Madison Couple Look to the Sweet Fruits
by John Boyle, Asheville Citizen-Times, June 20, 2005
Pam Zimmerman and her daughter, Ashley, handle a basket of black raspberries they picked Saturday at Zimmerman’s Berry Farm in Madison County. While berry income hasn’t surpassed tobacco yet on their farm, it is gaining ground.
REVERE-RICE COVE — When it comes to cash crops in the mountains, for decades it’s been hard to beat burley tobacco. But Pam Zimmerman — armed with three acres of berries — is giving it a shot.
“We wanted to try something different, so we don’t have our eggs all in one basket,” said Zimmerman, who runs Zimmerman’s Berry Farm with her husband, Billy. “Each year we just keep adding on, and we’re not meeting the demand.”
The field that now is home to blueberries was a tobacco field for 60 years. The Zimmermans started growing blueberries and raspberries six years ago, and berry sales now constitute one-third of their farm income, a figure they hope to boost to one-half this season.
Tobacco has been grown commercially in the mountains since the 19th century and for decades put bread on the table and children through college. But today farmers like the Zimmermans are looking to diversify, mainly because the U.S. Congress last year passed a $10.1 billion buyout bill that ended the federal tobacco price support program put in place in 1938.
In exchange, tobacco growers and quota holders will receive a lump-sum payout disbursed over 10 years, with the first payment coming by Sept. 30.
Program Helps Farmers Diversify
The Zimmermans took advantage of another program this spring, receiving a $2,500 grant from the WNC Agricultural Options Program, which is administered by the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. They’re using the grant for a greenhouse to start vegetable and berry plants.
Last year, the service, in partnership with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and HandMade in America, secured a $198,210 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. This year it has disbursed 51 grants of $2,500 each to help farmers explore new options, including agricultural tourism and crop diversification.
Erin Jasin, the extension service’s western district project coordinator for agricultural tourism and crop diversification, says the grants are a way of reducing growers’ risk. Based in the Buncombe office, Jasin works with farmers in 15 western counties.
The tobacco price support program worked well for decades, Jasin says, but it hurt growers in one crucial area: marketing. The grants may prod farmers to try something that requires them to entice buyers. “There are a lot of people who want the experience of being on the farm, and that’s sort of the beginning of agri-tourism,” Jasin said.
Pam Zimmerman, Jasin says, has a natural flair for marketing. Zimmerman’s farm is mostly a “pick-your-own” operation, but she will pick berries for those who don’t want to do their own labor. She also sells a variety of jams, jellies and other products. Right now the raspberry season is kicking into high gear. Black raspberries in particular, which have a richer taste than others, are in demand. “We sold every one we had last year,” Zimmerman said. She got calls throughout the spring from people who reserved them.
Burley is hard to give up
While the berries are delivering financially, the Zimmermans aren’t giving up on burley, planting seven acres this year. With many older farmers getting out of tobacco, total production of burley is down this year, increasing demand. But farmers need to remember that burley is now being grown in non-traditional areas, including the North Carolina Piedmont and Georgia, according to Blake Brown, an agricultural economist at N.C. State University.
“There are an awful lot of unknowns right now with U.S. burley — it’s definitely going through a lot bigger transition than flue-cured tobacco,” Brown said of the mainstay variety of eastern tobacco production and the main type of leaf in cigarettes. “If you plan on growing burley in the future, I think it’s important to have a fall-back plan as well.” Already the price for burley has dropped to the $1.50-a-pound level from $2 or so last year, although growers’ production costs have also dropped. But the price may drop further in coming years, though, as big tobacco companies buy cheaper leaf from Brazil, China and other countries.
Farmers have been leaving burley for years. In 1993, Madison County had 1,250 tobacco growers, a number that has dwindled to about 700 now, according to the Farm Service Agency’s county office. David Kendall, an agent with the Madison County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, specializes in agri-tourism and alternative crops. He says Madison’s farmers fall into two groups: older farmers who are watching and waiting to see what happens with burley, and younger farmers open to almost anything.
“A lot of this is still in the experimental phase,” he said. “People are trying a lot of different things. A lot of the old-timers don’t want people on their farms (for agri-tourism), and some of the newer ones are worried about liability. So, a lot of them are adjusting to it and have to ease into the right match.”
No crop is a panacea
The Zimmermans feel as if they’ve struck a nice balance. Their children, Will, 14, and Ashley, 11, help with the operation, and they want them to grow up on a farm, whether it’s producing tobacco or berries.
“If the blueberries ever get to where they’re productive, we’ll make more money off the berries (than tobacco),” Zimmerman said. Both berries and burley are very labor-intensive, and Zimmerman says she’s not using spray chemicals to fight pests or diseases, which makes the job even harder.
