Strawberries, vegetables: Farm wife finds niche right at home

When Tracey Harding wanted something of her own to do on the farm, she didn't have to walk far. Instead of going to town to get a job, she walked less than a 100 yards and started growing strawberries and vegetables. Now, folks in the area around Chocowitty, N.C., come running when it's picking time.

Harding farms with her husband Shawn in eastern North Carolina. They grow tobacco, corn, soybeans and wheat.

Tobacco's still the main crop on the farm — despite a drop from 70 to 30 acres over the last four years — but strawberries get a lot of outside attention during the six weeks they are in season. “I worked on the farm some then, helping him with tobacco,” she says, “but I wanted something of my own.”

She and her husband decided to “try” an acre of strawberries, the decision being primarily something she wanted to do. “After the second year, it was something everybody wanted to do,” Tracey laughs. She also wanted to be able to stay home with their three children, ages four, eight and 10.

Strawberry production is a growing trend among farmers in the state. It offers the farmer with a connection to the consumer, as well as a cash flow early in the growing season.

Before launching into the venture, Tracey attended the annual meeting of the North Carolina Strawberry Growers Association and also visited with growers. That same year, a longtime matted-row strawberry producer in the county retired, opening up a market for fresh strawberries.

“It's a second income that comes in at a time of the year when we don't have other crops,” Tracey points out.

She sets out the strawberries in early October under black plastic. Fertilization and irrigation are done through drip tape. Because strawberries are susceptible to fungus, she stays on a 10- to 14-day spray schedule. When the growing season ends in June, the plants and the plastic are ripped up and discarded.

Harvest begins in April and lasts until June. “There's a steady stream of customers for six weeks,” Tracey says. She makes up signs and posters and sends out a small number of mailings, but most of the advertising is word-of-mouth.

“Strawberries draw people to the farm,” Tracey says. “People will travel for strawberries.”

A large retirement community in the area has helped increase sales. “We have some of the same customers coming back every week,” Tracey says. That's part of the reason behind adding an acre of vegetables to the two acres of strawberries. “When you've got strawberries, people will usually buy whatever other produce you have at the stand.”

Instead of building a new shed to serve as a stand, the Hardings cleaned out an old packing shed. Young patrons have since dubbed it a “cool shack,” Tracey says. “People like to take pictures in front of the packing house.” She wants to be able to offer school tours in the future. There's an entertainment quality to the farm, she now believes.

Just as getting folks to the farm isn't a problem, neither is having enough help. “Ladies from the Haw Branch Church of Christ help us out — they're great,” Tracey says. “Me and my husband fight over who's going to get the ladies at the church to help who.”

Supportive atmosphere

The general atmosphere during strawberry picking time is one of support. “I had a group of ladies from a church come by and tell me, ‘we are praying for you at our Bible study because we love you,’” Tracey recalls.

She says her husband's behind the operation 100 percent. “He likes it,” Tracey says.

But when June the first comes, she's ready to get on a tractor and go off by herself and help tend to tobacco or the other crops. “I've got a degree in accounting, but I've always enjoyed working outside. This is just something I wanted to do in order to be able to stay home with the kids.”

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