By Emily Buehler, Weaver Street Market Website Coordinator
Last 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 fourth in a series of posts about the trip. Read part one here.
Owen Rouse met us at the edge of the strawberry field. Workers from the field had just left for a break from the hot sun. “There’s a lot of issues with strawberries and water,” Owen said. He described irrigating the fields from his well in the intense heat, after using an overhead irrigation system to shower the plants all night earlier in the spring, to save the young berries from frost. During the most extreme cold, he spent the night in the fields, drinking coffee and monitoring the system to make sure the pipes didn’t break and the sprinkler heads didn’t freeze up. Last year, they harvested 100 flats of strawberries each week from a acre; this year, it’s been more like 20. “And it was really windy the first night,” Owen adds, “which is why we lost part of this field.” Without a barrier of trees, the wind blew the water away.
Irrigation and late freezes aren’t the only challenges an organic farmer faces. As soon as the strawberry plants stop producing, they’re pulled up, to avoid letting disease or insects take hold. This, along with a crop rotation of several years, is important for organic strawberries, where problems cannot be stopped by gassing the field with methyl bromide or spraying with fungicides. In fact, after a heavy rain, Owen’s team will go out to pick, expending labor on a crop they cannot sell to remove any rotting fruit before the problem spreads.
They cut back the weeds with a mower and use plastic sheets around the berry plants. “When I first moved here,” Sandi from ECO shared, “people said, you know you’re visiting an organic farm when you see ladybugs and weeds.” Some farmers think they have to keep all their fields clear of weeds, but as customers, we like to see them.
“Well, good, ’cause we’ve got some weeds!” Owen replied. In the vegetable fields, he told us, they’ve been hoeing for a few weeks to keep the weeds back. He’s considering buying the new tractor attachment for weeding, but waiting to see how it works for Herbie Cottle. Having a community of organic farmers to chat with helps; Owen and Herbie talk about what they’re doing every day.
Owen and his brother Vernon have been growing vegetables their whole lives. Originally they called themselves Rouse Brothers, but for the past ten years, they’ve been transitioning their land to organic production. They now have certified 7 acres of muscadine grapes, 200 of vegtables, and 65 of blueberries, with plans for 50 more in the next two years. They sell the organic produce as Uncle Henry’s, named after their grandfather’s brother who was like a father, and who loved eating fruits and vegetables.
After checking out the grape vines and a wide field of kale and other row crops, we drove down a long drive to the acres of blueberries that Owen’s son will take over when he finishes school. Stacks of beehives had been temporarily set up by a beekeeper who migrates his bees from farm to farm with the crops. Someone is in the field every day. Initially, they pruned off berries to encourage plant growth. This period overlapped with the transition period for becoming certified organic. Now they prune the bushes at the end of the season, because berries form on the new growth each year.
We asked about this year’s crop. One variety was in full bloom and completely wiped out in the April freeze. The high bushes, however, were not yet blooming. (And, the berries are now in our stores, labeled Rose Hill Farm!)
We said goodbye to Owen and left for our final stop fo the day, Wallace Farms. Read about it here.