May 29, 2014
Strawberries turn into long-term endeavor

When Karma and Jim Lee started growing strawberries 17 years ago, they planted just the Chandler variety. Camarosa started getting more popular, however, so they planted that variety for their pre-pick customers. But u-pick customers started noticing the Camarosas and would ask, “Where’d you get those nice big berries and why can’t I pick those?”

So Karma and Jim, the owners of Buckwheat Farm in Apex, North Carolina, started growing u-pick Camarosas. The variety proved so popular they switched all their berries over to Camarosa. But u-pick customers started noticing the Chandlers were gone, and would ask, “What happened to those little sweet berries you used to grow?”

So, now they grow both varieties, which makes everybody happy. It’s just one of many lessons they’ve learned about growing strawberries in North Carolina.

Of course, growing strawberries in North Carolina was never part of the plan. Karma and Jim grew up in Illinois. Both nurses, they first met at the hospital where both worked. After getting married in 1982, they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, the following year so Jim could go to anesthesia school. The plan was to live in Charlotte for three years until Jim finished school, then move back to Illinois. But three decades later, they’re still in North Carolina.

“Things didn’t exactly go according to plan,” Karma said.

“It’s warm here, and doesn’t snow very much,” Jim said.

They moved to the Raleigh area in 1987. Several years later, they decided it would be nice to move themselves and their three daughters to the country. They bought some property on the outskirts of metropolitan Raleigh, but needed to find a way for the land to pay for itself. Karma, remembering picking berries in southern Illinois as a child, thought growing strawberries might be a fun way to earn money.

They didn’t know anything about growing strawberries, but with help from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Strawberry Association, they’re still at it 17 years later. They grow 3 acres of strawberries today, and they’ve expanded into blueberries. Last fall, they started experimenting with shiitake mushrooms. They’re thinking about planting asparagus, which should tie in well with the strawberries.

The Lees also raise horses, goats and fowl. Karma, a certified beekeeper, keeps her own honeybees. She said it’s nice to have your own hives and not be dependent on someone else for pollination – and selling your own honey is an added bonus.

The farm is a full-time endeavor for Karma, but Jim still works in the medical field.

“I’m just the hired help,” he said. “I do the heavy lifting, tractor driving. I’m not the brains of the operation.”

A small wooden building near the strawberry fields serves as a market. U-pick berries are weighed there. Pre-pick berries are available, too. There’s also honey, homemade ice cream, jams and jellies. Everything the Lees sell was either grown or made on the farm. Ingredients come from the farm or are locally sourced, they said.

Normally, strawberry season starts about April 17 (it didn’t start until late April this year, thanks to a brutal winter). During the season, Buckwheat Farm is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Customers are free to mill around all day if they wish. They can pet the horses, have a picnic – just hang out. Jim’s brother runs a barbeque. People eat wings, sandwiches and hot dogs, and wash them down with ice cream.

“We try to make it family friendly,” Jim said.

Karma’s been hosting school groups for more than a dozen years. She teaches the kids the proper way to pick strawberries. They bring snack lunches and make a morning of it. She also hosts school groups in the fall. She’ll bring out an observation beehive and direct the kids in a skit, all designed to teach them about honeybees. The kids also go through a maze and take a pumpkin home, she said.

As for growing techniques, they use plastic row covers and overhead irrigation for frost protection in their strawberry fields. A drip system provides much of the water. Deer used to be a “horrible” problem, eating up to three-quarters of a strawberry field. The Lees tried various fencing solutions, but nothing worked until they put in an electrified fence that slanted outward.

“That simple slant does it all,” Jim said. “They won’t go in. If it’s straight up and down, they’re all over it.”

Their blueberries – about a third of an acre – ripen in late June and throughout July. They use the honor system to sell blueberries, which seems to work well for everybody. They set out a mailbox, and people drop their money in after collecting their berries. That way, customers can come when it’s convenient and Karma doesn’t have to be at the farm all the time, she said.

Buckwheat Farm isn’t as isolated as it used to be. In the last several years, housing developments have sprung up all around.

“We used to be in the middle of nowhere, but now we’re surrounded,” Jim said.

He said the new houses have probably gained them a few more customers, however.

Matt Milkovich

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75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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