By Emily Buehler, WSM Website Coordinator
Vollmer Farm’s farm market sits like an oasis on Highway 98 east of Bunn, a tiny town about an hour’s drive from the Triangle. Surrounded by sprawling fields, the market sells produce, farm-made preserves/pickles/sauces, canning jars, candy out of bins, and farm hats and tees with slogans like “Who’s Your Farmer?” and “Life is better on the farm.” There’s an ice cream cafe that sells sandwiches on weekends. Overhead hangs a sign labeled “Vollmer Values”: “We value our connection to families… wholesome, fresh food… healthy, happy soil… our community and neighbors… agricultural education… FUN!”
We visited the farm in late May, when the U-pick strawberry fields were petering out and the blueberry bushes were loaded with unripe berries. Farmer Russ Vollmer walked us through the blueberry field. The dinkier ones, he explained, are O’Neals; they don’t thrive in Carolina heat but always ripen earliest, which is why he keeps them. The bushes are pruned annually to keep the berries at an accessible height. Pruning creates open space that allows sunlight into the center of the bush, to produce bigger fruit. Relative to strawberries, which require hand labor to weed and to clear out dead leaves and ruined berries that can attract pests, organic blueberry growing is easy.
Russ also showed us the greenhouses, where tomatoes will be growing all summer. The tomato plants are not in the ground but in bags of dirt. Their trellis consists of plastic wires dangling from the ceiling. As the plants grow taller and tomatoes are harvested, the lower leaves are stripped, the wires are lowered, and the plants are pushed sideways; this keeps the ripe zone within arm’s reach. By the end of the season, the plants will be 25 feet long! A bean plant at the end of each row attracts aphids, which are trapped on a sticky trap. Growing inside the greenhouse keeps other pests away. The greenhouse also lengthens the growing season: the seeds are planted in December so that tomatoes are ripening as early as May.
Vollmer Farm was not always an organic produce farm. At a picnic table in the shade by the old farmhouse, Russ told us the farm’s story. His great-grandfather started the farm in 1908. It was a tobacco farm when Russ was a teenager; the Vollmers also ran a farm supply store (now the farm market) that sold chemicals and fertilizer. Russ’s father, Farmer John, began to see that over time, his soil needed more and more inputs to keep producing; he knew he needed to make a change. He adopted organic practices such as using cover crops and adding organic matter to the soil and saw an increase in yields. Then he began experimenting with growing crops organically; at the time, this involved a lot of trial and error. In 2000, Vollmer Farm had its first certified organic crop, and in 2015, the farm itself was certified. Russ described going through the certification process with his wife, Vanessa. “It’s a very high level to meet, and it should be.”
Organic farming continues to provide challenges but also creative solutions. For example, diseases in the field forced the Vollmers to grow the tomatoes in greenhouses. Lately, Russ has noticed an increase in disease problems with his strawberry plants. A conventional farmer would fumigate the soil to kill the diseases, killing beneficial soil microbes in the process. Russ is planning to move his berries to a four-year rotation; each field will have three years without strawberries during which strawberry pests will die off.
After our interview, Russ introduced us to the farm staff, Ava, Kayla, and Maybelle, whom he credited with running the greenhouses. He showed us the cool room where tomatoes are stored (the old tobacco pack house), including a double stack of boxes headed for our stores. All the buildings and farm features are labeled with educational signs. From the market to the fields to the buildings, everything about Vollmer Farm felt approachable.
But we still hadn’t seen the farm’s most exciting attraction: the Back 40 Playground. The playground originated as a way for the farm to diversify its income through agritourism and school tours. It’s open in the fall, when it boasts a corn maze in addition to attractions like a giant underground slide, the “tot rocket zipline,” a cow barrel train, a hayride, a duck pond, and the Great Pumpkin Jump, a 2500-square-foot jumping pillow. The playground also opens for special events like the June Blueberry Music Festival (June 20, 2015). We waved goodbye to Russ and headed over to the pond. The playground sat deserted, awaiting the next festival. We took off our shoes and had a quick bounce on the Pumpkin Jump before beginning the ride home.
Look for Vollmer Farm blueberries, arriving in stores soon. Read more on their website: http://www.vollmerfarm.com/