From Tobacco to Fresh Fruit, North Carolina
Grower Retools to Reap Organic Profits
In the early 1990s, John Vollmer, a third-
tobacco and small grain farmer, knew that the
outlook for tobacco farming was bleak. Between
cuts in tobacco quotas, cheap imports and
increased regulations, tobacco farming no longer
made economic sense. "My main goal was to
keep the farm in the family for the next
generation," Vollmer said.
For Vollmer and his family, that meant "unhooking" from tobacco production and being open to new techniques as they kept an eye on the practical aspects of making a living.
"In 1992," he said, "we looked at strawberries and saw they were a very good crop." Moreover, Vollmer had seen the number of farms dwindle in his area from about 250 in the 1970s to just 30. He realized that organic production might provide a means to keep the farm viable. Finally, after learning of the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to eliminate methyl bromide for disease control, Vollmer decided that organic was the way to go.
Heartened by the fact that scientists at North Carolina State University were focusing on organic production to help make farms more profitable, Vollmer started asking for help.
"The extension agents would come to the farm and tap on my head lightly," he said of their effort to introduce him little by little to the concepts of organic farming. "They'd leave an article on the counter about how chemicals might affect earthworms, and eventually it would sink in."
Vollmer strongly recommends that other growers move into the process gently, and build up the soil through compost and cover crops. "I knew my soils were in the same condition as everyone else's -
Vollmer also recommends that farmers thoroughly evaluate what specific equipment they will need for organic farming. In his case, tools such as plastic mulch and drip irrigation helped bring about a successful transition. Now, Vollmer finds organic strawberries easy to grow because the plastic mulch and drip irrigation help with both weed and insect control: The plastic helps conserve moisture, keeps soil disease off plants and helps eliminate spider mites. (The plastic provides a solid layer off which he can use a high-
While Vollmer does not farm all his fields organically, he has been so persuaded by improvements to soil quality, pH and water-
Vollmer finds great success from direct marketing, and does not wholesale any product. "Every time we wholesale, we get beat up," he said. He and his family direct market all of their fresh market vegetables and fruits through five farm stands and at the farm. Bringing people to the farm provides entertainment for families and a boost in profits for Vollmer. On the farm, he and his family offer "u-
Using a SARE grant, Vollmer investigated how to convert one of his tobacco greenhouses to grow specialty crops -
His lettuce operation offers one other benefit: increased contact with an engaged public. "I've now had more people coming to the greenhouse to look at what we're doing," said Vollmer, who thoroughly enjoys this part of farming. "People who come out to visit know it's important to think in sustainable ways, and they want to talk with me. I like the process of sharing what I'm doing."
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