, so an ill-timed rain can put a damper on sales. Mother’s Day weekend is usually the busiest weekend of the year, Ashley said.

During the busy season, they hire about 10 field workers through the H-2A guest-worker program, while more than 20 part-time employees work the farm stands. The H-2A program can be expensive and aggravating at times, but the farm couldn’t last without those workers, Ashley said.

Their produce manager, Mary Thiele, has been with the farm for 14 years, Crissy said.

“Good staff is crucial for a small business, and it is nearly impossible to retain great help in a seasonal business,” she said. “Mary is so committed to what we have going on here that it amazes us. We are so fortunate to have her.”

Matt Milkovich




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