The weather might have made the 2018 growing season challenging for local berry farmers thus far, but it has not slowed demand for straight-off-the farm produce.
“Our business is up at least 30 percent since 2012,” said Nonie Morris, co-owner of Carol Sue Farms in Hampstead. That was the year Morris and her husband, Jeff, opened their roadside pick-your-own berry farm, which now offers 2 acres of land planted in blueberries and strawberries.
People can take one of the farm’s plastic buckets and venture out to harvest their own berries, or they can purchase already-picked fruit that the Morrises bring in from their 15-acre berry farm in Maple Hill, located in northern Pender County.
Carol Sue Farms sells more prepicked than pick-your-own berries, but lots of people still like to get out in the fields themselves, Nonie Morris said.
“It’s a fun activity. We draw from Sneads Ferry, Jacksonville, Holly Ridge and, of course, Hampstead,” she said. “This area is exploding, and we have so many new families.”
Operators of another longtime family-owned farm say they have been engaged in agritourism before the term was even invented.
“We’ve been doing this for a lifetime,” said Cal Lewis, of Lewis Nursery and Farms, adding that the family started a pick-your-own operation at its farm in Rocky Point in the 1970s.
The original crop was strawberries; over time, the farm added blueberries and blackberries. About 20 years later, the Lewises opened their berry fields and farm stand on Gordon Road in Wilmington.
“The pick-your-own business has fallen off, but our overall volume is up because our sales of ready-picked berries are up,” Lewis said. “But even with pick-your-own, we see our customers come more frequently and pick fewer berries. They eat them right away; they’re not processing them. They want quick, fresh, local produce.
“My mother used to pick 20 pounds of berries twice a year, and she’d freeze them or make jellies or jams. People don’t do that anymore.”
The Lewis Farms stand now includes a plant shop as well as an ice cream stand that sells frozen confections made with fruit from the farm.
Carol Sue Farms also offers a variety of decorative plants and berry ice cream. But while the berries come from Carol Sue’s strawberry and blueberry fields, the ice cream itself is made for the company by Kristen Spetrino, founder of Topsee Tulip Frosting and Coastal Cupcakes, Nonie Morris said.
Lewis Farms and Carol Sue Farms are just two examples of the growth of agritourism in North Carolina. In the past 10 years, North Carolina has seen an 89 percent increase in the number of farms welcoming visitors, according to Heather Overton, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
“We have about 49,500 farms in North Carolina. More than 1,000 are involved in agritourism of some sort. There’s a lot of room for more growth,” Overton wrote in an email. “Farmers use agritourism activities to help supplement their farm income. These activities include picking your own strawberries, touring a winery, attending one of the farm tours that happen in the spring cross the state and even goat yoga.”
While Lewis Farms has been in the family for three generations, Jeff and Nonie Morris are relatively new to farming. They moved to Hampstead about 30 years ago when Jeff Morris was a mobile home community developer. He operated his company’s sales center, along what was then a dusty two-lane stretch of U.S. 17.
Tiring of the business, he looked for other opportunities, finding an abandoned blueberry farm in Maple Hill.
The Morrises bought the property, plowed it under and started from scratch, involving their three children. They began selling their blueberries wholesale in 2009, becoming a grower for Faison-based Cottle Farms, which sells berries from the region to commercial customers.
Then in 2012, the Morrises purchased the property that had been Jeff’s mobile home sales center, planted strawberries and blueberries and launched the Carol Sue berry stand.
This season has been tough, both Lewis and Nonie Morris admit.
“Our problem is Mother Nature. The rain hurt us terribly,” Lewis said, referring to the more than 31 inches of rain that has fallen so far in 2018 – 12 inches more than normal. More than 14 inches of that rain fell in May, about 10 inches more than normal for the month.
Lewis said the heavy May rains damaged the end of the strawberry season, causing about a 20 percent crop loss.
Nonie Morris said the rain was a contributing factor to a problematic berry season but not the only factor.
“We had damage from that late frost,” she said. “We also had pollination problems because of the lack of bees. There are fewer beekeepers now. And bee populations are dying.”
The Morrises are currently leasing some hives near their fields and plan to get into beekeeping in a bigger way. The berry farmers are hopeful that June’s weather patterns will be kinder to their crops. At Lewis Farms, the blueberries are now doing well, and blackberries are coming in. Lewis expects his operation to be open to customers on Gordon Road until the July Fourth holiday. Nonie Morris, who is watching Carol Sue’s blueberries ripen, is keeping her fingers crossed that her farm’s season will last at least until Father’s Day.
“People think that farming, for us, is just a three-month-a-year business,” Nonie Morris said. “But we work all year-round to produce the fruit that we sell during those three months.”