Kevin Hardison, a marketing specialist with the N.C. Department Agriculture and Consumer Services, estimates the state has well more than 200 berry farmers, a number that ebbs and flows as farmers try it out and realize berry farming is no cakewalk. “When you’re raising strawberries, for example, it’s not an easy thing — they are very, very labor intensive,” Hardison said. “It takes a pretty good amount a money for one acre to get going.”
Strawberries can generate $1,000 an acre “off the bat,” Hardison says, but generally speaking, farmers will be hard-pressed to reach that $4,000- to $5,000-an-acre cash-flow level that burley tobacco has generated.
“It would take a very good year — high yields, minimal waste, high demand,” Hardison said. “I’m not saying it won’t be attained, but I would say to get there it would take a lot of hard work and a lot of good marketing on the farmer’s behalf.” With berries such as blueberries or blackberries, the plants remain year after year, so you don’t have to replant. But fruit production typically doesn’t peak for three to five years, so patience must accompany the hard work.
Decades of tobacco cultivation also left the fields’ pH out of whack, requiring the Zimmermans to add powdered sulfur to the soil to lower it. The berries have required Pam Zimmerman to acquire some new skills, too. “I learned how to run a Rotorvator,” she said with a laugh. “I looked like a dust ball when I came out.”
Learning to market
Pam Zimmerman is well aware that he U-pick berry industry has no guaranteed buyer, as tobacco used to. “There’s a whole lot more marketing involved,” Zimmerman said. “That was something we had to learn by trial and error. I understand the growing process, but I had to learn the marketing.” Early on, Zimmerman took half-pint containers of berries to Hot Springs and distributed them — with big cards about her farm, complete with directions — to tourists.
“I think a lot of people would be intimidated or wouldn’t want to fool with the public,” Zimmerman said. “But I get to talking, and I know people say they wish I’d hush.” This summer, she’s hoping to talk to plenty of customers. But if sales do slow down, Zimmerman, always considering her options, has a plan B. “You can always eat them if you can’t sell them,” she said with a laugh.
Contact Boyle at 828-232-5847 or jboyle@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.
Berry and Tobacco Statistics
North Carolina ranks fourth in berry production in the United States.
• Blueberries: 22.9 million pounds, $32.2 million in sales.
• Strawberries: 17.6 million pounds, $15.8 million.
• Blueberries: 22.5 million pounds, $34.7 million.
• Strawberries: 17 million pounds, $15.3 million.
• Blueberries: 15.5 million pounds, $22.5 million.
• Strawberries: 22.5 million pounds, $19.1 million.
Source: N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service (Only strawberries and blueberries).
• The 11 westernmost counties of North Carolina had about 3,500 tobacco growers last season.
• Burley tobacco sales generate between $8 million and $10 million in sales annually just through the Asheville tobacco auctions.
• Burley tobacco has been the cash crop king in the mountains because it takes relatively little land and typically grosses $4,000 to $5,000 an acre, a total other crops usually can’t touch.
• Madison County is the top burley- producing county in North Carolina, but the tobacco buyout legislation will allow the variety to be grown in the Piedmont this year, which means more competition for mountain growers.
Want to Visit a Berry Farm?
Zimmerman’s Farm is a family-owned and operated pick-your-own berry operation. Picking season is under way with black raspberries. Blackberries and blueberries typically are ready in July, red raspberries in August.
Take U.S. 19/23 north to the Marshall exit (U.S. 25/70). Take 25/70 and go about 10 miles past Marshall. Where the road veers left to Hot Springs, stay straight onto N.C. 208. Go 3.5 miles and turn right on Guntertown Road. Go 1.7 miles and turn right across bridge onto Revere Road. Go 2.2 miles and farm is on the right. Phone: 656-2056.
Web site: brwm.org/zimmermansberryfarm
Pick-Your-Own Berry Farms:
- Dogwood Hills Farm:
369 Ox Creek Road, Weaverville. Cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, honey, grapes. Tel. 645-6286 (call by 9 a.m.)
- Hickory Nut Gap Farm Market Gardens:
1860 Charlotte Highway in Fairview. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries. Tel. 628-3348.
- McKinney Small Fruit:
McKinney Fruit Drive , Fletcher. Blueberries, Grapes. Tel. 891-8947.
- The Apple House Owenby Orchards:
Edneyville in Henderson County. Blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, cherries and more. Tel. 685-9917.
- Thomas Berry Farms:
78 Medallion Drive, Cullowhee in Jackson County. Blueberries. Tel. 293-5132.
- Timberlane Farm:
Hayesville in Clay County. Blueberries. Tel. 389-3097.
For a full listing, visit the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project Web site at www.asapconnections.org.