By Emily Buehler, Weaver Street Market Website Coordinator
This month, we took a field trip to several of our produce and meat suppliers. We gathered at the ECO-HUB in Durham, where we toured the offices and storage areas of Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) and Firsthand Foods. Then we drove two hours east to Rose Hill, to tour two organic produce farms that sell through ECO: Cottle Organics and Uncle Henry’s Organics, who supply us with berries, greens, muscadine grapes, and more. After lunch, we toured Wallace Farms, who sells pork via Firsthand Foods. This is the third in a series of posts about the trip. Read part one here.
Herbie Cottle met us at the office of Cottle Organics–a small building right in the middle of the fields in Rose Hill, North Carolina. His family has farmed here since his great grandfather began around 1915. Back then, everyone grew strawberries; they were loaded onto train cars just down the road, and the train’s movement and blocks of ice blew cool air over them on their journey to market in New York and New England. Then California strawberries appeared on the East Coast, and the Rose Hill farmers lost their business. They switched to tobacco.
About ten years ago, as tobacco production waned, Herbie looked into growing organic vegetables. “The mindset of how you farm conventionally versus organically was really the hard thing, because you have to plan ahead when you’re farming organically,” Herbie told us. “You have to try to prevent things from happening instead of reacting to things that happen like you do on a conventional farm. That was really hard: to change your mindset after you’ve been doing something for thirty, forty years.”
Now he has 300 acres certified organic and uses a variety of methods to help the crops. He plants cover crops to return nutrients to the soil, and uses compost and other organic fertilizers. He transplants seedlings for certain crops instead of sowing seeds directly into the fields, which gives the plants a head start on weeds, in addition to enabling him to start them inside and earlier. Tractor implements are used for both planting and transplanting, as well as for weeding: three different implements churn up the soil around seedlings, destroying tiny weeds without disturbing the plants. Herbie has even introduced some biodynamic practices, like planting potatoes on dark nights to avert insect problems, because he tried them and they worked.
It’s hard to imagine managing the broad fields organically. After walking through a potato field, we drove to wider fields down the road, where rows of corn, cabbage, kale, and more grew in the dry soil. Because overhead irrigation is expensive, Herbie came up with a flood irrigation system; he runs thick pipes across the highest point in each field and releases water from ponds and wells, which rolls down to fill the field.
The organic farmers around Rose Hill work together as a community. Herbie’s begun saving seed from cover crops, and buying and selling with neighboring organic farmers. He talks almost daily with Owen of Uncle Henry’s Organics, who was our next stop on the field trip.
And since Herbie teamed up with ECO, they’ve helped him reach markets he wouldn’t have found on his own. They call him with an order each morning, and their trucks arrive to pick it up. They’ve tracked sales so they can advise Herbie and other farmers on what to plant the next year. By taking care of the business side of things, ECO enables Herbie and its other farmers to focus on farming.
Read the next post in this series, here. Check out more photos below, and watch for a video coming soon.